February 3, 2020

February 3, 2020

Interview with Vistelar about Dynamis Positive Handling

Al Oelshlaeger (CEO of Vistelar) took some time recently to interview our Director of Training, Gerard O’Dea, about our Positive Handling work with schools in the UK.

We have becomes quite specialist in helping education staff to deal with high-risk behaviours in schools. Here is how we look at the problem, specifically around what we call ‘the point of impact’ which is that Decisive Moment in which a member of staff at a school needs to make a crucial decision about whether to put their hands on a child, or not.

I can remember being on a train reading a newspaper in about 2005, at around the same time I was considering a career change. I wanted to pursue the topic I was passionate about at the time, which was personal self-protection (self-defence). I can remember seeing a newspaper story about a teacher who was brutalized by one of her pupils in a classroom – she had been sexually assaulted after school when nobody else could help her.

It was just one newspaper story among many, but it really took my attention, and from that point on I started to become really interested to help in terms of training, and preparing staff to prevent and deal with violence and aggression at work more effectively.

So from about that time onwards – we are heading towards more than 15 years of providing training now – helping staff at work in difficult en counters, we have really tried to get into the detail of how tough Positive Handling situations come together in schools, and how we can train school staff and how to train them in what they need to know to make the best possible decision to keep themselves and the children that they’re looking after safe.

So, at the time of writing now, we are known in some parts for delivering very pragmatic, and relevant training for frontline staff who are dealing with children with a range of different needs that mean that sometimes they might pose a risk to those around them.

Here in the U.K. we have an inclusion strategy in education, and so in a mainstream school, in a “normal” school, the strategy there – if they have a child with some special needs – is to try as far as possible to keep that child in a mainstream setting. So, the strategy is to have a real mix of abilities and capabilities in every classroom. While we also work for special needs schools, or alternative provision schools where some children with additional needs are sent to help them to build up the schools to reintegrate into mainstream, the vast majority of the teams we work with are actually in mainstream.

How We Developed The Seven Scenarios Framework

Having visited a couple of thousand primary schools and secondary schools, and mainstream schools, and special schools, and everything in between, as a business and as a team of Positive Handling training professionals you start to see patterns, and to develop an understanding of the kinds of issues that staff face. We now use a framework to do a rapid frontline training needs analysis with staff when we are actually in the training room with them.

We have a way of dividing all the stories, and all of the challenges that we hear about, into about seven categories of situation in which a member of staff at the school may be called upon to make a decision to actually physically intervene and put their hands on a child (with all of the risk that that entails to everybody involved) or NOT to do so. We use the framework of seven scenarios which I am going to outline below to try and quickly get into the decision-making for a specific team.

Helping people to make the decision whether to put their hands on a child or not is really central to how we’ve evolved the Positive Handling training program that we deliver. The key issues for us really come out of the legal tests for whether it is the right moment to put your hands on a child, and then following that, whether the kind of method of control that somebody might use would be appropriate in the circumstances.

The bigger of those two questions – the when question and the how question – the bigger of those questions, in our opinion, is the when.


So, when is it appropriate for me to put my hands on a child?

This is the decisive moment, because if it is NOT the right time then you shouldn’t be making any Positive Handling physical intervention.

But if it IS the right time, then you should be doing something, and there may be a very shallow, instinctive margin between the two things.

We use a principle called necessity, and necessity has several components to it, one of which is, “have you attempted to verbally communicate with this person and create time and space for it not to be necessary to put your hands on them?”

A key fulcrum, a key moment which everything hinges upon is whether you’ve tried to do de-escalate and prevent the situation from becoming critical, and whether that’s working.

Of course, in our experience using such methods as we’ve learned from our partners at Vistelar and their methodology, such as the universal greeting, the persuasion sequence and redirection (see video below), we’ve got lot of specific things we can ask staff to do which would start to clarify that necessity, or lack of necessity in that moment. It has been really interesting over the last few years for our team to observe the consistency that great verbalisation skills bring to the legal questions which will follow in the event of an intervention happening.

Did you do the right thing? Was it the right time? Did you really need to do that? Was it the right tactic to use? We have really been on a journey to make those two things dovetail through our practice methodology in our training sessions (influenced greatly by a collaboration with Prof. Chris Cushion at University of Loughborough), and to show those moments very clearly to staff.

Scenarios 1, 2 and 3 – Imminent Physical Violence to a Nearby Person

The first three Positive Handling scenarios that we talk about are that the child is physically attempting to hurt one of the staff members present, that’s one. Number two, of course, is that the child is trying to physically hurt or injure one of the other children present. The third one is that the child is attempting to hurt themselves. Those are three clear moments where the professional adult in the room who’s responsible for what’s happening would be faced with that key decision. If the risk is really imminent, and words alone have failed, then it’s quite clear we would all want that adult to intervene.

One of the examples that we use, and we talk about with the teams is that even in environments where people feel like they shouldn’t touch a child – and we fully understand why people would say that – if your child was at school, and they were about to run onto a busy road, maybe they got off a minibus, or they got off a bus somewhere, and they were really excited about where they were, and they turned the wrong way and started running in the wrong direction, and they were about to step off a pavement, or a footpath, in the way of an oncoming vehicle, then would you want the teacher, or the classroom assistant to grab that child and pull them away from the oncoming car? The answer everybody gives us is that, “Yes.”

So, there’s often a hesitancy – a correct fear of using force with a child. When it comes down to the actual narrative, people make their minds up very quickly on what the right thing to do is.

Please don’t touch the children

We find some situations where a “no touch” policy is actually in play. If you read the policy it basically says that nobody should touch a child ever, but then when you go and speak to the staff who are in the classrooms, and in the dining halls, and in the common areas every day, you’ll find that they’re flaunting that rule, because it is necessary to. A policy that is being ignored daily, it is not really a policy at all. It’s just a kind of window dressing for what somebody somewhere would like to happen.

Scenarios 4, 5 and 6

Every school that I’ve ever visited has what they call the runners – a child who tries to run out of the classroom, or who tries to run away from the person dealing with them, the child who wants to run out of school, or even the child who wants to go home, and will sometimes climb a fence to get away from the school, because they really don’t like it that much.

Then we have a child who is not frustrated or distressed at all, but they’re having so much fun in a given moment that they forget to be safe, and they climb on top of a bookshelf, or they climb on top of another piece of furniture, and they’re having a merry dance up on this piece of furniture, and the adult in the room thinks, “Oh, my gosh, I really need to get this child down from there.” and that turns into a question of physical intervention.

One of the Positive Handling scenarios is that we have a child who is refusing to do what the classroom teacher or the classroom assistant has asked them to do. So, they’re just being resistant and they’re not complying with the learning task or the learning activity that is being laid out in front of them. To be honest it is quite normal that you find a child who says, “I’m not interested.”, and we would never want to use physical force on that child, but sometimes their resistance, or refusal to be involved, turns into something else, and it turns into a contagion that starts to spread around the classroom.

This is a particularly acute problem in a class of 30 children, where you’ve got not just one, but three or four other children who become dysregulated quickly or easily, and we have one child who is reaching that point of distress more quickly. This can “upset the applecart” such that all the apples start falling off the truck. This can be one of those situations where if a teacher sees that situation coming soon enough, they might want that child to leave the classroom as they’re becoming dysregulated, or even before.

Do we hurt the ones closest to us?

How well does the classroom teacher or teaching assistant know the child?

How well have we planned for this moment? What are the things we know will help this child to not escalate further at this moment? Those things all come together – maybe it’s a moment where the team have to exit that child from that classroom, because leaving them stay there in full view of their peers with all the issues of status, and hierarchy, and embarrassment, and shame that come along with that will just create an even worse situation. Sometimes it means that a teacher will choose to exit a child from the classroom to deescalate the situation to make it safe.

The Seventh Scenario

A new Positive Handling scenario that we added after a few years of going around and talking to people – we call it separation.

We always use the example in early years where they have a child who is maybe three or four years old, and when they come to school in the morning they don’t want to leave their carer, or parent. So, often the parent arrives at the door, the door opens, the school staff or the nursery staff welcome the child, but the child is stuck to the parent like a limpet mine and the parent looks at the carer, and says, “I really need to get to work, I got to get back in the car, I have to travel. Can you please help me?”,

That is one of these decisive moments where the school staff have to decide whether Positive Handling is the right thing to do to peel the child off the parent, and forcibly bring them into classroom.

That is a really tricky moment, and there’s lots of ways of managing that before and around that critical moment, but sometimes on the 4th of September when it’s the first day of school, this scenario can ambush staff, and that they can be in a situation where they have to make a key decision.

The reason that’s the most recent addition to the list we have is that as a team we have seen two court cases arise where the parent has reported the school staff’s behaviour – their action to peel the child off, or lead them into the classroom away from the parent – was reported that to the police, and a court case followed, where the school staff was prosecuted for assaulting the child. There’s been a couple of those in the last few years here, which just underlines how critical a moment this ‘separation’ is.

Comprehensive Framework (in no particular order)

  1. Child at risk of injuring another child
  2. Child at risk of injuring a staff member
  3. Child at risk of injuring themselves
  4. Child at risk of being unsupervised (absconding)
  5. Child at risk of unsafe behaviour
  6. Children at risk from this child’s behaviour
  7. Child at risk during separation from parent or carer

One of the things we always ask the staff is that, “Is there anything else that you think happens in a school that we need to talk about today?”, and those seven that I’ve just described to you seem to cover school staff experience of critical Positive Handling moments where they need to decide what to do.

One of the things we’re finding is that as budgets are shrinking in every educational system across the world, so what we find is teachers are under more pressure to produce better results all the time. You have people who are to one extent or another under huge pressure and burning out, and also being faced with unusual and strange behaviors that they perhaps haven’t been taught to deal with, and day-on-day that can become really frustrating. I can imagine a situation where a teacher on a one given day would lose their composure, drop their professional demeanour and make an objectively bad decision. Of course, these days, that is a potentially career ending decision.

Knowing these scenarios, and taking time to address them in training, can be a responsible way of making staff and children safe against unplanned and unpracticed reactions to challenging situations at school.

The full audio interview between Al Oelshlaeger (CEO Vistelar) and Gerard O’Dea (Director of Training at Dynamis, UK) was originally posted to the Vistelar website at: https://vistelar.com/28995/confidence-in-conflict-episode-8-seven-common-challenges-teachers-face/

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