Mindset, consistency and language: how to create a culture of calm

Calm language is key when supporting and responding to behaviours that challenge. Adam Smith explains his approach to verbal and non-verbal communication

Author details

Adam Smith is an experienced teacher, having worked in both mainstream and special schools since graduating in 1994.

After relocating to Northern Ireland in 2000, he has worked in many special schools catering for children and young people...

You have no doubt heard that safety announcement on a plane about ‘securing your own oxygen mask before helping others’ or words to this effect.

I have often thought about this in the context of schools, especially where staff are responding to (not ‘dealing with’) behaviours that challenge (not ‘challenging behaviours’).

Why would I be thinking about safety announcements on a plane? Not because I’m desperate to go on the next holiday (which I’m certainly not right now) but I am ensuring I am aware of my needs, my behaviour and what I’m communicating to best meet the needs of the children and young people I serve.

Here is my initial pre-support checklist that I consider subconsciously and consciously for all my supportive interactions.

Does the culture and ethos I create make everyone feel safe, attached and contained?

All of us meeting the needs of children and young people have a duty of care to develop the culture and ethos that make them feel safe and contained and attached to the adults surrounding them.

You need to communicate the following messages all the time, and especially during a crisis or episode of a behaviour that challenges?

  • ‘I am/we are here to help.’
  • ‘I am/we are your circle of safety.’

It is crucial that these strategies are known to the pupils all the time and are not a new approach in a crisis situation.

Do I listen well, take on new ideas or notice a new way a person is acting when I’m feeling unhappy/in a crisis?

It starts with the everyday language and the strategies you have in place to create that calm culture all the time.

As a Team Teach trainer, I encouraged staff to think about:

  • body language
  • tone of voice
  • verbal signs
  • non-verbal cues
  • personal space
  • use of safe space
  • use of visuals
  • use of individualised strategies

to minimise the risk of crisis episodes and to respond to those moments which may involve a child or young person being in ‘crisis’.

What we want  in those moments is consistency, calmness and individualised proven strategies that we are familiar with unleashed by those supporting us.

Consequently, we need to build up confidence, familiarity in the strategies and the language we use at ALL times.

Am I aware of the impact of unhelpful language during a crisis on other and the ethos and culture?

It is not always the case that, during a crisis, all our training, work and continued communication of ‘we’re here to help’ comes naturally.

We often find that we or others around us have forgotten to have ‘fitted our/their own oxygen masks before helping others’. This is demonstrated by we or others:

  • becoming fixated on the behaviour and not the child behind it, when we need to establish what they might be communicating
  • becoming overwhelmed with our own unmet needs
  • forgetting all the body language and voice skills we have developed
  • not having all the necessary strategies.

Additionally, we may forget that we can positively or negatively alter the atmosphere simply by the way we communicate with our colleagues.

This communication will ultimately heighten or de-escalate the situation and either quickly bring back a state of calm or delay the whole process, risking further emotional and physical stress for the pupil and any others involved.

This is why it’s so important we have practised using calm language to avoid further stress and development of the crisis by having to hand agreed scripts to seek support.

For example, ‘(Child’s name) is in crisis, would you mind coming to help support (child’s name)?’

We don’t need to hear language which escalates the situation but – be honest –we’ve all heard it or said it at some point:

For example, ‘Can you come quick? (Child’s name) is kicking off, going mental, going bananas!’.

Imagine if you had heard someone say these negative words (or you have said them yourself) during a crisis and you were able to press pause, take a breather and ask yourself:

How am I feeling right now before I continue to support (child’s name)? Is my oxygen mask fitted first before I meet the needs of (child’s name)?’

Go on to ask yourself:

  • Am I feeling calm?
  • Am I feeling equipped, skilled and positive to bring this crisis to a successful, pupil-centred conclusion?
  • Am I aware of my own needs?
  • Will the relationship between myself and the young person be stronger by the end of this crisis?
  • Will I communicate ‘I’m here to help’ so the pupil feels that I am offering the circle of safety, the safest/best option for them to work with me so they return to a state of calm?
  • Is my body relaxed, my body language positive and the tone of voice I’m about to use going to facilitate successful de-escalation?
  • Is my body language also relaxed to reduce the risk of injury to me or others  if I have to implement any physical intervention in the best interest of the pupil?

If you are answering ‘No’ to these questions, you are far from being in the right mindset to implement all your incredible skills to bring the crisis to a successful conclusion.

Keep practising that helpful, pupil-centred, positive culture script and ensure you encourage others at all levels to do same. We are all responsible for meeting pupil needs and we are all in this together.

Now when you hear ‘We need support for (child’s name) as they are unfortunately in crisis’, imagine you could press pause, take a breather and ask the same questions again. Hopefully, the answer to all the above is a resounding ‘yes’. 

How does the young person benefit from this calm, positive and supportive language?

Positive, calm language creates the culture which fulfils our aim (and claim!) to contain physically (if necessary) and emotionally (definitely) while strengthening the attachment between ourselves and the pupils.

The pupils will:

  • experience the familiar individualised strategies that they have been involved in designing
  • be emersed in a culture and ethos that have their needs at the centre
  • be confident that the staff around them respect their needs enough to be conscious of how they communicate verbally and non-verbally
  • be aware that staff care so much  .

Key takeaways

  • It is essential that this verbal and non-verbal is practised in everyday, calm environments and that it is an agreed protocol with everyone.
  • Everyone must be aware of the language that is used to facilitate a positive mindset and staff encourage each other to use it.
  • If staff hear negative language being used around the school (such as ‘going mental, going bananas, kicking off’), they are reminded about scripts such as ‘they are in crisis, in need of your help or support’ and how these de-escalate the situation.
  • Remember that much of what we communicate is non-verbal. Practise so that a relaxed, open-palmed, non-folded arms approach comes naturally in those moments when it really matters to ensure you have your oxygen mask fitted first before coming to support anyone else.

Many thanks

To conclude could I, on behalf of the children and young people we all serve, thank you for considering the calm language used around them and thank you for ‘fitting your own oxygen mask in advance of supporting others’.

Useful link: Thinking Outside the Box podcast

As a reflective practitioner, I am continually looking for ways to improve the children and young people I serve.

I would like to acknowledge the podcast ‘Thinking Outside the Box’, where the presenters Marie and Katie (previous head and deputy head of a pupil referral unit) also refer to the oxygen mask hypothesis and I couldn’t agree with them more.

Their podcast has got me stretching my thinking further, especially the use of language. For example, the ‘thank you not please’ strategy is described in one of their podcasts.

I am currently working on this and highly recommend this strategy to gain pupil-centred, calm compliance.


Last Updated: 
13 Oct 2021