There are six intervention principles that are helpful to keep in mind when intervening with aggressive students. These principles are an important foundation for communication and interaction and are essential in diminishing violent situations.
Intervention Principle 1: Success
This concept may sound simplistic and straightforward, but success is typically ignored as a premise for gauging interventions with aggressive students. Success occurs when the goals for which one is striving have, in fact, been accomplished. Frequently, we do not acknowledge the progress made in violent situations. Instead, we continue to insist that we gain full control over the situation rather than allow a process to unfold and the violence to deescalate as a result of that process. For example, Janine has been threatening loudly to beat up another student. She has been yelling in the hallway, has thrown a book against the locker, and is daring the other student to do something. You may be challenging her behavior and trying to calm her down. Janine angrily says, "OK, I won’t throw anything, but she (the other student) is still gonna have to do it different." Where many counselors, teachers, and administrators get thrown here is that they don’t keep pace with Janine to see that their intervention has some success at this point. She has agreed not to throw the book but is still threatening the other student. The key here is to keep pace and acknowledge her change. This means that instead of staying at the same pitch and intensity of the intervention so far, one must make shifts that are aligned with the major step that Janine just took. Rather than loudly demanding that Janine lower her voice and stop threatening the other student, the counselor, teacher, or administrator could slightly lower his or her voice and comment, "Great, you won’t throw anything, Janine. What does she have to do different?" The lowering of your own voice and acknowledgment that Janine has made a significant step is crucial in communicating that you can see her success in gaining more control. To demand that she fully lowers her voice, change her tone, stop threatening, and so on is ignoring her success and may reescalate the situation.
Intervention Principle 2: Realistic Goals
When we are working with aggressive or violent students, we want everything to be controlled. This need for safety is often the driving force behind our behavior in these situations. When we are too focused on control, however, we run the risk of losing sight of other important issues. Thus, one important guiding principle is to not lose sight of what we are aiming to accomplish in a violent situation but to do this through smaller, realistic goals. A realistic goal does not mean total and full cessation of anger or aggression, but what it does acknowledge is that the situation is on its way to being diffused and under control. If we reconsider Janine’s situation, our first goal might be that she stops throwing objects that may hurt someone. This is a first success. What we shouldn’t expect is that Janine will immediately lower her voice, stop threatening her peer simply because we have arrived, and suddenly become contrite and respectful rather than angry and aggressive. If we focus at first on realistic, practical goals instead of the big picture, our chance of achieving small successes as identified in Principle #1 is greatly enhanced. If we do aim for more realistic goals as our objective, our chances of eventually meeting the overarching goal to prevent and! or stop violence is more likely to be achieved.
Intervention Principle 3: Short-Term Interventions
Coinciding with success and realistic goals are short-term interventions. The emphasis in any violent situation is to focus on short-term solutions. This is in line with the aim for quick successes that are small and achievable and lead toward the larger goal of completely diffusing the situation. Once again, Janine is a good example. We may know from personal discussions with Janine that she dislikes her mother’s new boyfriend, who seems to take up too much of her mother’s time. Janine feels neglected by her mother. We also may know that her mother has started to go out at night with her boyfriend, and that Janine was worried that this past weekend, her mother would be out very late or maybe not even come home. Even though we know all of this information about Janine, it would be inappropriate to start discussions about this as we find her in the hallway on a Monday morning, threatening another student. Rather, it is important to target short-term interventions by having her stop throwing anything or verbally provoking a fight where someone may be hurt. It would be unrealistic to expect her to sit quietly at that moment in the empty lunchroom and explore what happened during the weekend that may relate to her fury. Instead, we attempt to make a short-term intervention that will put boundaries on the violence and maintain a safe environment.
Intervention Principle 4: Teaming
Violent and aggressive students present difficulties in our work in schools. They have many other issues that interfere with the academic goals of schools and are not remedied easily. They come from a myriad of difficult situations with different problems that have prompted them to manage their worlds through violence, meaning that there isn’t a simple solution or easy answer. For those with more acute problems, the traditional response of behavioral management is limited and frequently misses the depth of emotional turmoil that students face as they encounter their worlds. The confounding issues in their lives lead to our recommendation for a team approach to address their problems. We suggest that this be on two levels—one within the school and one with human resources from outside the school. Within the school, we are including the counselors, teachers, school psychologists, social workers, administrators, nurses, secretaries, custodians, cafeteria workers, safety personnel, and so on. Full teams have been shown to be far more effective in addressing the needs of aggressive children when compared to professionals working alone without larger team support. The composite intermingling of issues that these youths carry, in our opinion, require a multitude of professionals from differing areas of specialization to pool their expertise to address violence. The in-house school teams, with their diverse training, can better contribute to understanding and intervening successfully with an aggressive student. When the in-house teams find that they are not succeeding at prevention and intervention plans, then it is time to cooperate with professionals in the community. Individuals from mental health facilities, family treatment centers, substance abuse facilities, social services, child protective services, juvenile services, child advocacy groups, community police programs, and homeless shelters may provide valuable insight regarding what is going on with an aggressive child, as well as collaborative strategies for intervention.
An example of using teaming effectively may be seen in the case of Sam, an intelligent 15-year-old male who has been increasingly aggressive toward his peers, with rumors in school that he was physically threatening and occasionally assaulting some of them. He was arrested recently for stealing clothes from a department store. Trying to avoid arrest and get away from the security guard who blocked his exit from the store, Sam attacked him, resulting in a court-ordered, short-term juvenile services placement. Upon returning to school, a behavioral intervention plan designed by the school psychologist failed after 2 weeks. Sam commented that "that plan was stupid." The school counselor, feeling at a dead end, called together a team of Sam’s teachers, the principal, the school psychologist, and the school-family outreach worker. In this meeting, the members learned that Sam’s mother had lost her job just before the stealing incident. Since that event, Sam’s mother was sitting at home, depressed and inactive. It was further reported by the family outreach worker that Sam had begun counseling at the local mental clinic. This information prompted the school counselor to call a larger meeting with the caseworker from juvenile services and the mental health counselor (after the family outreach worker received a written release from Sam’s mother). The meeting provided an avenue for all professionals involved with Sam to communicate their concerns and to work together toward a comprehensive intervention plan. At the meeting, the juvenile services caseworker and the mental health counselor shared with the school personnel that Sam was taking care of his mother emotionally, and he had stolen the clothes to spare both of them the embarrassment of not being able to afford them. The school counselor and outreach worker shared Sam’s lack of progress in school and his increasing tendency toward violent interactions with his peers. As a result of this meeting, several steps were taken to help Sam and his mother. Both the mental health counselor and the school counselor agreed to work with Sam on recognizing his anger before it escalated to a violent or aggressive reaction; both also agreed to help Sam recognize positive actions that he might take when he feels that he is losing control. The mental health counselor also agreed to spend time addressing some of the underlying problems that contribute to Sam’s feelings of hostility. The juvenile services worker assumed responsibility for monitoring Sam on a weekly basis to ensure that he kept his appointments with the mental health counselor and arranged for Sam’s transportation to and from these appointments. The school-family outreach worker agreed to maintain contact with Sam’s mother and encouraged her to seek support services for herself, while the outreach worker connected Sam’s mother with the local community job search program. All agreed to reconvene in 3 weeks to assess progress. This plan represents a beginning point of help for Sam. The complexity of Sam’s case suggests that there will be no easy solutions. Yet with school and community involvement, it is more likely that a comprehensive plan that reaches into all aspects of Sam’s life will evolve.
Intervention principle 5: Culturally Appropriate
There are different ways of communicating, relating, and interacting across different cultural groups. There have been findings with regard to specific mannerisms and behaviors, such as the physical distance that is considered appropriate in social interactions, voice tone, speaking volume, rapidity of speech, eye contact, linguistic variations, topics that provoke greater insult, posture1 silence, and so on, that vary among cultures. For example, let’s look at the distance between people in a social interaction. An aggressive individual will assume a position that is much closer in proximity to another person. Their physical closeness maybe perceived as threatening and hostile. Yet it is important to maintain an awareness of differences and normative behavior across cultures in order to assess clearly whether the behavior is, in fact, aggressive. For example, findings have shown that Hispanics are more comfortable with less physical distance from others when contrasted with some other ethnic groups. Therefore, it is possible that one may misperceive a Hispanic student’s physical closeness to another student as aggressive1 whereas it may simply be culturally normative. Similarly, in Native American culture, it is valued to think and reflect before acting or speaking. Thus, confronting a Native American student about his or her behavior may result in a slower response than you as a teacher, counselor, or administrator may want or expect. You may interpret this response from your own cultural perspective as insolent and disrespectful. Paradoxically, the slowness of the response may mean the opposite for the Native American student, who may be carefully considering his or her response to you rather than making a hasty comment. Therefore, we must become familiar and respectful of cultural norms for different ethnic groups while also becoming deeply sensitive to our own cultural underpinnings and biases. This awareness about ourselves and others becomes critically important when we are working across cultures, particularly with regard to aggressiveness, where responses, feelings, reactions, and consequences are heightened.
Intervention Principle 6: Interdependence
In the United States, we live in a society founded on rugged individualism. During the course of our history~ we have come to value qualities such as individualism, independence, and self. Although these qualities have strong positive value, at times, they have contributed to a society where some individuals are inconsiderate of others, lack respect for the values and dignity of others and society, and simultaneously feel alienated from the world around them. A smaller percentage of those individuals who feel apathy, resentment, and anger toward others, family, and society resort to violence toward others and/or property. In some instances, the result of this is individuality without social consideration, concern, or respect that we see increasingly in our schools. Thus, it is our contention that a key element in addressing the escalation of violence in our society is to focus more on interdependence. Fostering better relationships, an understanding of others, and an ability to communicate more effectively and express one’s feelings and needs all lead toward a reduction of violence. Consequently, we suggest that interdependence is an important guiding principle in diminishing aggression.
- Bemak PhD and Susan Keys PhD; Violent and Aggressive Youth: Intervention and Prevention Strategies for Changing Times; Corwin Press: California; 2000
Personal Reflection Exercise #6
The preceding section contained information about intervention principles for working with school bullies. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.
Online Continuing Education QUESTION
What are Bemark’s six intervention principles for working with school bullies?
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