Substitute Preparedness

De-Escalating Student Behaviors

Learn strategies to prevent and de-escalate student behaviors that are growing out of control.
group of sixth-grade students; Photo by Allison Shelley of The Verbatim Agency for E D U images

Defining Behaviors

This article discusses strategies for student behavior that is escalating in a way that may lead to an aggressive situation with you or among students. This includes verbally or physically threatening behavior or any actual physical violence. This article will define different behaviors, give examples from different grade levels, and offer strategies to de-escalate students who are becoming aggressive.

Let’s begin with the Number 1 Rule that you need to remember:

As a substitute, you should always seek immediate staff or administrative support if you sense that a situation is escalating toward physical aggression.

This is a good rule for any behavior that has become unmanageable, but it is essential when dealing with things that could lead to students or you getting hurt.

You can call out to a teacher or aide from a nearby classroom while you remain in the doorway to monitor students in the classroom. You can also call the office for support using the classroom phone. Make sure that you get the office number or extension so that you can call as needed.

Study the definitions and examples below to help you distinguish different kinds of student misbehavior.

Disruptive, Defiant, and Disrespectful Behaviors

Disruptive behaviors are things that disrupt the class, such as excessive talking, shouting out of turn, or distracting others from completing assignments.

Defiant behaviors are when students challenge or resist your instructions, such as telling you “no,” ignoring you, or being off-task.

Disrespectful behaviors are when students demean themselves or others, such as using inappropriate words, making rude or prejudiced comments, or giving someone the middle finger.

It is important from the start to distinguish disruptive, defiant, and disrespectful behaviors from aggressive behaviors. They are not at the same level. Although students can get out of control when they are disruptive, defiant, or disrespectful, there isn’t a concern—at least initially—that the behavior will physically hurt anyone.

There is no reason to physically touch or restrain a student for disruptive, defiant, or disrespectful behavior. Like regular teachers and staff, you should work with students to resolve these behaviors. If any of the behaviors start to escalate to a heated confrontation, remember the Number 1 Rule:

As a substitute, you should always seek immediate staff or administrative support if you sense that a situation is escalating toward physical aggression.

Aggressive Behaviors

Aggressive behaviors are when a student is displaying threatening behavior, either verbally or physically, that may lead to physical harm.

Verbally threatening behavior is any talk that suggests a student may act violently or supports violence. The words may differ by age/grade, but some examples are:

  • “I’m going to get you.”
  • “You deserve to get slapped.”
  • “I’m going to kick your a**.”
  • “I hope you die” or “You should kill yourself.”
  • “Say that again/do that again and see what happens.”

Physically threatening behavior is any use of the body or body language that suggests a student may act violently. Examples include:

  • getting into someone’s face
  • violent hand gestures (a finger across the throat or making a gun shape with the hand and pulling the trigger)
  • overturning classroom furniture
  • putting arms up in a fighting posture
  • staring someone down

Strategies for De-Escalation

Study the strategies below to help you prevent and de-escalate aggressive situations. However, always remember the Number 1 Rule:

As a substitute, you should always seek immediate staff or administrative support if you sense that a situation is escalating toward physical aggression.

Strategy: Keep your voice and demeanor calm.

The immediate goal when dealing with an aggressive student is to restore calm. You must keep your own voice and demeanor calm. If you panic or lose your temper, the situation is doomed to escalate. It also reinforces negative behavior for students who may be seeking any kind of attention, even negative attention. A consistently calm response works best in all circumstances.

Strategy: Maintain adequate distance / personal space.

Whether a student is being aggressive toward you or students are aggressive toward one another, you should position yourself nearby while maintaining adequate distance and personal space. If you put yourself too close to aggressive students, it can be perceived as threatening and could escalate.

Strategy: Use redirection.

One strategy that can diffuse a situation is to redirect student attention away from an upsetting situation and on to other things. This is especially useful with younger students, who may be bothered by something minor and just need to move on to something else. You can ask a question, give the student a task, or get them talking about a topic of interest. Moving student seats is another way to redirect focus, such as inviting an elementary student to sit in the “special” seat next to you.

Strategy: Use positive reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement can go a long way! Any easy form of positive reinforcement is to give praise to students for following expected behaviors. This puts attention on the good things that are happening in the room and incentivizes struggling students to earn praise by returning to expected behaviors. It is especially important to find ways to praise students who have behavior issues; if they only receive discipline, they are likely to escalate from one incident to the next, whereas appropriate praise can diffuse a cycle of negative interactions.

Strategy: Remove the peer audience as much as possible.

If you can persuade the agitated student(s) to step away from the situation, it will remove a mountain of pressure for everyone. By moving away from the peer audience, students will have a chance to calm down, think, and consider ways to move forward. For elementary students, or for minor issues with older students, invite them to a corner or area in the room where you are away from others and can talk more privately. For middle/high school students who are highly agitated, you may need to ask them to step outside the classroom to get them completely away from the peer audience.

When inviting the agitated student(s) to step away, say something like, “Let’s go over here/step outside the classroom so that we can have some privacy, and I will give everyone a chance to share their side of the issue.” Most students will respond to the offer of privacy and fairness.

If you go out of the classroom to talk with the student(s), make sure that you remain in the doorway so that you can still monitor the classroom while talking with the student(s) who stepped out.

Strategy: Listen and let students talk out their sides of the issue.

This is best done in an area of the room that is away from others or outside of the classroom for highly volatile situations, allowing you and the agitated student(s) to talk in private. However, if a student refuses the offer to move to a more private area, you can still give students turns to share their sides of the issue before deciding on a resolution.

It is common for students to protest and make comments when they disagree with what a person is sharing, so you will need to remind them that they will get their turn to speak.

Ask clarifying questions as needed, and then use your judgment to offer a resolution to the students, such as giving/exchanging apologies (simple matters), committing them to stay separated and not talk to each other for the remainder of class, offering a visit to a school counselor for further discussion, or involving an administrator (serious matters).

Strategy: Encourage a break out of the classroom.

If you sense that a student is getting agitated, (with you, with another student, with classwork etc.), encourage him/her to take a break out of the classroom. Give clear directions about where the student can go (water fountain, bathroom, walk to the office and back, etc.) and how much time before they are expected to return.

Strategy: Lead breathing and other social-emotional calming activities.

For younger students, breathing techniques can be effective for helping them calm themselves in an upsetting situation, such as having them breathe in and out in a pattern (5 seconds in, 5 seconds out). Other strategies for students might include counting down from 10, naming the emotion they are feeling and how they can get back to happiness, or doing a brief calming activity (drawing a picture, coloring, walking the border of the classroom, etc.).

What if Things Do Turn Violent?

Physical violence is when students are actively harming themselves or others. This can include things like throwing materials, shoving, hitting, kicking, stomping, pulling hair, cutting oneself, and so on.

If an incident of physical violence erupts suddenly, you must use your discretion with the decision to intervene. You should take into consideration the age and size of the student(s) involved and the violent behaviors they are engaged in. Stepping between two kindergarteners who are hitting each other is different than stepping between two high school boys who are throwing punches. Physically touching a student is a last resort option and should only be used in case of immediate danger to students.

In any situation involving violence, even if you decide that you cannot safely physically intervene, you should DO SOMETHING. Shout commands to stop the behavior, send a student to get another teacher, and call the office. After a violent incident, provide immediate medical care to the victim(s).

If you decide that you can safely intervene, some common interventions include

  • Stepping in between aggressive students
  • Pulling an attacking student away from a victim
  • Pulling students apart from one another
  • Using your hands to deflect hits/punches being thrown

You should be giving commands the whole time to urge students to stop and calm down.

Any intervention that you use should not harm students. Once the violent student has calmed, or there are sufficient other staff present, you should cease physical contact.

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