Before you read this account, I want to share with you that I am using this story as a teachable moment. I am not proud of this event and quite frankly, it is really embarrassing. However, if one person can learn from this situation, it is worth the “No, she just didn’t” remarks out there.
Often, as a school counselor, you may be asked to perform “other duties” to fill in for absent school staff at your school. Now a day, I try to look at these “additional duties” as an opportunity to interact positively with the students in their habitat (believe me this has not always been my opinion). Recently, I was asked by an administrator to help with hall duty as students were becoming increasingly late to class. As soon as I got to school, I put my things in my office and dutifully headed to the hallway.
On the way to my destination, I saw some of our older students sitting on a bench eating breakfast. Since I knew many of the students, I began to talk and goof around with them. At the end of our brief interaction, I asked them to gather their books and go to class. Everything seemed to go rather well because many of the students began to gather their belongings and move toward to their classes. At this point, I am thinking how true it is that building caring relationships with students really makes a difference in conflict management and discipline…so basically, I am feeling indestructible! As the bench cleared (it was a huge bench), I climbed on it and began to call out to all the students that it was time for class. In the corner of my eye, I noticed a female student sitting at my feet. Immediately, I jumped down from the bench and stood right in front of her and reiterated my request. Unfortunately, she looked at me with a blank stare still eating her biscuit. Hmmmm, time for another tactic…”Okay, I need for you to take your biscuit and go to class.” I am sure that maybe she had not heard all the screaming that I was doing above her head. This time she turned to a friend and said, “Do you hear something?” Undeterred and relentless in my duty, I placed my hand on her shoulder to help her up and asked her to move. At that moment, it was like a hydrogen bomb had exploded. The girl jumped up in my face and shouted, “Don’t you ever put your hand on me!” At that moment, I was stunned! How dare she speak to me like that? Didn’t she know that I am a school counselor and I don’t deserve to be treated so badly?
The girl sat back down on the bench and I decided to sit by her. Maybe, I thought, I could have a conversation with her and she will understand why I am asking her to move. “You need to go to class so you will not be late.” This line did not phase her as she started screaming and rambling on and on about how how she was grown and no one could tell her when she could or could not eat her breakfast. Okay, time to change tactics
…I leaned in closer and told her that I was not going away and that she could rant all she wanted. This went on for a few minutes and she got up to walk over to her friends. Finally, the girl looked at me and screamed, “Someone get this woman away from me!” Suddenly, a fire arose within that I had not felt in years and the next thing I know I was engaged in a full blown shouting match with this girl. I am sure the whole hallway was enjoying the spectacle. While she was waiving her arms, I said the unthinkable. I looked at her with a smirk and told her, “Go ahead, hit me so I can have press charges!” Where did that come from? Enticing a student to touch me so that I could get enjoyment from her arrest? What happened to the cool, calm school counselor.
I was like a mad woman on a reality show.
The whole time I was engaging in this confrontation I thought, “What am I doing?” Finally, a female administration came up to us and simultaneously we both tried to explain our positions to her. Frustrated with the situation and especially my behavior, I decided to walk away. As I was walking away, the girl continued to scream at me. For several days, I moped around the office and felt sorry for myself. In fact, I hid out in my office making excuses of why I could not go back into the hall. With my counseling and conflict resolution training, I can’t believe that I reached back into my reptilian brain and engaged in a good old fashion war of wills. If I was subject to falling in this trap, imagine how teenagers or new staff members with no training in conflict skills can get sucked into a similar situation. Truly, I felt like a failure!
Finally, I snapped out of my pity party and realized there was a great lesson to be learned from this situation and I could share with others. Though, I could not change the behavior of the student or the past, there were some cues that I missed along the way to this confrontation.
1. Pay attention to the personal space of students!
Every human has an individual space that encapsulates him or her from others. The smallest space is the intimate zone which extends 1.5 feet around the person. This space accepts family members, pets, boyfriends, girlfriends, and close friends. The next level is personal spacethat extends from 18 inches to 4 feet. This space includes acquaintances and friends who may engage in casual conversation with the person. It is important to note here that this space is off limits to strangers or people who make us feel uncomfortable. Extending 4 ft. to 12 ft. is the social zone in which people feel comfortable interacting with new acquaintances and strangers.
(see the Zone of Proximity below from
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that I broke the cardinal rule of personal space for this student. I entered this student’s personal zone and put her on high alert for danger. In fact, I went one step further and touched her on the shoulder without asking her permission. Crossing the line from social to personal space can cause a person to go on guard, as if he or she is in danger.
2. The Amygdala Rules!
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the Amygdala is the area of the brain responsible for all instinctual reactions, including aggression. Because the frontal lobe or center for reasoning is last to develop (think about why your insurance rates are so high) in humans, the Amygdala is responsible for many of the risky behaviors in teenagers. In addition to risky behaviors, teens are more likely to act impulsively, misread social cues or interactions, and engage in fights. Because I had entered the female’s student’s personal space without her permission, her Amygdala or reptilian brain misread my cues as dangerous; therefore, she went into fight or defensive mode.
Disclaimer: Okay, I know brain development…I teach brain development in a conflict management course to new teacher for goodness sake. When the student started to get into her defensive mode, she was warning me to get back. At that point, I had to make a decision to engage in battle or move past the 90 second window of fight or flight. Enough said…
3. Active Listening is the Best Strategy in Diffusing an Angry Student
I found a great article by Eastern Washington University that suggests six steps for diffusing anger in others:
Communicate respect by using appropriate listening skills, non-aggressive body language, showing interest in the needs of the other person, and acknowledge the importance of their concerns.
Show cooperation by demonstrating that you understand their concern, refrain from telling them they are wrong for their anger, and show empathy for their feelings.
Listenby trying to understand the other person’s perceptions. Resist the temptation to interrupt the other person and try clarifying questions to understand their point of view. In addition, you do not have to agree with the other person, but try to listen for their underlying needs.
Change direction of the hostility by reframing the content from negative to positive.
Set clear boundaries and expectations by using “I statements” and avoiding using the “verbal eraser” word – but.
Escape from the situation especially if you feel that you are in danger or you are still angry.
If you notice someone is losing control in a situation, you should have the following steps in place:
Make sure that you are aware of where other adults are located so you can get help quickly. For example, when walking into a possibly volatile situation, take another adult with you or send a trusted person to get help for you.
Stay calm so that the other person remains calm; particularly by using a confident tone of voice.
Don’t threaten; however, inform of the person of the consequences for their behavior.
Plan an escape route in advance.
Seek safety as soon as possible.
Document the situation and debrief your supervisor.
So, this story could have been different if I would have employed the above strategies that I already know as a trained counselor. Sounds easy, right? Unfortunately, one must go into the game with a strategy and learn from your mistakes.
Now, let’s redo this same scene using the strategies we reviewed today.
On the way to my station, I saw some of our older students sitting on a bench eating breakfast. Since I knew many of them, I began to talk to them and goof around with them. At the end of our brief interaction, I asked them to go to class.
Everything was going good because they began to gather their belongings and moved away from the bench go to their classes. I climbed on the bench and began to call out to the students as they walked by that it was time for class. At this point, I noticed a female student was still sitting below my feet. I jumped down from the bench and stood at an angle from her so that she would not feel threatened and reiterated my request. Unfortunately, she looked at me with a blank stare eating her biscuit.
Hmmmm, time for another tactic…”I see that you did not have time to eat your breakfast this morning and you seem hungry. I know that I am not a morning person either and I don’t like to talk too much. So, I am going to finish my hall duty and when I walk back by, I am going to need for you to be finished and in class.” This time she turned to her friend and said, “Do you hear something?” Undeterred and relentless in my duty, I reframed her negative statement by asserting that she seemed like she needed some uninterrupted breakfast time. As, I will be walking away, I told her my expectation. “I will feel disappointed if I need to ask the administrator to come assist me with getting you to class. As have I stated, I need for you to be finished in at least five minutes and to class. If you are not finished, I know that I will need to get assistance. I am going leave now so that we both don’t continue having a bad morning.” At that moment, it was like a hydrogen bomb had exploded. The girl jumped up in my face and shouted, “Don’t you talk to me!” Fortunately, I had a plan in place! I backed away from the student and in a calm voice stated that she had a choice to stay or go and that I was sorry that she chose not to work with me. I turned, when I was a safe distance from her, and documented the incident for the administrator to handle.
As a school counselor, this situation was not easy for me to admit, but it really happened
. I learned a lot about myself and my need for continued effective practice with explosive people.
Do you need resources for handling explosive situations as a school counselor and to teach to other staff members?
Check out these helpful resources!