Step Back

James Hourihan, Author

Always Learning

As an organisation we have been delivering training in crisis management, behaviour support and de-escalation skills for over 25 years. We often hear appropriate and inappropriate approaches to encountering anger and frustration from staff. Some of these inappropriate approaches are suggested with the best of intentions, but realistically often make things worse.


We equally encounter approaches that are excellent strategies for behaviour support and de-escalation. These can also improve appropriate relationships between staff and the people they support. One excellent approach we encountered, was the just a single phrase. “Stop and step back!” This strategy was given when we were delivering behaviour support training to staff from a large group of children’s homes in the North East of England.


During a group work session, we asked what current management strategies they had in place for supporting children who were in crisis. Each home within the group appeared to have their own approaches. Some said they ignored the child because they were clearly just attention seeking. One group said that they “removed” the child to another “safe place” for them to calm down. One group said they told the child to sit down and stop “acting out”. Then came the final group, the group who had been quietly listening to the others.


They said. “We Stop and step back”. When we asked them to explain what that might look like to an external observer. We were told, “we stop intervening, we step back and we listen to the child.” “We want to work on the entire picture, before we engage in any strategies.” The other staff looked sceptical and one person said, “how are they going to learn how to behave, if you don’t do something?”. The response was, “how are we going to learn, unless we listen?”.


When we asked for an example, the staff described a young man they were supporting who had started to become agitated toward staff when they asked him to do things like pick up his clothes or do his homework. On the face of it, these sound like the sort of things that every teenager would get agitated about. However, when they stopped, stepped back and listened to him, it wasn’t the asking, it was the method of asking that was causing the agitation.

Childhood Trauma

He felt staff were too close to him and it reminded him of his childhood experiences at home. He explained as best he could that his step-father used to get close and stand over him to intimidate him, tell him to do something and if he didn’t respond quickly enough, hit him. Having staff stand too close to him reminded him of this. They listened and learned. They changed their behaviour and reduced his agitation.

Listen and Learn

Many children in care very rarely have someone in authority listen to them. So, how can we begin to understand the crisis a child is experiencing unless we listen to them? Whenever I teach, I often refer back to this course. They were a great example of staff who wanted to learn, wanted to support and used their skills within their work to support children. It came as no surprise to us, that although, they were often dealing with the most complex children in the service, they had the lowest number of restraints and the lowest number of incidents.


On Timian courses, we spend a great deal of time enabling staff to understand that dealing with crisis is easier if you understand why the person is in crisis. Understanding doesn’t make managing crisis easy, but a lack of understanding definitely makes it hard. The more we understand, the more we empathise with the person, the less behaviour management we need to do. This in turn can reduce the need for restraint. Our listening strategy has the goal of encouraging empathy within staff groups. It helps us look behind the behaviour.

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