Preventing injuries by managing students with challenging behaviors

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The start of the school year is an exciting time for many, but from the municipal risk perspective, it often means an increase in workers’ compensation claims.
 
In most MIIA municipalities, a large proportion of workers’ compensation claims arise from schools. Of these claims, many are “struck-bys,” that is, aggressive acts toward an educator. The most frequent behavior causing injuries is hitting, followed by biting.
 
A 2011 American Psychological Association survey of nearly 3,000 kindergarten through 12th grade teachers, found that 44 percent reported that they had been physically attacked. The APA also reports that aggression against teachers results in lost wages, lost workdays (927,000 days per year nationwide), and, in some cases, educators leaving the profession prematurely. Medical and psychological care, student disciplinary proceedings, potential incarceration of students, and increased workers’ compensation claims and premiums, are also byproducts of these behaviors.
 
While many of the initial struck-by claims are not particularly costly in terms of dollars, the amount of administration time required to process and manage the claims can take a toll on budgets and distract employees from regular work activity. If the student perpetrators are not properly managed or the staff isn’t trained in the best practices to manage these students, the severity of the injuries can increase over time and end up costing the city or town more, while adding an emotional toll on the teachers, staff, and other students.
 
Training your way to safety
Investing in training to help school staff manage challenging behaviors is vital to the health and safety of both educators and students. For example, MIIA is offering its members a new cost-effective and customizable training program called Safety Care Behavioral Safety Training developed by Quality Behavioral Solutions (QBS) Inc.
 
The program focuses on four processes:
 
1. Incident Prevention, which looks at environmental, social, staffing and activity methods to decrease the likelihood of challenging behavior.
 
2. Incident Minimization, which involves strategies for early anticipation and detection of challenging behavior as well as methods to stop, minimize and reverse its progression.
 
3. Incident Management, which includes strategies and techniques for the safe, therapeutic management, termination and prevention of challenging behavior.
 
4. Post-Incident Procedures, which focus on recovery procedures, debriefing procedures, data collection and analysis.
 
Observe closely, approach carefully
David Lennox, CEO of QBS, notes that in most cases dangerous behavior doesn’t occur out of the blue. There are often smaller events that can give a warning that more aggressive behavior is coming.
 
Lennox says the first step is to observe closely. Learn the warning signs and communicate them to others. Then watch for the signals to take steps to prevent further escalation. Triggers – events that upset, irritate and evoke escalation – are also something to watch for.
 
Next, Lennox says, it’s important to plan an approach. Body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice communicate a lot. Make sure staff know to approach in a way that is not likely to be taken as aggressive. Make sure their faces and voices don’t indicate that they are frustrated or angry.
 
Staff should not approach an agitated individual while clasping their hands behind their back. Hands and arms should be free, but not look confrontational (e.g., not crossed), so that if the agitated student makes a sudden move to strike, the staff member can protect himself or herself.
 
De-escalation
One strategy that can be used to calm an individual, according to Lennox, is to try to help the student by asking gentle questions such as, “How can I help you?” It can also be helpful to redirect the student to a more appropriate activity or conversation topic that will guide him or her away from whatever is causing the escalation. Once an individual begins cooperating with simple requests, and receives reinforcement for cooperating, the cooperation will often continue.
 
Finally, Lennox notes, if the team that has been assembled is not able to safely de-escalate the situation, whether it be because the members are not adequately trained or because the threat is just too great, let them know whom they should call for assistance.
 
Each municipality and school district should research available programs to find the one that best aligns with its goals and provides training to everyone (teachers, administrative staff, custodians, cafeteria staff, etc.) who works with students who may become verbally or physically aggressive. Everyone’s safety depends on it, and reducing insurance losses is an added benefit.
 
Resources
For more information, see the articles “Preventing violence against teachers” and “A Silent National Crisis: Violence Against Teachers”.
 
The MMA’s Municipal Advocate magazine recently featured an article by Lennox, “Training and Planning Can Help Staff Manage Tense Situations.”
 
Lin Chabra is MIIA’s Membership Training Coordinator.