SUPPORT: A Program for Including Physically Aggressive Students
by Terry L. Smith
The West Virginia Safe Physical Intervention SUPPORT Techniques program, operating under the
auspices of the stateís Regional Educational Services Agency II (RESA II), is designed to enable teachers,
counselors, administrators, and other school personnel to deal effectively with physically aggressive,
impulsively violent students (Smith, 2003). In doing so, it favors social integration over isolation, avoidance
of restraint over restriction, and commonality over clinically labeled difference. In this way, when compared
with other social institutions, the SUPPORT program manifests the affirmative efforts of public education to
assure quality programs for all students in environments that maximize learning for everyone.
After all, community-based deinstitutionalization in mental health has stalled and, by some accounts,
has been reversed (Stroman, 2003). Community-based corrections, work release, and other less restrictive
alternatives to incarceration have fallen out of favor in criminal justice (Schmalleger, 2002). Similarly,
restrictive developments have characterized the recent history of the juvenile justice system (Roberts, 2004).
In public education, however, minimizing restrictions and promoting inclusion remain paramount
concerns (Gates, Boyter, and Walker, 1998). The Bush administrationís re-authorization of the 1965
Elementary and Secondary School Act, under the admonition ďNo Child Left Behind,Ē has re-emphasized
this commitment, binding it firmly to accountability measures and costly sanctions (Moyes and Moreno,
The federally mandated assumption is that effective schools can educate everyone (Bickel, Howley, and
Maynard, 2003). This applies even to actively disruptive, sometimes violent, students whose behavior is
uncontrollable by conventional procedures and practices.
Therefore, when a program is developed that enables educators routinely to work with difficult students
in a safe, non-damaging, non-restrictive fashion, it generates interest. Safe physical intervention SUPPORT
techniques constitute such a program. Consisting of a set of easy-to-teach, easy-to-learn, minimally
intrusive physical interventions, SUPPORT emphasizes de-escalation of angry episodes and maintenance of
established and workable social relationships (Smith, 2003).
Safe physical intervention SUPPORT techniques are designed to be effective while assuring the
safety and dignity of educators and students. Its final objective is inclusion of all in a common social and
Safe Physical Intervention SUPPORT Techniques
Teachers in todayís schools often face danger because of angry, aggressive, or violent students. Although
they are expected to deal with these students, few teachers know how to handle a situation which becomes
dangerous because of a studentís inability to control his rage, aggression, or behavior. Every day teachers
walk into classrooms expecting to teach only to discover a student who refuses to cooperate, who wants
to hurt someone, or who cannot express his emotions in a constructive manner. What should the teacher
do when violence erupts in his classroom? How does the teacher escape from injury without injuring the
student? How does the teacher keep the other students safe when the angry or aggressive student becomes
The teacher who knows how to handle such situations can benefit from safe physical intervention
SUPPORT techniques, which can maximize the teacherís ability to avoid injury. They also provide hints for
spotting aggressive students before they become physically dangerous. In addition, the teacher can minimize
the chances of a student having an unfair advantage in an encounter. Each safe physical intervention
SUPPORT technique has steps that are easy to master and perform (Smith, 1999). The teacher must practice
each step of a technique until the process is automatic. When the technique is automatic, the teacher can take
calm, controlled action in a crisis situation.
Not all interventions result from aggression and violence. Sometimes a student becomes unable to
protect or save himself from a dangerous situation. For instance, if a student is prone to panic attacks and
freezes up when frightened, he may be unable to move himself to safety in the event of a crisis, such as a fire.
With the intervention techniques the trained teacher can help the student relocate to safety without getting
hurt in the process. Many times, students become frightened and begin to lash out at anyone who approaches
them. While this behavior is certainly dangerous, it is not motivated by aggression or anger. Regardless of
the root cause of the behavior, it is still potentially harmful to the teacher and/or the student. After learning
the safe physical intervention SUPPORT techniques, the teacher can safely approach such a student, get close
enough to help him, and assist him in moving away from the source of his fear (Smith, 2000). If a student
becomes ill, weak, or faint, the teacher can utilize these techniques to assist the student in a move to a better
location. The same techniques that have their origins in dealing with negative situations can be used to
create positive outcomes.
After working his way through the techniques, the teacher will be a more confident and competent
member of the faculty. Teachers who know what to do when a situation escalates into a crisis are beneficial
to their fellow faculty members, their students, and themselves. If a teacher takes the safe physical
intervention SUPPORT techniques seriously and makes them an automatic part of his teaching behaviors
through training and practice, he will become a more complete teacher. Described below is a capsule
summary of the elements of SUPPORT training.
The human body has several vulnerable and sensitive areas. A strike, blow, or hit to any of these areas
can almost instantaneously immobilize or incapacitate the victim. Even a stretch, pull, or squeeze of certain
sensitive areas, such as the joints or the throat, can have equally devastating results.
Some students know how and where to inflict maximum damage to the body and willingly and
deliberately choose to inflict this damage. Other students may cause injuries as a subconscious or accidental
reaction to stress. While they may not attack or injure with malicious intent, they are just as capable of
hurting a teacher as those who plan an assault.
Just as teachers need to know where and how they can be hurt, they also need to know how to avoid
or escape from serious injury. Many teachers are vulnerable to injury or attack because of their manner
of standing. Others are injured when they walk into an aggressive situation in an unprotected stance.
A teacherís improper stance can create an added advantage for the angry or aggressive student who
physically assaults the teacher. Paying attention to stance can make the teacher less vulnerable to physical
confrontations with students.
There are 12 major vulnerable areas of the human body. Knowing the most likely places for a dangerous
or serious injury provides the teacher with a foundation for knowing what to protect by correcting his stance,
movement, or actions.
The teacherís facial expression can play a major role in reducing the studentís anxiety and aggression.
Although frightened and anxious thoughts may be coursing through the teacherís mind, his face must show
a calm and confident expression. The angry or aggressive student reacts to a situation which he perceives as
stressful. A calm expression on the teacherís face may help reduce that stress for the student. If the teacher
appears anxious or frightened, the student may become even more aggressive because he feels the teacher is
not in control of the situation.
The teacherís eyes also help control the situation in the protective stance. The teacherís focus should be
on the area of the studentís chest or waistline. The teacher should not focus his eyes on the studentís eyes or
face. Gazing into another personís eyes or face in a stressful situation is often interpreted as an aggressive
action that can cause heightened anger or aggression in the student.
The teacherís arms should be held close to the body in the area between the chest and waistline. This
position reduces the studentís ability to gain a hand hold or leverage on the teacher in order to grab and push
or pull the teacher off balance. It also protects the teacher from potential strikes to the rib cage. When the
arms are held above the chest level, they are in a potentially aggressive position from which the arms and
fists can strike or flare out.
The teacherís hands should be held at the front of the body, between the chest and waistline, with the
palms open and facing outward. This gesture is non-aggressive. It also provides the teacher with a means of
protecting the vulnerable areas of his body by moving his hands up or down as needed to protect other areas.
Never clench the hands into fists. For one thing, a fist is an aggressive gesture. A fist also increases the
teacherís available wrist area, which the student can grab and use to push or pull the teacher.
A teacher should lower the hips slightly to help stabilize the body and create a lower center of gravity.
The lowered hips also provide power and buoyancy to the teacherís movements and help provide additional
leverage for the teacher. By lowering the hips, the teacher also becomes a smaller target for the student.
The teacher should stand with his legs shoulder width apart. One leg should be slightly in back of (but
not directly behind) the other. The teacherís knees should be slightly bent. This position provides the teacher
with stability, leverage, buoyancy, flexibility, and mobility.
The teacherís weight should be on the balls of the feet, not back on the heels or flat-footed. This
increases the teacherís buoyancy and mobility. If the teacherís weight is back on the heels or he is standing
flat-footed, it is easier for the student to push or pull him off balance and more difficult for the teacher to
The teacher must be sure to stand correctly. If he leans forward, he can be pulled forward by the student;
if he sways backward, he can be pushed backward by the student.
The teacher should never give ground or space to the angry or aggressive student; he should stay in close
to the student. Giving ground creates space where the distance of a strike or kick can gain momentum. The
only reason to move away from the student at all is if the teacher plans to move away from him completely.
The teacher should never turn his back to the student. He should always have a full view of the student.
It is best to stand at a 45į angle to the student. This reinforces the non-aggressive aspects of not focusing the
teacherís eyes directly on the studentís eyes or face; it also makes the teacherís body less vulnerable and less
intrusive than in a face-to-face stance with the student.
Dealing With Physical Aggression
The average episode of physically aggressive behavior often ignites with a split-second reaction, lasts
for only 30 seconds to a minute, and evolves within a two or three foot space. However, this brief, rapidly
occurring event can have a major, long-lasting impact on a number of people. It affects the student who
attacks, the teacher who is his target, and any other students, faculty, or staff who are in the vicinity of the
attack. Regardless of cause or effect, guilt or innocence, attack or defense, the danger is real and rarely
ďsorted outĒ within the time span of the brief episode. Angry, aggressive, and violent behaviors have an alltoo-
real potential to endanger lives.
Since such behaviors are not always predicted or expected, how can the teacher best prepare for such an
The first line of defense is to attempt to prevent such incidents. Teachers need to learn the signals of a
potentially aggressive student. Teachers must also seek to change things about themselves and their behavior
so as to lessen the chances of an attack. Teachers need to consult district policy as to their responsibilities in
an aggressive and violent situation that resists all of a teacherís efforts to prevent it from occurring.
Finally, the teacher needs to learn proper and effective intervention techniques to use as described in this
essay when a student does not respond to the teacherís preventive efforts. The teacher who is comfortable
and adept with safe physical intervention SUPPORT techniques and movements can defuse a crisis with
minimal disruption and danger. An unprepared teacher can actually make a bad situation worse by reacting
in the wrong way.
Spotting the Angry or Aggressive Student
The alert teacher can identify potentially angry or aggressive students by several signals from the student.
These indicators of anger or aggression may be the only warning the teacher has of an imminent attack.
Knowing what to look for can make the difference between falling victim and taking control.
The alert and informed teacher can use his knowledge of these changes to assess a studentís emotional
state and made decisions regarding proper intervention. Using this knowledge can keep the teacher from
overreacting to a non-aggressive situation or being taken by surprise in the event of an attack.
- The angry or aggressive student demonstrates behaviors and body language that indicate that he is
angry or aggressive. The student is most likely unaware that he gives off these signals. However,
some behaviors or body language are integral parts of the physical process of anger and aggression;
even knowing about them cannot prevent them from being displayed.
- The angry or aggressive student often refuses to look the teacher in the eyes. He focuses on other
objects, people, or places; he may also play with nearby objects, such as pencils, staplers, erasers, or
books. This behavior is a point of deception intended to draw the teacherís attention and energies
toward someone or something else so that the teacher is less focused on the student and his behavior.
- The studentís hands will most likely be at or above his chest line. This location is an aggressive
position from which the studentís arms and hands can easily flare out and flail at the teacher.
- The angry or aggressive student may also lean toward the teacher. If this leaning occurs as an
isolated action, it may simply be a demonstration of interest in what the teacher has to say. If it
occurs in concert with the other indicators of aggression, it takes on a threatening meaning.
- The angry or aggressive student also needs a greater personal space than usual. In the United States
the average comfort zone between persons is about one armís length. As anger and aggression rise,
the need for more space between the student and others increases as well.
- The angry or aggressive student also frequently warns of an attack with bodily changes that he cannot
alter or control, no matter how hard he tries. These changes involve the face, voice, skin, and body
odors. The teacher should be familiar with these indicators because they are difficult to disguise
or hide. The student can force his eyes to focus on the teacher. He can pay attention to what the
teacher says. He can place his arms in a non-aggressive position. However, the changes in his face,
voice, skin, and body odor are hard to deny, and they can provide the teacher with some of the most
accurate information about the studentís emotional state.
Spotting the Angry or Aggressive Teacher
Many of the same indicators the teacher uses to spot an angry or aggressive student are equally valid
when applied to the teacher. A teacher who is unaware of these indicators is much more likely to attract
aggressive behaviors from a student because the teacher is also giving off aggressive messages. If a student
is prone to angry or aggressive behaviors, he will most likely be sensitive to messages of anger or aggression
from the teacher. In fact, these indicators may provide all the reason an angry or aggressive student needs
to justify going on the attack. If he perceives that the teacher is in an aroused emotional state, the student
may take this as a green light for acting on his own anger and aggression. The teacher who is aware of the
indicators of aggression that he can change has a better chance of defusing the studentís anger. By giving off
deliberately non-aggressive signals, the teacher can potentially lower the studentís stress levels and avoid an
attack. The teacherís demeanor must be his "message" to the student.
The main behaviors the teacher can change are the same ones over which the student has some control.
These include the focus of the teacherís eyes and attention, the location of the teacherís hands and arms, and
the teacherís body language. An especially important factor is the degree of closeness which the teacher will
tolerate or define as his personal space or comfort zone. The teacher should keep in mind that an angry or
aggressive student wants more distance from other people than one who is not angry or aggressive. While the
teacher needs to be mindful of the studentís personal space needs, one of the key strategies in the protective
stance, the guiding movements, and the releases is that the teacher needs to be up close to the student.
Ways the Teacher Can Reduce Student Aggression
Indicators of teacher aggression are physical behaviors that the teacher can change such as the focus of
the eyes, the attention to what the student is saying, the
leaning of the body, the location of the hands and arms,
and the accepted personal space or comfort zone. The
teacher can consciously control these behaviors to reduce
the studentís aggression. In other words, if the teacher
does not send out aggressive messages to the student, the
student will have less reason to be angry or aggressive.
A reduction in the teacherís angry or aggressive signals
can result in a similar reduction in the studentís anger
or aggression. Once again, while both the teacher and
the student can control certain signals, neither the teacher nor the student has control over other signals.
Therefore, the teacher must maximize the messages he can control to minimize the chance of a confrontation
The teacher should focus his eyes in the area of the studentís chest or waistline. By listening to and
hearing what the student is really saying, the teacher can give him the attention he needs. Many acts of anger
and aggression originate in the feeling that no one is listening to the student or taking what he has to say
seriously. The teacher should not lean toward the student; he should assume the protective stance discussed
in the previous section. This stance does not have to be exaggerated or obvious to be effective. The teacher
should be sure to have his hands in the area between his chest and waistline, with the hands open and the
palms facing outward. This posture is less threatening to the student. It also provides the teacher with a
rapid and effective means of protecting his face and lower body from an attack.
It is very important for the teacher to remain alert at all times for a studentís potential angry or aggressive
behavior. Knowing the indicators of an angry or aggressive student enables the teacher to be prepared for
actual aggression before it occurs. The teacher who knows the normal behaviors of a student can detect
changes that indicate that the student is reacting to a situation in an unusual manner. Subtle changes, such
as a different body or mouth odor, a sweaty upper lip, changes in the voice and its pitch, or the need for
increased personal space can provide the alert or informed teacher with invaluable information regarding the
studentís emotional state. Small changes in the teacherís posture, voice quality, and hand position can reduce
the studentís perception of a threat from the teacher. Anything that the teacher can do to reduce tension or
prevent an aggressive situation from occurring is worthwhile. The teacher should always keep in mind that
the goal is to utilize the least restrictive means of intervention that will produce the most effective reduction
in aggressive behavior.
The purpose of the article is to share some information about a highly successful program dealing with
an important problem not often attended to by service agency staff. It is not the purpose of the article to
provide training so elements of the program are provided descriptively rather than in detail.
The program has been thoroughly researched using both quantitative and qualitative studies. Data
evaluated was collected from 3,217 participants in safe physical intervention SUPPORT techniques trainings
held in 11 states and 23 counties over 15 years, beginning in 1989.
A copy of the study or further information about the program can be obtained from the author. Helping
teachers deal with angry and aggressive students in an inclusive classroom has proven very helpful to
school districts in our area and the program may well respond to an unmet need in other service agency
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