Patrick Nau, a teacher at PS 369 in the South Bronx, was trained in January by the Institute for Understanding Behavior (IUB), a consortium of the Department of Education and the UFT, in how to respond to challenging behavior more effectively by using strategies that help foster social, emotional and academic growth. Staff from eight schools received training this school year. Patrick is blogging about his experience as he applies what he learned in his classroom. Read Patrick’s other posts » 
We have a handful of students at my school who struggle with transitions and display aggressive behavior, fight, push, yell and curse. One of the Therapeutic Crisis Intervention for Schools strategies I have applied is to provide time away for the student who is acting out. After giving that student some time to calm down and get back to baseline, I talk with him in private about what happened and what he is feeling. The challenge is to let the student control the discussion and let him express his feelings and his interpretation of what happened, regardless of its accuracy or the appropriateness of his reaction.
What the IUB taught me is that it doesn’t matter if the student’s perception is inaccurate; he reacted according to how he perceived what took place. It is important not to get caught in a power struggle by disputing his version of events and saying things like “I heard you calling him names” or “I saw you pushing him, too.” It’s better to ask him “How did it make you feel?” and “What could you do differently next time?” instead of “Why did you hit him?”
The goal is to help the student cope with his emotions and think about a better way to resolve the situation next time — alternatives like walking away, speaking to a teacher, asking the person to leave him alone. I have to remember that I may have to repeat the process with him a dozen times before his behavior starts to change. We teachers must remember that students who struggle with their emotions are not going to suddenly figure out how to control themselves and not, in eyes of adults, overreact in a situation.
The IUB strategies have helped me deal with defiance, yelling, pushing and other disruptions. More importantly, they can be very effective in de-escalating situations. But I’m not convinced that the strategies pay off with students who have much more severe behaviors — students who fight without being provoked, emotionally disturbed children, children on the spectrum. I am not sure if these students can interpret and understand their emotions. The IUB approach may work to defuse a crisis for some of these students in the moment, but I don’t know how well it will work in the long term in changing their behavior.
Another challenge at my school is that the IUB model is premised on a critical mass of the staff buying into the new approach if a school’s culture is to change. Here at PS 369, almost half of the school’s staff, including most school aides, paras and security, have not yet attended the trainings. The IUB system cannot work until everyone uses the same strategies to deal with specific behaviors and specific children.
If I ignore a student for cursing and it stops but another teacher makes a bigger issue of it with the same student, then the student is receiving mixed messages. The response of adults in our school must be consistent. The challenge lies in everyone agreeing on what the appropriate response is to a particular behavior. The staff has to put their personal sentiments aside and support the system. This can happen only when everyone has a clear understanding of the IUB approach and how to implement it.