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REMEMBER: When a student is escalating, our response will always impact the situation one way or another.
Of course, no educator or counselor or parent or person of any sort, for that matter, would ever want to intentionally escalate a student. In the heat of a tense situation, however, we often inadvertently say and do things that we “know” are wrong. Not because we want to. Not because we aren’t trained to do other more appropriate things. But because we are reacting without a lot of deliberate thought. Because we, too, are upset.
Following is a list of behaviors many of us accidentally do when a student is escalating:
- We raise our voice.
- We give an ultimatum. “Do this or else…”
- We use sarcasm.
- We get emotional, too…usually aggravated or frustrated at best, angry at worst.
- We get in the student’s personal space.
- We touch the student.
- We correct the student publicly, in front of his peers.
- We talk, talk, talk, trying to reason with the student.
We are only going to focus on one of these behaviors, talking. Why? Because often THE single best de-escalation strategy to use when a student is escalating is to be quiet. STOP TALKING to or about the student. Way too often, educators try to talk down an escalating student. We try to reason with someone who is so emotional that all reason is temporarily suspended. This, more often than not, backfires and has the completely opposite effect, escalating the student. Yet, we continue to talk. And talk. And talk.
So, please, STOP. STOP TALKING. Give the student time. Let his sympathetic nervous system, which has gotten aroused as he has escalated, calm down. This will result in the student getting into his rational mind instead of being in his emotional mind. His frontal lobes will begin to make decisions rather than his amygdala. Allowing a student time to calm down physiologically will result in the student calming down emotionally. Every time.
To accomplish this, calmly and quietly say something as simple as “Jason, I know you are upset. I am going to give you time to calm down before we make any decisions. I will check back with you in ___ minutes (anywhere between 5-10 minutes, depending on how escalated the student is) to see if you are ready.”
Then, for 5-10 minutes, don’t talk. Don’t hover over the student. Stay in the student’s presence visually but get busy doing something that doesn’t involve the student. Read something. Send an email. Maybe talk with another adult—but only if it is about something that has nothing to do with the current situation that has caused the student to escalate.
After 5-10 minutes, return back to the student and calmly ask “Are you ready to talk?” If the student is ready, proceed to the The Student Is Calmed Down paragraph. If the student indicates through words or lack thereof that he is still not ready to talk, again state “I will check back with you in ___ more minutes.” Then, for 5-10 more minutes, don’t talk. Return to doing something that allows you to disengage from the student.
After the additional 5-10 minutes, again calmly ask “Are you ready to talk?” The student will either say he is, will say he isn’t, or will show you through his nonverbal body language that he is isn’t. If the student is still not ready after two 5- or 10-minute periods, offer a third 5-10 minutes. “I will check back with you in ___ more minutes.” Repeat…
It is not unreasonable to give a student up to 20-30 minutes of calm-down time, but do so in 5- or 10-minute increments. This is a judgment call based on the student and the situation-at-hand.
Want to know if the student is truly calm and ready to return to the classroom environment? LuAnne, another Square Peg, uses a simple strategy to quickly gauge whether a student is ready to be cooperative. Once the student says he is ready to talk or return to a task, give him a few simple commands to see if he will be compliant. Don’t ask the student if he wants to do the task. Tell him then allow a few seconds for the student to comply with your request. Don’t expect instantaneous compliance. Typically, if a student is ready to be compliant, he will respond to your command within 5-10 seconds at most. Thank the student if he follows your request.
“Jason, bring me a piece of paper, please, and push the chair up under the desk.” (Do NOT ask “Jason, will you bring me a piece of paper please?”)
“Lauren, get out a pencil and write your name on the worksheet.”
“Bobby, put the book back on the shelf and sit down in your chair.”
Students who are unable to do these simple commands are telling you through their behavior that they are not ready to be compliant. Thankfully, this rarely happens. If a student is able to tell you he is ready, he most likely will comply with the simple commands. Once this happens, you are ready to proceed with getting the student reintegrated into the class’s activity.
The Student Is Calmed Down—Once the student indicates that he is ready, compliment the student for being calm and proceed to talk with the student. WHAT you talk about depends on why the student escalated. If someone said or did something unkind to the student, it may require problem-solving or conflict resolution. If the student was frustrated because work was too hard, it may be necessary to reteach content or skills and offer support. If the student was simply trying to avoid doing work, preparing the student to return to the unfinished task is important. There are a few ways to do this. The most direct is to tell the student it is time to return to whatever he was doing before he got agitated, offering support as needed. The second option is to offer a choice. This may be the better option if the student is likely to re-escalate if he is told he has to immediately do the avoided task. Give the student some control by saying “When do you want to do [whatever the assignment is], now with my help or [another time]?” “When do you want to finish your personal narrative story, now with my help or during recess? For homework?” The key is to get the work done at some point that day so the student isn’t reinforced for the escalation. Otherwise, you know what will likely happen again…!
One last tip–It is very helpful to remember that it is NOT about you. An escalated student may say all sorts of mean, hurtful, disrespectful things to and about you when escalated. This is often the student’s way of trying to draw you in, to get you emotionally involved in the situation. The words a student speaks while escalated need to be ignored during that time. Threats of self and other harm or other serious comments made while escalated are best addressed after the student has completely deescalated. A formal threat assessment may be required at that time.
When a student’s behavior is escalating, there’s not time to review an article on de-escalation strategies. For this reason, you may benefit from a “cheat sheet” posted in a place where you can quickly refer to the sheet for simple visual reminders. The 3 sheets found at “Quiet Please: De-Escalation in Progress!” have varying degrees of information on them, depending on your need. Remember, our behavior always impacts the situation. What we do matters. Use one of these visuals as your own reminder of what to do so that your actions and words help de-escalate the student quickly and effectively.
- Each student and situation is different.
- It is important to have a staff member trained in safe crisis management present when a student is escalating. This person can assist in gauging the most appropriate de-escalation strategies to use.
- Depending on the situation, a formal threat assessment may be required following the event.