Every year, you have at least one student who shows escalating behavior. Your trusty list of de-escalation strategies is ineffective at stopping this disruptive behavior. The reason good strategies, like providing choice or consistently implementing consequences, don’t work 100% of the time is because they are being used regardless of the context of the situation. Providing a choice when a student is at peak escalation may work or it may get something thrown at you.
So the escalating behaviors continue, staff are frustrated that nothing is working, your well-crafted schedule is a joke, the classroom feels tense, and the student at the center of it all is in crisis.
Now, I have never eliminated every instance of escalating behavior. No one should make it seem like a simple thing to do. Lots of training and research helped me find a more efficient and effective approach to managing an escalating situation.
But guess what? Even then I needed more than a good professional development session. I wasn’t with the child 100% of the time. The missing variable was all the adults working together to respond consistently and with an understanding of what was causing the escalation. So, we created a coordinated team behavior response plan based on how the student’s behavior actually progressed, not just what our behavior system said.
Before we get into how to develop a coordinated team response plan, you need to be familiar with what the escalating behavior cycle looks like. There are 7 phases.
During this stage, everything is going as expected. The student is cooperative and engaged. They are responsive to directions, completing work, and interacting positively. This is when someone should come do an observation. 😉
Strategies: Explicitly taught and reinforced classroom expectations, warm interactions, work at a moderately challenging level, regular teacher attention.
Well, that perfect calm stage couldn’t last forever, right? Something has happened that has upset the student AND it has gone unaddressed. Those triggers are different for everyone and can be so difficult to catch.
- Negative interaction with an adult
- Negative interaction with a peer
- Change in schedule or activity
- Disappointment, expectations unmet
- High rate of failure on a task
- Confusion about an assignment
- Low preference activities
- Being told no, or being denied something
- Interactions with a person they don’t like
- Unwanted attention from peers or adults
- Environment variables: lighting, noise level, seating arrangement
- Medication changes
- Unmet physical needs: hunger, thirst, sleep
- Anxiety about school or activities
- Negative events at home: arguments with parents or siblings, divorce, new sibling, moving
Big Goal: Intervene Early
And the escalating behavior begins. In this phase, the student is often unfocused and disengaged. They may be intermittently participating, fidgeting, or staring off.
The tells for your student will be unique to them. Note which behaviors surface when your student is becoming dysregulated. What behaviors are they exhibiting after a trigger occurs?
This is where you want to intervene when possible. This is when your support will be the most efficient and effective. The more you analyze what triggers a student and what their early disregulation looks like, the quicker you will be able to address what occurred.
Strategies: Adult attention to the unaddressed concern, distraction, humor, coincidental removal from situation, redirection to an easy task, reengage with behavior plan, provide simple choices.
Be careful here. Depending on how long the student has been agitated, strategies that would have worked initially may escalate the situation.
Big Goal: Prevent Further Escalation
The student is focused at this stage but in all the wrong ways. They may be argumentative or refusing to work. They may be interfering with instruction, calling out, ripping papers, arguing with peers, or producing no work or poor quality work.
Unfortunately, this is likely when the teacher first realizes there is a problem. Even more unfortunate, teachers are likely to respond in a strict manner about these behaviors. Look at that, a power struggle is born.
There are ways to bring a student back down to the calm phase. Which strategies you use will depend on the classroom routines and the behaviors the student is showing.
Does the room have a Take a Break Spot or use a self-regulation curriculum? Students may be directed to take a minute or use a calming strategy. It may be as simple as asking the student to complete a small portion of the task and then checking back in. These strategies should be familiar to a student before this moment.
At this stage, you are looking for any signs of re-engagement. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Reinforce movements in the right direction.
The biggest pushback I get is that not responding with consequences seems inconsistent. Inconsistency is the hallmark of poor management, isn’t it? This is a misunderstanding. I’m asking teachers and staff in this phase to implement strategies consistently that match the phase. Blanket responses regardless of where the student is functioning is a recipe for escalating behaviors.
This absolutely does not mean that there is not a discussion or consequence at some point. Just not in the middle of the acceleration phase and in front of an audience.
Strategies: Adults remain calm, provide choices, redirect to another task, focus on calming strategies, remove the student in a non-confrontational way from the situation, use a calm voice, empathize, use simple and upbeat language.
Big Goal: Keep everyone safe
Well, things have gotten to a crisis point. During this phase, constantly be aware that the student is in flight or fight mode. Their ability to process and make good decisions is limited. They are out of control and you have to help them get back in control. That does not mean demanding compliance.
Some schools will have explicit plans for how to handle aggressive or destructive behavior in the classroom. Plans that call for student removal for an extended period of time (in-school suspension) can be problematic as they may reinforce behaviors if the student is looking to escape a situation.
Strategies: Isolate the student however possible, either removing them or removing the class.
When talking to the student, be a broken record and don’t process anything. All the focus is on getting them calm.
If you can get them to belly breathe, have them focus on putting their hand on their stomach to make sure they are breathing slow.
Use 1-3 simple steps shown on your fingers. (1, we calm down. 2, we talk about it, …).
Keep yourself safe. Watch your proximity. Have another staff member with you. One person should be in charge.Please make sure someone in your building has de-escalation and restraint training. Be up-to-date on your state’s guidelines regarding student aggression and staff response.
Big Goal: Get Back to Calm
During this time, students are past peak escalation. They will be more compliant and you can use that to keep them moving back to calm.
Strategies: Have a student move to a more isolated spot and provide them with an easy to complete task. This gains compliance, gives them something to focus on, and provides some breathing room. This task should be short and simple. Reminding students of their calming strategies can also be helpful.
Back at Basecamp
Big Goal: Address What Happened
This is when you address behaviors that violated expectations. The student is calm and is expecting their behavior to be addressed.
Strategies: Approach the student by seeking to gain a clearer understanding of what led to the escalation. Take ownership for your role in the escalation (e.g. what signs you missed, how you initially responded). Engage them in how to repair the situation. Ensure parents are aware of what happened and the resolution.
Direct Coordinated Response
Big Goal: Consistently Implement a Team Behavior Response Plan
For students with repetitive escalating behavior, create a Team Behavior Response Plan. When staff are not on the same page with how to respond to a student, it can easily create escalating situations. In my position as a school psychologist, I was often called in once a student was already accelerating or at peak escalation. All I could do was get the student through the incident and try to figure out what happened.
Teachers may have inadvertently caused a student to escalate by simply implementing their behavior management system without realizing what had happened. Take the time to analyze what is causing these extreme escalations and decide as a team the most effective ways to bring the student back to calm, maintain a positive classroom culture, and continue to help the student build self-regulation skills.
The Team Response Plan outlines each phase of the Escalating Behavior Cycle, what the student does in each phase, likely triggers, effective teacher responses for each phase. The plan should also be in line with school discipline procedures and have a method for communicating incidents with parents.
It is most effective if the team meets together to discuss what is happening during each phase, what is likely to cause the student to escalate, and the most effective strategies each person has found. It is important that no staff member feel like they are to blame. If a student is more likely to escalate with them, then it is just a problem to be solved.
Another great addition to the Team Behavior Response Plan is a short document identifying what skills the student is lacking and where direct instruction should focus. If a student becomes upset about a peer not working with them, then they may me to work on emotional awareness and coping skills to manage that feeling.
Importantly, the Team Behavior Response Plan is not a substitute for a student’s individual behavior intervention plan. It is in addition. Use a behavior plan during the calm phase and the agitation phase. It has no real place when a student is escalating or at peak escalation. It also can reignite a student if they are reminded of lost privileges during the de-escalation phase.
How do you minimize escalating behavior?
Training Opportunities and Resources
The IRIS Center at Vanderbilt: Understanding the Acting Out Cycle (In-depth examples of the 7 Phase Acting Out Cycle)
For Classroom Management Strategies for School Counselors, check out Counselor Chelsey’s post.
For Crisis Resources, check out School Counselor Stephanie’s post.