Classroom Management 2.0: Nine De-escalation Strategies

Following up on last week’s post, Preventing Power Struggles, this week we’ll look at how to de-escalate situations; maybe for when a student becomes angry with you in class or maybe for those times when a student is just really upset about something and is unable to control their emotions.
It’s important to note that the strategies offered here are not for situations where physical violence or danger feels imminent. In a potentially violent situation, seek immediate assistance from campus leaders or follow your school’s protocol. For most other situations, though, these research-based strategies may help:
Take it off-stage. When trying to defuse a situation, having an audience is never helpful. If you’re in the middle of class, try to move your conversation with the student off to the side or out in the hall. If the student is mad at you, they may continually try to engage you in a power struggle if their peers are watching and if they’re upset about something else they may be really embarrassed if the class sees their raw emotions.
Avoid power struggles. When emotions are high, students may say or do things that provoke an emotional reaction in you. It’s important not to let your emotions show or engage in a power struggle. Last week’s tips can help with this.
Be patient and brief with requests. Processing, communication, and decision-making skills are inhibited when a person is overwhelmed by their emotions, so keep your requests calm and brief and then be willing to wait for a response. It’s easy to assume students are ignoring us when they don’t respond, but it’s more likely they are just struggling to overcome their emotions and so may just need some time and possibly a few calm repetitions of the request before they’re ready to move forward.
Offer face-saving options. If the student is refusing to cooperate with any of your requests, try giving them the reins by asking something like, ‘Is there anything we can work out right now so I can earn your cooperation?’ or ‘Do you have ideas for how we can come to a compromise on this?’ as a way to save face and give them the power to propose the solution. It’s likely their first response will be snarky, but just ignore that and ask again for their ideas.
Label the emotion. Slamming doors and huffing and puffing are often ways to communicate how we are feeling, so if we can get the emotion out in the open with words instead, it can help calm the behaviors. Try tentatively saying, ‘Sara, it seems like your angry’ or ‘Edgar, it looks like you’re frustrated’ to show you are trying to understand how they’re feeling and are sort of asking for confirmation versus assuming their feelings. Once they share those feelings they may no longer feel the need to demonstrate those feelings with negative behaviors.
Give them some space. A fight-or-flight instinct can kick in for some of us when we’re upset, so be sure to give kids some room and don’t touch them. If they demand for you to get away from them or get out of their way, this instinct may be kicking in for them and it’s best to give them that extra space so they don’t feel trapped, which can escalate things further.
Give them choices. Sometimes students lash out because they feel powerless, so giving them choices can give them a sense of power and control and help to calm them. For example, you might say, ‘Do you want to talk about this now or would you rather wait until after class?’ or ‘Should we talk in here or would you rather talk in the hallway?’ Try to avoid choices that are actually ultimatums, though, as these can come across as threats and it’s hard to ensure a positive result: ‘You can either sit down and do your work or go to the principal’s office.’ That is technically a choice and it may sometimes work, but it is unlikely to defuse emotions and could lead to an unnecessary escalation of consequences if they choose to storm out.
Try humor (carefully). If you can find a way to get the student laughing, it can allow both of you to laugh off the situation in a positive way. This is really tricky, though, because you don’t want the student to think you’re laughing at them or teasing them in a way they interpret negatively, so tread carefully.
Come back to consequences. It’s pretty likely that a highly upset student may say or do something along the way that deserves a consequence. In the moment, though, our goal should be resolving the situation, not focusing so much on preserving our authority that we inadvertently escalate the situation. Wait to give consequences until the student is calm and you can have a productive conversation about it. If you’re worried about the rest of the class seeing disruptive behavior without immediate consequences, you might set up a norm with your class that you don’t give consequences publicly and have a brief discussion about it so the class understands that you will give consequences for behaviors that earn them, but that you prefer to give consequences privately.
For more behavior interventions and the research behind them, visit
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