Basic Instincts Run Amok

Once upon a snowy Saturday, an innocent woman was faced with peril at the hands of her coworkers. I don’t want to mention her name, but she’s tall with curly graying hair and really loves cats. Okay, okay, it was me. I confess, already. Just be forewarned that what you are about to read is embarrassing but true. It happened recently when I attended a workshop in which my coworkers and I were trained on a new behavior management protocol for when our students—who all have special needs—become disregulated, meaning their behavior escalates to the point where they aren’t in control of their emotions and could unintentionally cause harm to themselves or a staff member. I can honestly say that although I was overtired, under-caffeinated, and, as usual, in pain, the training was worth it. As for the embarrassment, I probably could have done without that.

We spent the morning being led through a PowerPoint presentation that filled our tired minds with tons of information about this new way of dealing with challenging behaviors. Then, in the afternoon, we practiced scenarios using the various sizes of padded shields that are an essential part of this program. My coworkers looked like Viking warriors going into battle while the three colleagues who ran the training (who had been trained in the program and also, I believe, attended acting classes at the Yale Drama School) pretended to be the upset students. The acting of these coworkers was so good that I now firmly believe one of these individuals was a berserker in a previous life. The woman scared the hell out of me.

Anyway, there we all were, taking turns with these shields as we went through different scenarios. First, we were supposed to hold the shield in front of us as our berserk coworkers came at us and grabbed it, then we were to drop the shield and sidestep the attacker. My coworkers all did the fancy backward two-step, dropped the shield the minute it was grabbed, and gracefully sidestepped out of harm’s way. I, on the other hand, held on to that shield like a dog with a favorite toy, tugging and pulling it back toward me as if my very life depended on maintaining possession of the thing. “You fight like a poet!” one of my coworkers yelled from across the room. Intended or not, I took this as a compliment. I mean, think about it: Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, and me, all wielding pens and typewriters instead of shields. That would be epic.

Then we were to work in groups of three; two with shields and one without so we could practice protecting one another. I watched as several trios worked in tandem to protect themselves and each other. One partner dropped a shield, then another would pick it up and run over to cover and protect the shield-less person. All good. Then it was my turn. Instead of helping my colleagues, however, I hid behind one of our speech therapists. A woman who is an entire foot shorter than me. One of my coworkers said, “So exactly what sports did you play in high school?” at which point I had a sudden flashback to eighth grade, when the girls’ basketball coach sidled up to me in the hallway to recruit me for his team, thinking that I’d be a natural. And how could I not be? I mean, my brother was our league’s most valuable player. My brother received a basketball scholarship to college. My brother was tall. I was tall. What could go wrong? This coach got the surprise of his life when he saw me at practice, ducking and holding my hands in front of my face because I don’t appreciate objects being hurled at me. Like basketballs. Plus I hate to sweat and I’m really clumsy, so sports were never really my thing.

Back at the workshop, the next task was to simply hold the shield in front of us as we backed away from our berserk coworker. Again I watched as my colleagues masterfully carried out this exercise with ease. I began to think they had all been practicing this without my knowledge. Am I being punked? This was the only explanation as to why they all looked like they totally knew what they were doing. As for me, I took three backward steps, turned on my heel and ran out of the room. Someone joked that we need to install new locks on all of the school doors just to keep me in.

Yet as much as I love to kid around, I did not do any of this to get a laugh. It was just me, faced with fight or flight mode, and my overwhelming instinct was to flee. I’ve been injured by students twice, but I would never, could never, and will never blame the students for what they did. Both were nonverbal students with autism acting out of instinct. With no way to say, “Hey, I really don’t want to do this art project,” or “Um, you are standing WAY too close to me,” these students did what they knew how to do to communicate. They did not set out to intentionally hurt me. They were just reacting to something they perceived as negative.

So I guess my students and I are really not that much different. We all possess strong instincts and sometimes no amount of rational thinking or gentle cajoling can move us from the undeniable urge to scream or lash out or simply run out of the room. Sometimes we become upset and disregulated, sometimes we duck out of harm’s way, sometimes we just embarrass ourselves in front of others. We’re all just doing what we can to get along in this world. Yet in a crisis situation (and I’ve been in several), I know my instinct will always be to put my students first. As flawed as my technique will undoubtedly be, I will do everything I can to keep them safe. And that’s nothing to be embarrassed about.

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