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Wednesday, April 1, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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New crisis intervention program teaches Spokane teachers to de-escalate tense student situations

Kristina Baker, Crisis Prevention Intervention training instructor, right, conducts a demonstration with Mary O. Gustafson, principal assistant, Friday, Oct. 25, 2019, at North Central High School. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Kristina Baker, Crisis Prevention Intervention training instructor, right, conducts a demonstration with Mary O. Gustafson, principal assistant, Friday, Oct. 25, 2019, at North Central High School. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

When things get tense in the classroom, an old-fashioned look in the eye might just do the trick to calm an anxious student.

Or it might cause them to start throwing books and upending desks.

In the complicated world of teacher-student relationships, there are no easy answers, and that’s the message Spokane Public Schools hopes to send this year with the new Nonviolent Crisis Intervention Training Program, which got underway Friday at North Central High School.

School was out, but teachers and administrators were in their desks at 9 a.m. for Professional Improvement Day.

The subject was de-escalation – how to anticipate an incident before it happens and how to lessen the fallout when it does.

“It’s about taking a look at how our response drives student actions, and how we can be more preventative than we can be reactive,” said Kristina Baker, a student services coordinator and Crisis Prevention Institute trainer.

Along with instructor Jansi Mulch, she took the NC faculty through six hours of instruction and self-evaluation, and hopefully some introspection.

“We have to remember that we are the adults in the situation,” Mulch said. “We can’t take it personally, and we have to respect that relationship.”

The stakes are high. Every day, students of all ages find ways to disrupt classes, avoid or refuse tasks and act out verbally and physically.

Escalation means disruption, loss of instruction for other students and more discipline all the way to suspension and expulsion.

A National Institute of Health study found that one-fourth of American teens have been diagnosed with anxiety disorders, and another 8% to 15% of school-aged children have learning disabilities.

Even those without prior diagnosis might just come to school after a fight with parents.

“And sometimes,” Baker told the teachers, “a kid might have been just fine in first period, but something happened in the hall between classes.”

Given that unpredictability, the district aims to train its teachers in de-escalation techniques. The goal, according to spokesman Brian Coddington, is to get 75% of instructors trained by the end of the school year.

Baker needed only one warmup question to make an important point.

“When a student can’t read, we teach them … we meet them where they’re at,” she said. “But when they misbehave, what do we do?”

“We punish them,” several teachers answered.

As that sunk in, Baker added: “What we should be doing is modeling appropriate behavior. We’re really good academically, but we forget it behaviorally.”

The training has been validated by several surveys, one of which found that 95% of educators who use Crisis Prevention Intervention reported an improvement in their de-escalation skills and feeling of overall safety.

Another survey showed that 74% of teachers using CPI’s techniques said that grades, test scores and graduation rates improved.

Another plus for Spokane Public Schools – which has been criticized for overuse of restraints – is that almost three in five administrators report that CPI’s techniques have aided in a reduction or elimination of physical discipline.

However, the learning curve can be steep, bumpy and counterintuitive.

“I was raised in a culture where you looked people in the eye,” said NC Principal Steve Fisk. “That always signified earnestness and honesty, but that’s not always the case now.”

In some cultures and even individual families, it can feel confrontational.

On the other hand, it didn’t take much to take some teachers out of their comfort zone.

After 40 minutes at their desks, the teachers were sent to the hallway. With their backs to a wall, they faced a partner at the other side of the hall and got up close and personal.

As a teacher approached, the partner would raise an arm when he or she felt uncomfortable. In most cases, men raised their hands first.

A few minutes later, they approached and stood alongside their partner, a move considered less threatening.

Then they were instructed to touch their partner on the shoulder, the elbow and finally grab their wrist. For most, comfort zones were well and truly shattered.

“I’m one of those who like to go to the shoulder, but you have to read body language and have to read the context and conversation,” Fisk said.

That’s the whole point, Baker and Mulch told the teachers.

“There’s no golden ticket to solve behavior problems, but I hope the teachers realize that they are the golden ticket,” Baker said. “How they respond and how much they self-reflect on the choices they make will really impact the outcomes for our kids.”

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