Timian's SPACED model illustration

Understanding Our SPACED Model for De-Escalating A Person in Crisis

James Hourihan, Author

A cornerstone of our approach to diffusing and de-escalating a crisis situation is the SPACED model, which we’ve designed to equip our students with the tools they need to manage crisis situations safely and effectively. This model isn’t a rigid sequence but rather a framework of considerations that provide a structured approach to crisis intervention, tailored to the individual needs of those we support.

What is SPACED?

The SPACED model is our mnemonic representing Space, Posture, Avoid Touch, Calm, Eye Contact, and Diversion and serves as a comprehensive guide for our students throughout the crisis cycle. By adapting each element to the specific situation and preferences of the individual, our flexible approach ensures that any interventions are respectful, effective, and person-centered. The model is not performed in any order, but rather a series of questions to ask yourself when supporting someone in crisis.

Components of the SPACED Model

Space

Understanding and managing physical distances during interactions is crucial. There are four generally recognised types of space: intimate, personal, social, and public. In our line of work, particularly when supporting individuals in a health or social care setting, we frequently operate within personal or intimate spaces. Intimate and personal spaces are sensitive areas that require a personalised approach, and should only be entered with consent or under specific circumstances.

Most introductory interactions, such as a handshake, occur within what is considered personal space—approximately one to two arm’s lengths away. This is the typical distance at which much of our work occurs. However, situations such as assisting with personal care or individualised educational tasks might require entering someone’s intimate space, which is closer than an arm’s length. In these cases, it’s crucial for staff to either ask permission or clearly explain the need to decrease this distance, ensuring respect and understanding.

By employing empathy and understanding individual preferences, we can better navigate these physical distances, ensuring our interventions are both respectful and effective.

Posture

The posture of a staff member can communicate a great deal to a person in distress. Actions often speak louder than words—people tend to trust what they see over what they hear. This understanding, shapes our approach to posture within the SPACED model, where the goal is not preparation for conflict but rather to foster calm and understanding. We promote a posture that balances being relaxed and empathetic, without appearing confrontational.

An effective posture for defusing challenging situations involves appearing relaxed, passive, calm, and confident. We adopt a neutral posture that conveys calmness to those in our care. This involves maintaining a space of at least two arm’s lengths, keeping palms open and facing forward, with feet shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent. This stance should be fluid, ensuring that staff remain balanced and can shift in any direction.

Avoid Touch

Touch must be approached with care, particularly in crisis situations. It can be a powerful communication tool but also has potential for misinterpretation. Timian’s policy is clear: avoid touch unless it is part of a pre-established individual response strategy, or explicitly consented to by the individual.

Touch has a profound impact as a form of communication, not only conveying emotions but proving fundamental to human development. However, touching someone without their permission is a violation of their personal space. We always prioritise asking for permission and use touch only when necessary, mindful of its potential to invoke negative reactions.

Any physical contact should always be brief, lasting no longer than a few seconds, avoiding any misunderstandings about the intent. For individuals who might desire more contact, such as a hug, we follow clear guidelines that align with organisational policies. If appropriate, side-to-side hugs are less likely to be misinterpreted.

Calm

The appearance of calmness is essential under stressful and crisis situations. Techniques such as controlled breathing, maintaining a steady voice, and presenting a composed demeanor are vital skills for our staff to master, influencing the overall environment and helping de-escalate potential crises.

We differentiate between being calm and appearing calm. It’s a crucial distinction—under stress, natural human reactions may include increased heart rate and sweating. We don’t expect trained staff to suppress these innate responses completely, as fear and the fight-or-flight response are natural and are crucial for survival.

However, in the context of supporting someone, fleeing isn’t always an option. Instead, we focus on managing our outward expressions to appear calm, promoting a sense of safety and control. This approach involves a deep self-awareness of our stress responses, allowing us to maintain a composed exterior even when we feel anxious internally.

Eye Contact

Eye contact plays a crucial role in effective communication. While it’s often used to gauge truthfulness and understand others’ expressions, the appropriateness of eye contact can vary significantly across cultures and individual preferences.

For many, direct eye contact is a standard communication practice, believed to reflect honesty and engagement, this is not however universal. For instance, in some cultures, direct eye contact is avoided, especially with elders or outsiders, as a sign of respect or deference. Similarly, individuals with autism spectrum differences may find direct eye contact uncomfortable, preferring peripheral interactions instead.

It’s essential to consider these nuances when engaging with individuals, particularly in sensitive or high-stress environments. By being mindful of eye contact preferences, we can enhance our interactions, making them more inclusive and supportive. This practice is not just about observing but about actively respecting the diverse needs and backgrounds of those we serve.

Diversion

Diversion involves shifting the individual’s focus from a potential trigger towards topics or activities they find engaging. It’s crucial to select diversions that are appropriate and enjoyable for the individual, ensuring they are perceived as genuine and respectful rather than dismissive or patronising.

It’s important to recognise that not everyone responds well to diversion. Understanding the individual’s preferences and baseline behaviours is crucial to effectively employing this and other de-escalation tools. For consistency and effectiveness, all staff should be aware of the agreed-upon diversion strategies for each individual. This ensures everyone is equipped to support the person effectively, fostering better relationships and enhancing our overall support strategy.

Conclusion

Our SPACED model offers a robust framework for managing crises through a person-centered and respectful approach. Each component is crucial for effectively understanding and responding to crises, with a strong emphasis on the specific needs and conditions of the individual. Continuous adaptation and learning are essential for our staff to maximise the efficacy of their interventions and truly support individuals in distress.

We provide positive behaviour management training to staff in education, health and social care to effectively and safely support people in crisis. Our BILD Act Certified approach contributes to an improved long-term, sustainable environment. For more information, get in touch with a member of our team below.

About the author

James Hourihan set up Timian Learning and Development in 1994 and has over 30 years experience in delivering training programmes in positive behaviour management to staff across the UK and Overseas. He has developed training programmes which have been certified By BILD Act and approved by the RRN. James has a Bachelors in Development Studies and a Masters Degree in Social Sciences as well as a Postgraduate Certificate in Mental Disability. He also helped develop the BILD Physical Interventions Accreditation Scheme in 2002.

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