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“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

 –Haim Ginnot                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

Life Space Crisis Intervention(LSCI) is a set of skills that helps professionals turn problem situations into learning opportunities for young people that exhibit challenging behaviors.  LSCI training teaches adults how to de-escalate student conflicts in the short term and change destructive patterns of behavior in the long term.

A brain-based, trauma-informed strategy, LSCI is used in schools and treatment organizations throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. It provides a systematic, comprehensive approach to addressing escalating behavior and can be used for students of all ages, in both general and special education settings and across all three tiers of the PBIS/RTI model.

Whatsets LSCI training apart from other intervention programs is that it goes beyond a narrow focus on student behaviors to also teach adults the knowledge and skills they need to regulate their emotions during a conflict. A helpful analogy is that of a thermometer and a thermostat; while a thermometer simply reveals the heat of a setting, a thermostat has the power to actually decrease the temperature.  Likewise, the skills of LSCI help caring adults turn down the heat on stressful student events and de-escalate conflicts before they become explosive.

The example below recounts how an Instructional Support Teacher used LSCI principles to respond effectively to a student’s challenging behavior and de-escalate a volatile hallway incident:

An Instructional Support Teacher entered a middle school classroom to begin working with a student. Normally, the student and teacher had a good working relationship, but today, something was different.   As soon as the student saw the IST, she began to complain, “No way!  I do not need help. I am not working with you today.”

The teacher could feel the stares of the other students in the room as well as of the two regular classroom teachers who were all watching the tension build.  She felt the pressure of their judgment on both her and her student. She also felt personally insulted; why was her normally-friendly student being so rude?  The IST realized right away that she had two choices: 

1. She could use a traditional disciplinary approach and firmly tell her student to stop her disrespect immediately. If the student did not stop complaining, she could loudly remind her that failure to comply with the rules would result in an afterschool detention.

The IST felt justified that this would be an appropriate professional response but she also knew that for this student, this type of emotional, threatening response would most likely have escalated her angry feelings and activated the “fight” response in her brain.  Things would have gotten worse for sure. 

2.Option 2 was to try to tap into the rational, thinking part of her student’s brain in an effort to get a more calm, cooperative response.

First, she sat down in the chair next to the student and quietly said, “You are really upset right now.” 

The student looked surprised, took a deep breath, and simply said, “Yes, I am.”

Just at that moment, the lead classroom teacher joined in the conversation with a well-meaning, but ill-timed response: “Mrs. McCarthy is just trying to help you.  Everyone needs a little extra help now and then” she said. 

The student’s entire body stiffened and she started complaining all over again. “This is so dumb.  You people treat me like I’m stupid or something. I hate you.” 

Once again, the IST had a flood of irritated thoughts run through her head but made a decision not to act on any of them.  Instead, she silently reminded herself, “Don’t react in anger.  She needs your calming presence right now.”    

The IST signaled to the classroom teacher to continue with the lesson for the rest of the students.  She continued to sit quietly near her student.  After about a minute, she noticed that her student made eye contact with her.  She took this cue to begin speaking calmly, using non-defensive words that validated her student’s emotional state: “You’re feeling singled out and embarrassed when I come into the classroom to help you with math.” 

The student’s posture softened.  She nodded and said quietly, “It’s so humiliating.” 

Within minutes of this interaction with her IST, the student regained her composure and offered that she was ready to get to work on math.  For the remainder of the period, she was respectful, cooperative, and on-task.

In this situation, Option 1 may have been appropriate, but it would have been a missed opportunity for the IST to connect with her student and give her the time she needed to calm down.  By putting words to the student’s feelings (“You are really upset right now.”), the IST helped the young person move from a state of emotional upset to a state of rational calm.  This verbal de-escalation strategy, a foundational skill of LSCI, ultimately helped the student make progress on both her academic goal (getting math work completed) and her behavioral one (learning to be calm and respectful to adults in the school setting.)

Does that mean professionals should allow students to “get away with” the kind of disrespectful behavior that was initially displayed?  No, decidedly not.  There is a time for setting standards and communicating with students about acceptable behaviors.  This professional, however, understood that time was on her side and that waiting until her student was calm and rational would be the most effective time to address behavioral issues.

Once the student felt understood by her IST, she was willing and able to attend to her academic task.  Once she successfully completed her academic task, she was in the right head space to process her disrespectful behavior at the beginning of the period.  The IST used LSCI Interviewing skills to broach the subject:

IST: You seemed really upset when I first walked in the room this morning. Did something happen?
Student: Not really. I was just mad. 
IST:  Do you remember what thoughts were going through your head? 
Student:  I was thinking that all of the kids were looking at me and they think I’m stupid because I need your help.
IST:  You were feeling angry, thinking everyone was judging you. 
Student: Exactly.
IST:  It can be really hard when you feel like people are making assumptions about you.
Student:  It makes me feel like my head is going to explode. I guess I did explode on you.  I’m sorry. 
IST:  Thank you. That shows a lot of character to be able to apologize when you’ve hurt someone.

This structured, non-judgmental dialogue helped the student feel heard and understood.  By engaging the student in this way, the IST skillfully guided her to connect her thoughts to her feelings and her feelings to her behaviors, a process that helps young people achieve self-awareness and long-term behavioral change.

The key to the entire interaction is the LSCI principle that management begins with us.  In schools and treatment organizations, kids are necessarily the focus of our attention and intervention, but in reality, it is the way that adults respond to kids—for better or worse—that determines whether a conflict with be escalated or de-escalated, a relationship damaged or improved, a child humiliated or humanized.

Signe Whitson

Signe Whitson

Signe Whitson is the Chief Operating Officer of the LSCI Institute and a nationally recognized speaker on topics related to crisis intervention in schools, bullying prevention, digital citizenship, and managing anxiety and anger in children. For more information about LSCI training, please visit www.lsci.org.