Working with an Angry Outburst in My Prison Classroom

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In part 2 of my series on trauma-informed strategies for navigating classroom behavior emergencies comes this true tale of a student who found it unbearable to wait his turn without an angry outburst in our prison classroom.

10 trauma-informed strategies I use to navigate classroom behavior emergencies.

Last time I introduced 10 simple trauma-informed strategies for navigating classroom behavior emergencies that have worked well for me through the years. Here’s a quick recap. Read here if you want more detail on the strategies and the first story in the series.

Breathe and don’t panic.
Stay in charge.
Validate feelings and needs.
Adopt a non-threatening posture and steady voice.
Hold an alert readiness.
Refer to structures.
Reflect back strengths.
Remind of goals.
Offer an alternative.
Help save face.

Story # 2: Do you know what I’m IN FOR?

(Names have been changed.)

This story opens in a men's medium security prison in a parenting class for dads. Actually, it is the very same classroom as story #1, but a different student.

The dads were working on a pencil and paper task and I was moving around the room assisting them as they indicated their need by a raised hand. As I was helping one dad, another very young man, after having his hand in the air for about 15 seconds, got extremely irritated waiting his turn for my attention. He sighed loudly, breaking the quiet of the classroom and bellowed, "TRACY! Do you know what I'm IN FOR? If you knew what I was IN FOR; you would NOT be keeping meee waiting. You would be afraid. And you'd be over here right now helping me."

Well, saying something like that in a prison classroom is like yelling "FIGHT" on the prison yard. Let's face it; this was the most exciting thing that had happened in these parts all week. Instantly, 12 pencils froze in the air and 12 pairs of eyes were on me, all thinking, I'm sure, "Whoa...what's she gonna do now?"

BREATHE AND DON'T PANIC. STEADY MY VOICE. STAY IN CHARGE. HOLD AN ALERT READINESS. validate feelings.

With 12 pairs of eyes burning holes in my back, I interrupted the assistance I was giving the dad I’d been helping to turn around and address the verbal bomb launched by the exceedingly young 25 year old miffed at being kept waiting.

I took a deep breath and said as calmly as I could, "Daniel, it sounds like you are really frustrated waiting your turn for me."

"I AM!" he said.

REFLECT BACK STRENGTHS. REFER TO STRUCTURES. OFFER AN ALTERNATIVE. HELP SAVE FACE.

"Well," I said speaking evenly, "I can understand that and after six weeks in this class, I have seen you practice several effective emotion regulation skills; so I am confident that you have on board a couple of skills that can help you take good care of yourself while you wait your turn for my help."

"You are?" he said.

"I am," I said.

"I do?" he said.

"You do!" I said.

"Oh", he said, sitting taller in his chair and pulling on the ends of his shirt to neaten his appearance, adding with confidence... “Yeah, I do!”

Then, turning to his wide-eyed classmates who’d been watching the exchange as if it were a  tennis match added with just the slightest air of irritation, "What are YOU guys lookin' at?"

The other dads shrugged and went back to work. 

STAY IN CHARGE. ADOPT A NON-THREATENING POSTURE. HELP SAVE FACE.

I waited another moment before going over to him so as not to give the impression that his outburst had worked in the way he had intended. A few moments passed and then I went to him, saying nothing about what had occurred previously. Instead I said, "What's up? How can I help?" He then asked me the question he'd wanted to ask me, I helped him, and the train was back on the tracks.

But that was not really the end of the story.

That outburst occurred halfway through our twelve-week class. At week twelve, Daniel came racing into class one afternoon, skidded to a stop in front of me and the large parenting journey metaphor on our classroom wall and said with great soberness, “Tracy, I’ve been thinking...”

“Hmmm?” I asked.

“Well, I signed up for this class because I wanted to learn how to make my 3 and 5-year-olds mind me. But I don’t think that’s what this class is about.”

“Really... what do you think it’s about Daniel?”

“Well,” he said as he reached out to trace his finger from his family group on the parenting journey metaphor toward Destination Adulthood, adding slowly and deliberately, “I think it is about me doing my parent job so that my kids can reach their potential at Destination Adulthood. What do you think?”

Are you kidding me? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? What do I THINK?

Well, I wanted to do a tap dance right there – just to show him what I thought.  I was also aware of the parallel between his confidence in his capabilities now and my confidence in him some six weeks earlier. But this was his moment, so I used all of my self-control to contain my elation in order to honor his epiphany and said, “That’s really powerful Daniel. I think you really have something there. Would you be willing to share that at check-in with your colleagues when we start today?”

 “Sure,” he grinned and headed off to his seat.

And he did.

A footnote about safety:

I think it is important to say here that I was not afraid. If I had been, I had plenty of resources and protocols at my disposal to quickly get help. I don't think every inappropriate thing someone says can automatically assumed to be a threat. After 45 hours in class with this young man I did not believe he was threatening me. I believe he was frustrated and didn't know how to get his needs met so he dragged out what he knew how to do and tried it out on me. It didn't work. When he remembered (with a little coaching) something better, he did that. And isn't that my job - helping him step into his vision for himself by encouraging him to find, remember and use better strategies? 

Please share your stories and strategies.

Please join the conversation and tell us your strategies for responding to classroom behavior challenges in the comments below.