Teach By Design
Sep 13, 2022

Creating Calm: 5 Ways to Prevent Big Behaviors

Keep your classroom calm by leveraging your existing school-wide systems and practices.

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Editor’s Note: There is a growing sentiment among those of us in education that student behavior is more escalated than it was prior to the pandemic. Recent surveys from The American Federation of Teachers and The National Education Association show teachers name student behavior and the lack of disciplinary response to it as some of the top problems facing their profession today. Research has ideas for how we can address the behaviors we see as well as prevent them from happening in the first place. This is the first in a two-part series focused on de-escalation as a strategy to restore some calm to everyone’s day.  

Team, the tomatoes in my garden are finally turning red. I thought it would be months of fried green tomatoes for us, but no! We get spaghetti sauce, salsa, and caprese salads.

When I was a kid, my dad grew tomatoes. He taught me how to snip the suckers and how you have to water them slowly down at the root to prevent things from growing on the leaves. When I was five, my best friend came over to my house and we played in the backyard. It seems, her mom had taught her about gardening, too. My friend had become an expert weeder and she was going to teach me everything she knew.

We went down to the raised beds where my dad tended his vegetable garden. She pointed to these small, green-leafed, spindly plants in one of the beds and quickly identified it as a weed to be pulled. There were so many of them in that bed. We made quick work of getting them all.

Do you see where this is going?

My dad came out and we showed him how helpful we’d been. He was angry. I immediately regretted every decision I’d ever made. I cried. I apologized. I cried some more. My friend, however, took a different approach. Her mom explained how we’d done the wrong thing and how she should apologize to my dad. My friend looked those grownups straight in the eyes and said, “I’m not sorry.” The conversation devolved from there.

  • My mom trying to explain it a different way.
  • My friend remaining adamant about not being sorry.
  • My dad raising his voice.
  • My friend raising hers.

It went back and forth until finally my friend’s mom apologized and immediately took her home. The sound of her 5-year-old cries filled the cul-de-sac as they made their exit.

While this is a story from my childhood, the way the situation escalated from an innocent mistake to a full tantrum with a swift exit is something we see playing out in classrooms more and more these days. It’s a process called the escalation cycle and there’s a whole book about how it plays out in your classrooms every day.

Managing the Cycle of Acting-out Behavior in the Classroom describes the way behavior escalates through seven phases. 1 Graphically, the cycle looks like this 2 :

It’s rare for any of us to jump from a place of calm to full-blown meltdown in one singular step. There’s a ramp up. We move through a variety of feelings that build on each other until we reach a place where 5-year-olds need to be taken home and tomatoes need to be replanted. The behaviors you experience in your classroom are no different. Here are some brief descriptions of the phases along with what they might look like in your classrooms.

Description Example
Phase 1: Calm By all outward appearances, they’re doing fine. They’re cooperative, on task, and following the expectations established for the classroom. - Eye contact
- Highly engaged in activities
- Smiling
- Offering help
Phase 2: Trigger Something specific happens to set off the escalation cycle…and that something goes unresolved. It could also be there have been a series of events each compounding the effect of the one before. - Conflicts
- Name calling
- Changes in routine (substitute teacher or new transition)
- Facing errors during instruction
- Constant correction
Phase 3: Agitation In this phase, you’ll notice someone looks unfocused and distracted. When they’re agitated, they might describe their feelings as angry, upset, on-edge, frustrated, or anxious. All of these feelings come about because they cannot control or manage the triggers in the previous phase. - Looking all around with little focus or purpose
- Busy hands tapping pencil, drumming finders, rubbing thighs
- Little to no sustained attention to task or activities, moving from one thing to another
- Staring into space
- Pulling a hoodie over their eyes
Phase 4: Acceleration At this point, the behaviors are directed at adults which leads to negative interactions. The difference between this phase and the one before it is, when someone is agitated, their behaviors typically give the leave-me-alone vibe. In acceleration, behaviors become very directed and highly engaging…specifically toward any adult nearby. - Asking questions followed by arguing
- Non-compliance and defiance
- Provoking other people by calling them names or messing with their stuff
- Breaking rules on purpose to get a reaction
- Whining and crying
- Pretending to be sick
Phase 5: Peak Peak behaviors are out of control behaviors. They are so disruptive, so serious, class cannot continue. - Serious destruction of property like throwing chairs or trashing the room
- Physical attacks
- Self-abuse
- Severe tantrums with yelling, screaming, flailing on the floor
- Running away
Phase 6: De-escalation This phase comes on the other side of the peak; it marks the beginning of the end. According to Colvin, “The phase is best characterized by calling it a reintegration process…behavior is similar to phase 3 where there is a very clear lack of focus and obvious appearances of distraction.” So, you’ll see similar behaviors creep back in around this time as well as a few new behaviors - Wandering around the room
- Staring with lack of focus
- Head down
- Testing the water to see if you still like them, standing close, possibly apologizing
- Actively working on activities that are mechanical in nature, like sorting, playing with legos
- Blaming others, saying things like "if she'd just let me see the nurse, this wouldn't have happened."
Phase 7: Recovery By the end of the cycle, they’re ready to participate in classroom activities, even if they’re still reluctant to interact. They’re looking to engage in things they’ve already mastered to reintegrate with the class. Independent work is ideal as they recover. - More subdued behavior in groups
- Lack of contribution to class discussion
- Defensive

Something to notice about this model is it doesn’t start with escalated behavior; it starts with calm. That means, even in that calm space, there are things you can do that are part of your larger de-escalation plan for the year. In fact, it’s in that calm space where your existing school-wide systems and practices can lay a strong, supportive foundation – a foundation that serves to prevent those escalated behaviors from happening in the first place.

I bet you’re thinking, “So, Megan, what are those school-wide systems and practices I can leverage that make my classroom feel less escalated than it was last year?”

Well, dear reader, I’m glad you asked.

Like we’ve done so many times before, we turn to our colleagues at The Center on PBIS who, of course, have some ideas and resources to share. Here are five classroom-wide practices you can implement right now to prevent those escalated behaviors in the future.

Be Predictable

The best de-escalation tool you have in your classroom management toolbox is the way you teach your expectations, routines, and schedules. The escalation cycle thrives in chaos. If no one can predict what’s going to happen from one moment to the next, everyone lives on the edge at all times and everyone’s triggers become much more sensitive. Let your students know what expectations you have for them. Give them space to define the expectations they have for you and for each other. Teach them what happens when they first come into class, how to turn in their assignments, what materials they need to bring every day. If you have things you do every Wednesday, make that known. The more predictable you can make your space, the better chances you have for maintaining calm throughout the day.

By specifically teaching these strategies and giving students time to practice while they’re calm, you set everyone up to be ready to remind each other what to do when their feelings escalate.

Be Engaging

You aren’t just any ol’ person standing in front of the class. Nope. You are a teacher. You come to school every day with a whole collection of strategies to make your instruction awesome. Lean into that superpower! When students are engaged, they’re listening, they’re focused, they’re active participants in whatever you’re doing as a class…and they certainly don’t have the time to get disruptive. The practice brief, Engaging Instruction to Increase Equity in Education, offers examples of ways you can keep students engaged. 3

  • Use explicit instruction – Any time you connect your current lesson to a previous one, or model concepts in a step-by-step way, or ask questions to gauge understanding, you’re using explicit instruction.
  • Increase opportunities to respond – Offering multiple opportunities to answer questions individually, with a partner, or in a group makes it more likely students are on-task and engaged in the lesson. So, get them talking!
  • Provide performance feedback – Have you ever finished a project, hoped you’d hear from someone about what they thought, only to hear the sounds of silence? It’s not great. When your students participate, and you respond with feedback – both positive and constructive – you show them how you’re engaged and how their response connects with the learning objective you want them to achieve.

Be Welcoming

Everyone wants to be in the classroom that’s vibrant, welcoming, and safe. You and the space you create are two big reasons your students show up ready to learn. We’ve talked about the vibe you give off in class before; it’s called your active presence and it’s significantly related to how likely someone will share their ideas openly around you.

One quick and powerful way to increase your active presence is to greet students at the door. Research shows that positively greeting students at the door increases their time on task, reduces disruptions, and builds positive relationships…and those relationships are critical to keeping and restoring calm in your space. So, before students grab their seats, acknowledge them by name, make eye contact, and maybe even offer a smile.

Be Instructional

Want to know the fastest way to get me to move from agitated to accelerated in the in the escalation cycle? Tell me to calm down when I’m already irritated.

The best time to teach your students the de-escalation strategies they have access to in your classroom is when they are calm. In fact, why not teach those strategies right along with all your other classroom expectations and routines. During a presentation last year at the Association on Positive Behavior Supports conference, Kim Dupre and Regina Pierce suggested adding “When I feel upset/frustrated” to the list of activities in your classroom behavior teaching matrix. Something like this:

Expectation Class-wide Entering Class Whole Class Activities Small Group Activities Transitions Feeling Upset/Frustrated
Be Respectful Communicate with a teacher/adult
Use kind words
Be Responsible Identify your emotion
Be Safe Use a coping strategy:
- 10 deep breaths
- Ask to use the calming corner

By specifically teaching these strategies and giving students time to practice while they’re calm, you set everyone up to be ready to remind each other what to do when their feelings escalate.

Be Self-aware

We’ve talked a lot about student behavior today. The truth is, student behavior often escalates because of the way we adults respond to it. When we talk about de-escalation, it’s critical for us to include our own behavior in the mix. Give yourself your own list of strategies and routines for recognizing when you’re feeling escalated and how to get yourself back to a calm place. In my office, I have two stress balls strategically placed – one right next to my computer and one next to a comfy chair in the corner. They’re bright yellow. You can’t miss them. When I’m feeling anxious or stressed, they always catch my eye as if to say, “Hey you! You look upset. Wanna pick me up?” Come up with a visual reminder you can place somewhere in your room that will catch your eye when you’re feeling less than calm. It’s going to help you get back to that regulated place, I promise.

Bonus points to any of you who will not only notice their feelings but will model their de-escalation strategy in front of their students! When you admit when you’re struggling, you normalize those feelings for everyone around you and make it more likely your students will acknowledge them, too, whenever they happen.

A calm classroom starts with strong, fundamental practices. Defining your expectations, routines, and schedules creates a predictable space where everyone knows what to do and what’s coming next. Within that predictable space, use your superpowers to keep students actively engaged and feeling welcome from the time they enter the room to the time the bell rings. Teach your students the strategies they can access in your room when they’re feeling frustrated or upset and be sure to give yourself some reminders, too.

Every phase in the escalation cycle is an opportunity to interrupt the pattern and return to calm. Next month, we’ll introduce you to the de-escalation cycle and talk about what to do when you see those behaviors start to ramp up. You won’t want to miss it.

1 Colvin, G., & Scott, T. M. (2014). Managing the cycle of acting-out behavior in the classroom. Corwin Press.
2 Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, (2021, September), The Response Cycle, https://dpi.wi.gov/sped/educators/behavior-supports/response-cycle  
3 Chaparro, E. A., Nese, R. N. T., & McIntosh, K. (2015). Examples of engaging instruction to increase equity in education. OSEP Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. www.pbis.org.

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Megan Cave


Megan Cave

Megan Cave is a member of the PBISApps Marketing and Communication team. She is the writer behind the user manuals, scripted video tutorials, and news articles for PBISApps. She also writes a monthly article for Teach by Design and contributes to its accompanying Expert Instruction podcast episode. Megan has completed four half marathons – three of which happened unintentionally – and in all likelihood, will run another in the future.

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