Frontline Initiative: DSPs Using the NADSP Code of Ethics

What Message are You Sending Just by Being There?


Craig Baker is a director of the Behavioral Health Program at Black Hills Works in Rapid City, South Dakota. Craig can be reached at

A man with short gray hair is standing, wearing a cream-and-black plaid shirt. He is looking at the camera and smiling.

Craig Baker, author.

When it comes to working as a direct support provider, I am new to the direct support profession, but after working approximately 20 years in the criminal justice system, I am used to working with people facing challenges. Over the years, I saw the justice system evolve toward person-centered thinking, behavioral analysis, alliance building, collaboration, and evidence-based practices. The evolution served me well when I made a career transition into the world of developmental disabilities. My role began as the supervisor of the Learning Institute within Black Hills Works, Rapid City, South Dakota. Over time, I transitioned into the role of Director of Behavioral Health within the same agency.

My experience recently paid off in a situation when I used my skills involving self-awareness, intervention, and presence. When I talk about presence, I am referring to the concept of the energy or aura one brings to any given situation. Presence can be positive (calming/supportive/protective) or it can be negative (controlling/dominating/aggressive). Body language, tone of voice, listening skills, and a multitude of additional factors impact how others perceive our presence.

A large man who we supported was repeatedly displaying aggressive and threatening behavior while attending day services at the Learning Institute. He behaved this way when faced with uncomfortable situations, loud noises, or crowds, or if he believed he was being yelled at or bullied. He would respond with yelling, cursing, exaggerated gestures, and body movements meant to intimidate others. Staff were clearly fearful.

Staff responded to the occurrences with raised voices and authoritative body language, which prompted him to become even more aggressive. I began developing an approach I had used many times in my previous career to minimize perceived aggression. First, I made myself “smaller.” I sat near the person, while assuming neutral or open body language—open arms and hands, slightly slouching, and leaning back. My eyes remained at his level or slightly lower. I used a low tone of voice, slowed my speech, and simply asked, “Doing okay?” As we slowly conversed, the person began to mirror my body language, tone of voice, and calm demeanor. He was immediately able to refocus his energy and realize he overreacted to the situation. Within minutes, he was calm, laughing, and moved on to discussing completely different topics. My approach quickly and easily influenced the situation and regained control. All threats were eliminated by intentionally sending the person a calm, non-threatening message, which invited him to stay calm as well.

The positive outcome was that the person developed self-awareness. He began removing himself from stressful situations before “blowing up.”

Staff observed the interaction, witnessed the immediate results, and sought guidance. I began coaching staff on body language, tone of voice, safe positioning, and neutral approaches to conversation. As staff experimented with the skills, they witnessed positive results for both them and the person mentioned in this story. The positive outcome was that the person developed self-awareness. He began removing himself from stressful situations before “blowing up.” He would inform staff when he needed to get away for a moment, and he would talk about controlling his emotions by doing so. He also began mirroring the behaviors and approaches of staff, in that when he did become frustrated, he would try to express himself in a lower, calmer tone of voice, and with controlled body movements. When describing his new coping skills, he proudly explained, “That is what a man does.” He felt he was practicing adult behavior, and he was proud of himself.

In the end, the person supported developed a new skill: He learned to control his own reactions and impact the reactions of those around him. I promoted and helped him achieve physical, intellectual, emotional, and social self-determination. Additionally, I promoted team development and helped staff add new conflict management skills. Everyone expanded their skillsets and experienced immediate successful results.

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