Risk Management Strategies for Combative Students

Education, Property & Casualty, Risk

The frequency and severity of claims caused by combative students in schools is increasing. Injury to employees from combative students is one of the leading cause of workers’ compensation claims in Wisconsin schools, and these types of claims can be costly for your district – both on a financial and reputational level.

It’s important for every member of your staff who works with students to understand that how we communicate with a disruptive, combative, or aggressive student can be the difference between a safe, non-violent discussion and a dangerous physical confrontation.

When we communicate:

  • The words we speak make up only 7% of our communication
  • The tone of our voice makes up 38% of our communication
  • Our body language makes up 55% of our communication

This breakdown was created by psychology professor Albert Mehrabian at the University of California, Los Angeles, who laid out the concept in his 1971 book Silent Messages (1971).

For these reasons, it is important that your staff members understand the ‘universal precautions’ that should be taken with anyone who exhibits verbal or physical aggressive behaviors. Understanding these steps and strategies will allow your staff and students to stay safe when working through a challenging interaction.

Consider reviewing these controls for combative students during your next staff meeting

  • Always attempt to project a calm image to your students. Remaining calm in both your physical actions and verbal discussions with students is critical – it just may defuse a violent situation.
  • Pause and think before reacting to a combative student’s actions. If the student uses inappropriate language or begins calling you names, don’t react aggressively. This may only serve to escalate the student’s aggression.
  • Try not to take an aggressive student’s behavior personally. Remember, at the verbal and physical aggression stages, the student may be at a loss for self-control. Inappropriate language or body gestures may take place — don’t let this bother you.
  • Use breakaway safety lanyards if your employees wear their identification badges around their neck. Breakaway lanyards utilize a plastic clasp or a Velcro strip that will easily open if the lanyard is caught or pulled by a combative student.
  • Avoid wearing dangling jewelry, earrings, necklaces, etc. An aggressive student may grab a necklace and try to choke you with it.
  • Remove any objects from the immediate area that could be used as weapons against you. Don’t provide aggressive students easy access to weapons such as scissors, staplers, letter openers, paper weights, etc.
  • Never allow your staff members to bring household chemicals and cleaners from home in to the school. These hazardous substances could cause significant injury if a student were to spray them in a teacher’s eyes. Your school should only purchase non-hazardous chemicals and cleaners.
  • Before the situation gets out of control, encourage the student to go for a walk, out of the area, to ‘let off some steam.’
  • When removing a student to a quiet area, don’t isolate yourself with that student in a corner or behind closed doors.
  • During any type of confrontation, provide the student adequate personal space. At a minimum, 18 inches to 3 feet should be maintained between the teacher and an aggressive student.
  • If a student’s behavior suddenly becomes physical, provide the student adequate personal space. Closing in or trying to restrain the student usually ends badly and will only escalate unsafe behavior.
  • When talking to a student, don’t hover over them. Lower yourself to the student’s level; this may mean leaning on a filing cabinet or sitting on the edge of a table or desk to project a calm image.
  • Don’t startle a student with rapid or sudden body movements. Whether you are speaking or listening to the student, attempt to slow down all of your movements. Keep yourself calm by breathing slowly, speaking slowly, moving your eyes slowly, and blinking less frequently — this portrays a level of calm.
  • Never startle a disruptive student from behind. Stay in the plain view of the aggressive student and present yourself in a calm, rational manner. Many teachers have been injured when a combative student was startled from behind resulting in the student striking the teacher.
  • Do not be within arm’s reach of a potentially violent or aggressive student. Position yourself out of the student’s reach — out of the ‘line of fire.’
  • Whenever possible, avoid face-to-face, eye-to-eye, toe-to-toe interaction with a potentially violent or aggressive student.
  • Attempt to take a ‘supportive stance’ towards the aggressive student. Ensure that you are at least one leg length away, off to the side, and at angle to the student. When performed properly, a supportive stance doesn’t invade the student’s personal space, avoids the ‘challenge position’ and provides less chance of physical injury to the student or the teacher.
  • Always angle your body away from the combative student’s dominant hand. Whenever possible, take mental notes in the classroom — does the student write with their right or left hand? A right-handed writer probably has a dominant right hand. Another simple tip to remember: most people wear a wrist watch on their non-dominant hand.
  • Always be aware of your voice — don’t speak too loud or too fast.
  • Control your facial gestures. Keep your facial expressions calm if at all possible. A frown or scowl may be portrayed as a feeling of dislike or displeasure. A straight facial expression may provide no evidence of interest. A wince portrays sudden dislike or pain.
  • Maintain eye contact at all times when talking with a combative student. The student may get a sense of confidence that you are truly listening to them. Constant eye contact will also allow you to spot some of the common head and body movements that you would have surely missed if you were looking somewhere else.

Key Takeaway

As the majority of school employees will attest, the chance of a violent verbal or physical confrontation with a student can occur anytime, anywhere. Although the exact thoughts and actions of a potentially combative student cannot be entirely predicted or controlled, the implementation of these and other proactive controls can minimize the severity of a combative confrontation between a student and staff member of your school.

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