The Totalitarian Mindset and Serving Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disabilities

Working with students with emotional and behavioral disabilities (EBD) is a challenging profession. In talking to my colleagues and university students, I often emphasize that it is is more of a vocation or calling verses a job or career. It requires a select type of individual who will remain consistent with youth and can both connect with and have a rational detachment to seeing students both at their best and their worst.

That worst can play out in many ways. Sometimes, it is an intense sadness that we, as professionals, can feel. I have a couple of students that, when they are dysregulated, staff will have them engage with their parents to help reregulate them. We have one student in our program currently who sees this, and it seems he will sometimes also ask to call his mom. This fourth-grade student seems to want nothing but to have his mother show an interest in his life. The mother responses and presented relationship seems to be lacking in depth. She presents herself in a way that both shows a lack of skill at connecting with him and seems to show a disregard for his desired connection.

Not only are there heartbreaking moments that we get to be engaged in our students’ lives, but also dangerous and very high-intensity situations. I’ve been sworn at, called more names, and insulted so frequently that I think sometimes I forget that it is pretty outrageous behavior. I’ve been punched, threatened with objects, had objects thrown at me, kicked, bit, and spit on many times over the years. When students become so escalated and out of control, they lose rationality. Sometimes the only safe thing to do for everybody is to assist in calming the student down physically. This is done through physical restraint and or seclusion. Physical intervention is always a last resort, and we are often working to de-escalate the situation prior to having to physically respond through verbal de-escalation. Frequently, this means finding ways to meet their needs before they lose their rationality and start acting out. It might be recognizing that they don’t understand the work being asked for them to complete, intervening to stop peer conflict, allowing them to meet their physical needs. I tell my staff sometimes that if a kid needs to sleep, let them. If the student sleeping becomes a pattern, then there needs to be some intervention to work with the family or in some other way to make sure that they get enough rest at night. The reasons, circumstances, and context to when students start to act out are complex and full of many potential underlying causes.

The discussion of Montuori (2005) around the totalitarian mindset has some cross over with both classroom mindsets and working with students with EBD. I would propose that the hardworking and compassionate staff I have had the pleasure to work with do not fall under the totalitarian mindset. However, there is still some connection to the themes that are interesting to examine.

One aspect of classroom management, especially in classrooms serving students with EBD, is the need for control within the classroom environment. There is a need to have predictability. Most EBD classroom teachers have set schedules that are often visual and posted in the room. They have consistent systems in place of reinforcements to encourage positive behaviors and punishments to discourage negative behaviors like Skinners (1953) described operant conditioning. This kind of strict structure feels almost as if it could be that staff needs to be an authoritarian regime in implementing it, but also finding ways to offer students both voice and choice within this highly structured environment.

The discussion that Montuori (2005) describes related to emergencies and threats that seem to require a reduction in ambiguity and complexity to fall within a totalitarian way of thinking also connects with serving students with EBD. Many classrooms serving students with EBD have a framework that staff follows to help de-escalate a student. When I was working in the K-12 educational system, we used the Nonviolent Crisis Intervention offered by the Crisis Prevention Institute, and in the clinical setting I am currently working in we follow the Management of Aggressive Behavior (MOAB). One theme for these and other literature around de-escalation strategies is the understanding that as people escalate, they lose their rationality. Before the loss of rationality happens, there is frequently a lesser escalated change in behavior that is sometimes referred to as anxiety (although not in the clinical and diagnostic meaning of the word). It is a visual change in somebody’s behavior, that is a need for relief. Best practices encourage workers to help find ways of being supportive and relieving their needs. As they lose more rationality, the encouraged response is to become more directive. To use limit setting strategies or giving clear directives. This directive approach loses its ambuiguity and becomes black or white in its approach. When there is a complete loss of rationality and control, where somebody is demonstrating dangerous and risk behavior, the only viable response is to become even more directive and even physically set limits through restraint or seclusion. These moments happen quickly and can be traumatic for both the staff and the student. There is also a compression of mental space and time for staff to respond.

In most ways, staff don’t follow these authoritarian concepts. There is no out-group or scapegoating that should happen. For the classrooms I serve in after there is somebody who acts out, we help them to find restoration. They might have to clean up things that they destroyed or apologize to people they have hurt. We debrief with them about what happened, why it happened, what alternatives would be, and make commitments to make other choices the next time. We focus on getting them back into the classroom and reunifying them with the group. While there could also be a connection with the classroom structure and its centralization of power, it is one that is held with respect and multi-dimensionality towards the students.

I would not propose that staff working with these high need sets of students have a totalitarian mindset, but there are some interesting overlaps between what is often considered best practices and this mindset. It is worthy of consideration in why we do things in this way and if it is the best practices.


Montuori, A. (2005). How to make enemies and influence people: anatomy of the anti-pluralist, totalitarian mindset. Futures, 37(1), 18-38.

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and Human Behavior.


This essay was originally used as a small group discussion post for TSD 8014 - Creativity and Personal Transformation.