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March 8, 2022

5 Ways to De-Escalate Challenging Student Behavior

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Use Gentle Guidance Interventions to negate the “impossible choice.”
Classroom Management
Instructional Strategies
5 Ways to Deescalate Challenging Student Behavior
Credit: Photo by Yaroslav Shuraev from Pexels
As anyone who has taught in a classroom can attest, sometimes students get slightly off track by dabbling in minor negative behaviors. In these cases, we need to guide students back on the right path. Unfortunately, doing so in well intended, “common sense” ways that may seem harmless can cause tremendous harm.
This harm can include creating fearful, uninviting classrooms where learning is often replaced by time-consuming power struggles. Also, students who have experienced high levels of trauma are likely to be the ones who “explode” in reaction to demands, making them more likely to be excluded from classrooms by being sent to the principal’s office, which can lead to unnecessary suspensions or expulsions.

Avoid the “Impossible Choice” in Classrooms

When a student exhibits a minor negative behavior that impacts others but does not call for major consequences—like playfully poking a friend under a desk, for example—traditional “common sense” discipline requires educators to make an impossible choice between two options:
  1. The teacher can ignore the behavior; or,
  2. The teacher can make a declarative statement that the behavior should stop.
Either choice leads to a poor outcome, which destroys classroom environments over time.

The Problem with Ignoring Bad Behavior

When a student engages in a somewhat disruptive behavior and the teacher ignores it, they communicate a message that they are either unaware of the behavior or tacitly approve of it. It’s more likely that the student—or others who see the behavior ignored—will repeat those actions in the future. Some might mimic or heighten this behavior: poking softly becomes poking hard, and poking hard may become grabbing and hurting people. In my experience, ignoring negative behaviors tends to make them spread and worsen.

The Problem with Declarative Statements

The other traditional “common sense” option is to make a simple statement declaring that the behavior should stop. This seems innocent enough. For some students, word of mouth can, at first glance, appear to be successful.
But there is a pesky reality about human beings called “psychological reactance.” This phenomenon occurs when an “unpleasant motivational arousal emerges when people experience a threat to or loss of their freedom” (Brehm & Brehm, 1981). People undergoing this phenomenon feel restricted and will work to get back freedoms that they perceive were taken away. In other words, people don’t like to be told what to do, and when told what to do, they don’t react well, often doing the opposite of what was asked of them.
Telling individuals or entire classrooms of students what to do in a declarative way is not an effective means of attaining cooperation. When a demand is made through a declarative statement (“sit down,” “work,” or “get in line”), even students who are generally cooperative will eventually become resistant in passive, reactive, or even overtly aggressive ways.

Solutions to the "Impossible Choice"

Teachers can avoid the “Impossible Choice” by using Gentle Guidance Interventions (GGIs). GGIs are ways of calmly guiding students to use positive behaviors that do not frighten, intimidate, or embarrass students. GGIs are often one of the first interventions used to help students learn that negative behaviors don’t get them what they want, and that positive, prosocial behaviors are the pathway to success.
Let’s look at closely five of the dozens of Gentle Guidance Interventions found in my book The Classroom Behavior Manual (ASCD, 2022). I developed these interventions over the course of more than two decades working as a teacher, principal, and behavioral consultant.

1. Confused Eye

Establish eye contact with the student with the most confused look that you can muster. With just one look, this intervention separates the student from the behavior. It says to the student, “You are so wonderful, and that behavior is not wonderful. What’s happening? I’m confused.” The Confused Eye is an effective way to redirect positively without escalation.

2. Contraband Tap

In classrooms, we might not allow cell phones, trading cards, or food. Taking possession of this contraband needlessly causes power struggles for educators who aren’t using GGIs. Instead of making demands, simply tapping the item while walking by can give the student an opportunity to put away the phone, the food, or the Lebron James card while saving face. Only look at the item long enough to make contact with your fingers—two gentle taps on the object, and never make eye contact with the student, since this could invoke a power struggle. Do not stop moving before, during, or after the tap.

3. Assumption of Intelligence

Ninety-nine percent of the time when we tell students to do something, they already know what they should do. Therefore, you will be able to use this intervention ninety-nine percent of the time. When we tell students to throw away their food or put away their materials because the bell rang, we are needlessly taking away control and insulting their intelligence. The following statement simply tells the student that you know that they are smart and you don’t need to tell them what to do next:
“You know what to do.”
Say it in passing, without eye contact. Think about how many demands you could replace with this single GGI!

Ninety-nine percent of the time when we tell students to do something, they already know what they should do.

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Scott Ervin

4. Statement of Fact

This is a simple statement of something that is true, but should not be. Examples may include the following:
  • “Your desk has stuff under it.”
  • “Purple Foxes have some things to do before Afternoon Meeting.”
  • “There’s a coat on the floor.”
  • “The Astronauts still have mail in their mailboxes.”
These statements prompt students to do what they are supposed to do without nagging or embarrassing them.

5. Quick Question: “What Should You Be Doing?”

If classroom instructions are clear, students almost always know what they should do next. When they do know what to do, don’t tell them what to do: ask them what they should do. This method avoids having to make a declarative statement.

Gentle Guidance Interventions Create Inclusive Classrooms

Any experienced teacher using traditional discipline practices has dreaded making the “Impossible Choice” with students who have experienced high levels of trauma. Because of higher control needs, teachers know that these students will be more likely to repeat, intensify, and explore low-level negative behaviors when they are ignored. They also know that if they use a declarative statement, even politely worded, to try to stop a behavior, students who have experienced significant trauma are more likely to explode, perhaps stopping learning for the rest of a class period or an entire afternoon. Through no fault of their own, and with the best of intentions, teachers who ignore behavior or make declarative statements instead of using GGIs will be accidentally but systematically exacerbating negative behaviors instead of fixing them. Without GGIs, teachers will be unnecessarily excluding students, especially students with trauma, from their classrooms.
All students deserve to be included in their classrooms and treated with respect. Gentle Guidance Interventions can make this inclusion possible.

The Classroom Behavior Manual

Discover many more effective Gentle Guidance Interventions to transform your classroom environment in Scott Ervin's newest ASCD release.

The Classroom Behavior Manual
Learn More

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