Fostering Emotionally Safer Environments

Appropriate relationship skills and communication techniques can help campus professionals better respond to children’s challenging behavior and individuals with special needs.

One Friday evening at a high school basketball game in suburban Omaha, Neb., with more than 2,000 people in attendance, a rumor surfaced that one of the students, “Charlie,” was packing a gun. As the officers working the event were deciding how to proceed, the school’s principal, a veteran in public schools, was advised of the situation. He told the officers he knew the student and lobbied for an opportunity to talk him down.

The principal made his way up into the bleachers and sat next to Charlie. The principal offered him a simple choice, “Would you like to leave with me or with the officers?” (The officers were poised for action at the base of the bleachers.) Charlie came willingly, and the two proceeded to resolve the matter privately outside of the crowded gym. This situation was resolved primarily because the principal had developed a prior relationship with the student.

That principal had a personal credo he lived by: The first time he met a student in the school would not be in his office. In this situation, this credo paid dividends. Charlie knew he would be safe if he left with the principal.

Schools must provide for the emotional safety of youth who present challenging behavior or have overriding precipitants, such as autism spectrum disorder, developmental disabilities or other behavior-related diagnoses. The behaviors schools must be prepared to respond to could be a manifestation of the youth’s diagnosis and not a direct attempt to undermine an administrator’s or teacher’s authority.

Unfortunately, many school officials, health professionals and teachers don’t know how to respond to these behaviors and sometimes resort to physical interventions, which have well-documented physical dangers associated with them. Additionally, the use of restraints poses emotional, social and psychological risks.

Relationship-based interventions and related staff skills are needed in these circumstances. Youth who don’t have a history of well-grounded relationships with adults may require staff to be even better at developing such.

Verbal Style Can Reduce Emotional Intensity
All youth, but especially those with disorders or disabilities, can be flooded with intense emotion and be unable to respond with rational thinking or talking. However, staff can be trained to reduce this emotional intensity for youth in crisis. Appropriate verbal style and relationship-building skills can all be learned by caregivers to de-escalate a child’s emotions.

There is a need for establishing a connection between campus staff and the youth they serve. Advocates should seek out what may be important to the youth in their life space, on their turf, on their terms. Engaged, conversational, connected time with individual youth is paramount to reclaiming, building and maintaining relationships with the children in a campus’ care.

There is also the need for adults to practice what is commonly called “Behavior Management by Walking Around.” Caregivers are encouraged to turn off their computers, leave their safe office areas, walk around, talk and listen to those they serve at their facility.

Practice the Concept of “Emotional Holding”
Much as a new mother introduces an infant to the comfort and nurturing of physical touch and holding, teachers, administrators and other caregivers, including those in the healthcare profession, may need to deflect, absorb and reflect back feelings to hold or contain the anxiety, stress and intense emotions of troubled youth.

Within the context of normal development, parents gradually move a child from dependence to a greater range of independence. Troubled youth, or others with overriding behavior issues, may have had an interruption in this natural developmental progression. Caregivers may be required to recreate this progression.

Environments should be created that offer opportunities for a concept called “emotional holding,” promoted by Laura Steckley, a social care lecturer at the University of Strathclyde in the United Kingdom. Steckley suggests that adults who work with children with behavior difficulties should look to create safe boundaries, offer protective space, and enable the youth to experience a sense of value, self-worth and security.

Because the principal in the vignette on page 24 chose to make a relational connection with Charlie, the principal was able to use the trust he had built to allow him to guide the youth down a path of resolution. The rapport the principal developed allowed Charlie to know that even though there would be consequences, he would be treated fairly, with dignity and respect.

Charlie clearly made a series of poor choices, and as the situation evolved, his options narrowed. The principal provided Charlie an emotional sanctuary by letting him choose to leave the bleachers and thus maintain a modicum of self-worth.

Get Our Newsletters
Campus Safety Online Summit Promo Campus Safety HQ