Teach By Design
Oct 11, 2022

Slow the Climb: 4 De-escalation Strategies to Keep Behavior from Going Downhill

Behaviors are bound to escalate at some point in spite of your best classroom management practices. Here are four de-escalation strategies to try before a situation become a crisis.

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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.

Welcome back. Today, we find ourselves square in the middle…the middle of a series about how to de-escalate behaviors and bring back a little calm to your school day. Check out last month’s article when you have a second. In the meantime, here’s a quick recap of what we know so far.

The behaviors you see, refer, and document in SWIS  land somewhere within the escalation cycle. That cycle looks like this:1

Everything starts in a calm place until something triggers a response. That’s when we get agitated, fidgety and distracted. You might start to see some minor problem behaviors creep in here. When left unchecked, things accelerate and energy gets directed at other people. Behaviors like defiance or disrespect come into play as students turn their attention toward the adults in the room. The back-and-forth responses between us culminate at a peak where behavior could be described as destructive. Certainly, all learning has stopped. Once the peak behavior finishes, we start to de-escalate, go through a process of recovery, and eventually end up back at the beginning in our original state of calm.

When you think about this cycle do you wonder why de-escalation comes toward the end after a behavior reaches its peak? It certainly makes sense to focus on de-escalating after a crisis, but wouldn’t it also make sense to infuse de-escalation strategies throughout the entire cycle? An intervention at any point has the potential to stop behaviors from escalating and return to a place of calm. What do those de-escalation strategies look like?

When behaviors escalate, odds are high there’s a power struggle underway.

De-escalation Strategies Before a Crisis

The folks at The Center on PBIS recently released a new practice brief called Strategies for De-escalating Student Behavior in the Classroom and it could not have arrived at a better time.2 The brief’s authors share practical, research-based strategies for de-escalating behavior at any point in the escalation cycle. Not only that, they assert “all students…can benefit from a universal approach that promotes a consistent response to behavioral escalation by all staff that is not overly reliant on exclusionary practices and intrusive crisis responses.” They agree, you guys! De-escalation strategies work for everyone no matter where they land in the escalation cycle.

Here's how it works.

As behavior intensifies through the escalation cycle, the calming strategies you use shift to meet the current need. This is what the authors call the de-escalation cycle. It has four phases.

  • Prevention: Strategies to use during the calm and trigger phases of the escalation cycle.
  • Escalation: Strategies to use during the agitation and acceleration phases of the escalation cycle.
  • Crisis: Strategies to use during the peak phase of the escalation cycle.
  • Recovery & Restoration: Strategies to use during the de-escalation and recovery phases of the escalation cycle.

The de-escalation cycle starts with prevention. Prevention strategies align with the strong, Tier 1 systems and practices you use in your classrooms every day. These are things like teaching expectations, investing in building relationships with students, positively reinforcing the behaviors you love to see, and correcting behavioral errors when they happen. Additionally, prevention includes teaching everyone the strategies they can use to regulate their own behaviors, before they escalate, while they’re in a calm neutral state.

The foundational work you do here is critical; it also doesn’t guarantee behavior will remain calm 100% of the time. We’re all human and bound to react at some point.

So, what do you do when things start to escalate?

The behaviors you notice before a situation hits its peak are part of the agitation and acceleration phases of the escalation cycle. While the behaviors you notice in the agitation phase are less intense than the ones you notice in the acceleration phase, the strategies you use to address the behaviors are similar. The focus is always on returning to a calm state and redirecting the behavior back to the task at hand. There are lots of ways you can do that. Here are four strategies you can try (along with some role-play from one of our favorite Instagram accounts, @mrmonroeandnala) when you need to intervene before a situation become a crisis.

Offer a Choice

When behaviors escalate, odds are high there’s a power struggle underway. A student’s behavior elicits a response from you. Your response elicits a bigger response from the student, and so on, and so on, and so on. Rather than continuing to ask students to do the one thing you need them to do, offer them two to three acceptable options for completing the task. When you notice a student hasn’t picked up their pencil to start a task, offer them an alternative way to get started. “You can complete the worksheet independently or with a partner. Which would you prefer?”

Here's another way.

Redirect Their Attention

Sometimes we just need a reminder or a suggestion for how to get ourselves back on task and our emotions under control. Redirection is that reminder — a simple, quick, calm, respectful way of letting a student know what they’ve done wrong and what they could do instead. On last month’s Expert Instruction episode, Dr. Kathleen Strickland-Cohen shared how she handles behavioral errors the same way she might handle an academic error — by reteaching. She assumes her student has simply forgotten the expectation, so she takes the moment to remind them. Something like, “Remember if you have an idea, raise your hand so you don’t accidentally interrupt someone else’s thought.”

Redirection can also offer an entry point for students who are having a hard time getting started on a task. Here’s an example of how redirection can work in that way.

Co-regulate When They Can’t Self-Regulate

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you’re feeling frustrated, annoyed, upset, slighted? Do you ever just need someone to help you process those feelings in order to move on? Psychology has a term for that process. It’s called co-regulation.

When someone is escalated, co-regulation looks like empathizing with them, acknowledging how they feel, and helping them gain more control over their emotions. An example of co-regulation given in the practice brief is: “I want to make sure you’re okay. I see you’re angry because your face is red and your fists are clenched. When I feel angry, I like to take three deep breaths and count to 10. Want to do that together?”

Co-regulation can also be a nice way to recruit some grace from your students. Here’s an example of how Mr. Monroe identifies his own emotional state and asks for some grace from his class.

Remind Them of the Strategies They Know

Did you catch in the co-regulation example from Mr. Monroe how his students reminded him how he might use their de-escalation strategies to calm down? Well, that’s called “prompting a regulation routine” and it’s the fourth strategy in our list.

No one in the history of time has ever calmed down when they’ve heard someone say, “Hey. Calm down.” A different approach is to prompt them to use the strategies you’ve taught for when they feel agitated and upset. A prompt might be to ask a question like, “Would it help to take a few deep breaths? I can do it with you.” Another prompt might look like, “I was about to go refill my water bottle. You could come with me to take a break, grab some water, and try again.” It also look like this.

When you notice behavior escalating, you don’t have to wait for things to hit their peak before intervening. De-escalation strategies can happen throughout the escalation cycle.

  • If a student hasn’t started an assignment after you’ve asked, try offering them choice to try a different approach to starting the work.
  • When someone is off task, re-direct their attention back to the task at hand in a calm, neutral way.
  • When you notice those physical signs of escalation, help them regulate their emotions by empathizing with how they feel, modeling expectations, and maybe even reminding them of the ways they know how to calm themselves down.

This list of ideas is not exhaustive; it’s a starting place. Use it to come up with the de-escalation strategies that feel natural to you and will work for your students.

Our series isn’t finished yet. Be sure to check out this month’s podcast episode on October 18 about how to respond when things continue to up the escalation cycle.  

1. Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, (2021, September), The Response Cycle, https://dpi.wi.gov/sped/educators/behavior-supports/response-cycle
2. Strickland-Cohen, M.K., Newson, A., Meyer, K., Putnam, R., Kern, L., Meyer, B. C., & Flammini, A. (September, 2022). Strategies for De-escalating Student Behavior in the Classroom. Center on PBIS, University of Oregon. 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.