What should I do when a student throws a chair or a desk? — Anonymous, NYC
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To paraphrase medical ethics, first do no harm. This means that in most school safety situations, the primary goal should be to keep a bad situation from getting worse. This means to look for de-escalation opportunities at every possibility.
The best way to prevent this incident from happening is to look for the warning signs before the explosion. Typically, a child will throw (or shove over) a desk or chair because of a deep-felt anger. That means that preceding the event, there may be “early warning signs”: heated words, an argument, or hostile body language. As you move around your classroom, keep your line of vision on your students. If you confer with a group at the side of the room, keep your back to the wall so you can check on your class. Look for those signs, but be optimistic — they might not be there!
When a student throws or shoves furniture in a violent manner, your immediate goals must be to determine whether anyone has been hurt and to prevent any more chairs or desks from being thrown. Finally, you’ll want to get assistance from school personnel. Remember: You must document every situation that occurs. Take notes immediately afterwards and record all relevant information while it is fresh in your mind. As soon as possible, write the formal report.
If someone is injured, you need to send a student to track down a school administrator and/or the school nurse.
If no one is injured, you need to do a quick risk assessment. Is this child likely to repeat this behavior? Typically, a child who throws a chair or desk is going to be quite angry and probably had this anger building up for a while. Does someone else look like he or she is about to throw something? If there is another desk nearby, see if you can move it out of the way. Remember, you never want to place yourself (or students) at risk.
In a firm and loud voice, say something like, “Let’s all take a deep breath. Everything is going to be okay.” Your calm and steady tone will redirect the attention to you, and away from the angry student. Quietly, you’ll want to address the student and ask him/her to come talk with you in the hallway. If the child refuses to come with you, you want to acknowledge the anger, without sounding judgmental. You can say something quietly like, “You must be quite upset” or “I can tell something is bothering you.” The key here is to not match the child’s anger and to model calmness and sanity as you empathize with his feelings.
The best-case scenario is that the child follows you to the doorway. If that happens, you have successfully de-escalated the crisis, and it is unlikely that anything else will be thrown or that a fight will ensue. If the child stays where he or she is and/or continues to make threats or speak angrily, you should quietly send a responsible student with a pass to get an administration/school safety person, or use your class phone if that is the quickest way to get support. During this time you can ask more compliant students to step away, to move their desks, or anything to get their attention and focus away from the child who is upset. You should continue to engage the child with soothing comments that show you understand completely and that if he/she wants to talk to you privately, you are always available. When either a school administrator or a school safety officer arrives, that person should remove the child from the classroom.
As always, (as I mentioned before) you will want to document this incident from beginning to end. You should try to identify which factors led to the child’s outburst. Did something happen before school? Before class? During class? You can ask a guidance counselor to assist you in talking to this child. You want to communicate to the student that while you care for him/her, there are appropriate ways to communicate feelings, and throwing a chair is dangerous for everyone in the classroom. Depending on the level of the infraction, your school may pursue a suspension for this activity. Hopefully, you will develop a positive, trusting relationship with this student so this incident will be is a one-time occurrence.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of the NYC DOE or any other entity.