I was in Brownsburg, Indiana this week teaching a one-day workshop on supporting people with complex behaviors at ALPHA, a specialized school for students with significant behavioral disorders. In the course of our discussions, one of the Mandt instructors said that the most important part of de-escalation for them was learning to ask students “are you safe?” She said that when they started using this question, there was a marked change in the behavior of the students.

Like many people, including me, the question used to be “are you calm?” To be honest, it used to not even be a question, but rather a command: CALM DOWN! When I first came into the human service system over 40 years ago, The Mandt System® hadn’t been developed yet. I was trained in another program that no longer exists, and I was taught that when people got upset, I was to set up a “contract for safety.” The focus, as I remember it, was on getting people to calm down. This is still taught. I recently read part of a book and here is a short quote:

“This is what you do. When the child is out of control and using physical means to destroy and cause harm, come from behind the child and gently wrap your arms around them and sit with them. Take any objects they are using to cause harm out of their hands. Tell the child in a low, calm, even voice: ‘Calm down. When you calm down I will let you go. Calm down and I will let you go. Calm down.” Michael Hammond, Parenting Difficult Children, 2014: Page 71)

That’s the way I used to interact with people whose behavior was “out of control.” Fortunately, I learned another way, a simple question: are you safe? I learned it first from some of the people I served who yelled at me when I told them to calm down. Then they yelled at me when I asked them to calm down. It took a while for me to understand that it wasn’t about “calm”, it was about “safe.”

About 20 or so staff from ALPHA were there, along with 10-15 teachers, school resource officers and others from surrounding schools, and we had a spirited discussion about safety. What do you do when someone yells at you or swears at you letting you know they are not safe? Someone else answered, saying that you should take a step back, hands up in a non-threatening position, and say “I’m sorry you’re not safe. How can I help?” While nothing always works, the staff said that this simple question – are you safe? – works better than anything else they have done.

It was so encouraging for me to listen to people take what we teach, expand it, adapt it, and make it work to create settings where students can say that “in this place, and with these people, I feel safe™.”

Bob Bowen, SVP for Program Development