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September 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 1

Addressing Dangerous Behavior in the Classroom

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Classroom Management
"Shut the HELL UP!"
Aiden spins in his chair and turns back to the front of the classroom. His fists are clenched tight and pressed against the wood of his desk. His face reddening, he looks down as the students behind him snicker and whisper.
"Excuse me?" the teacher says. "This isn't acceptable behavior in the classroom, Aiden."
She scans the room. "And I've had enough from the rest of you as well. We have a test next week. Maybe that has slipped your mind? Aiden, stay after class and we'll address this." She turns back to the lesson.
Aiden's look of anger turns to tears. He slams his fists on the desk and stands up.
"Where do you think you're going?" the teacher asks.
"I can't stand this! I'm leaving!" Aiden swings the door open, barrels through, and slams it shut. The glass in the small window cracks at the force of his anger. The class erupts in a mixture of gasps and a collective "Ooooooo!"
Aiden stands in the doorway, looking through the cracked window. He looks shocked and begins to cry. He yells, "Fine, maybe I'll just kill myself!" and runs down the hall.
The teacher isn't sure what to do next. Follow him? Keep the class in control? Report him through the school's student discipline system? She reaches for the phone to call the front office.

Research-Based Practices

When aggression, violence, and dangerous behavior make their way into the classroom environment, educators' best efforts as classroom managers can be derailed. But such situations can be avoided or at least limited. A recent review of research suggests a three-pronged approach to addressing classroom crises like the one outlined above: preventing classroom disruptions or dangerous behaviors to the extent possible, reducing the escalation of such behaviors if they occur, and instituting a community-based, systemic approach to reduce future risk (Murphy & Van Brunt, 2018).

Prong One: Clarifying Norms and Creating a Safe Climate

The first prong involves setting up the classroom environment with a focus on mutual respect and with clear expectations about appropriate behaviors and how frustrations should be handled. Educators must set and communicate (early and often) clear expectations for civility; respectful behavior; and calm and reasoned dialogue—and consequences for when a student steps out of line.
While educators may once have assumed that politeness, rational thinking, and respect would prevail in classrooms, behavior norms have shifted. More than half of all teachers report an increase in behavioral issues that interfere with teaching and learning (Scholastic, 2013). Educators can assume that rudeness, disrespectful behavior, disruptive events, and mental health crises will be part of their day-to-day classroom experiences. Regardless of the cause of the behavior problem, expecting students to behave a certain way in the classroom without clearly delineating these expectations is like giving them a test they didn't have a chance to study for ahead of time.
Just as the best way to reduce the damage from a fire is to stop it before it starts by setting up conditions that deter fire, the way for teachers to prevent disruptive behaviors is by setting up positive classroom experiences and supportive communities that build resiliency. This means teachers understand the factors associated with positive, supportive learning experiences. The following approaches help teachers proactively set up classroom communities that can prevent outbursts like Aiden's (Murphy & Van Brunt, 2018).
Provide engaging content and create respectful relationships. Good teaching, in and of itself, automatically creates a protective bubble around the classroom that deters aggressive and violent behavior. Not that bad behavior only happens to bad teachers, but students are more responsive and engaged when lessons are shared in meaningful, relevant, creative ways, and when teachers foster respectful relationships.
Set expectations and share concerns early on with administrators. The best behavioral standards and expectations for the classroom anticipate difficult situations and issues; and they are designed collaboratively with students. It's also key to report disruptive or threatening incidents to appropriate school officials; this connects classroom management efforts with broader school safety efforts and adds context and collaboration to how you responded to the problem.
Incorporate behavioral skills training for students. Students become part of the solution when they have effective character education and ample social-emotional learning skills. Skill-building can range from teaching students what makes for civil discourse to working with particular students to help them understand and monitor their own behaviors. Students can learn to navigate difficult or frustrating interactions; they can develop increased impulse control, frustration tolerance, and communication skills.
For instance, if Aiden's teacher had identified a potential conflict between Aiden and other students prior to this outburst, she could have explored his perceptions of the issue, discussed problem-solving strategies he was comfortable using, and identified alternatives for handling whatever was irritating him without cursing and fleeing in rage. Keeping her frustration in check might've also helped de-escalate the situation. Effective teachers also use positive social attention, praise, and appropriate consequences to help students understand appropriate behaviors.
Foster a culture that respects everyone. A classroom that values mutual respect, the contributions of all students, an awareness of cultural differences, and opportunities for reflection and feedback is one that thrives. Acknowledging the importance of differences in the classroom is particularly critical. Cultural competency—ways for both teachers and students to avoid biases that can lead to assumptions about student behaviors, stereotypes, microaggressions, and outright discrimination—is central to any effective effort to de-escalate threatening behaviors.

Prong Two: Yes We Can … De-escalate

Despite our best efforts, setting the right conditions in the classroom may not always be enough. Teachers need skills in crisis de-escalation to offer effective intervention for disruptive or dangerous behavior. These skills include adopting a stance of equanimity in the face of chaos or crisis; avoiding shaming or embarrassing the student; staying solution-focused (that is, addressing the immediate crisis and leaving larger corrective actions for a later time); and ensuring that supportive resources are in place for teacher and student alike (Van Brunt & Lewis, 2014).
Teachers who are successful at crisis de-escalation have an array of techniques to choose from. Every educator can bring a different approach to crisis management while still being grounded in the foundational principles of crisis de-escalation. Teachers capable of calming a crisis know the signs that often precede the escalation to physical violence and more significant disruptions. They are aware of how student differences can—and should—influence how they must respond to each student.
Good crisis de-escalation is an exact art and a subtle science. Prepared teachers understand how to select the best tool for each situation and apply it with skill. Our research highlights the following effective approaches.
Adopt a stance of equanimity. A critical element to crisis de-escalation is keeping a sense of balance and patience in the face of chaos or crisis. When we remain calm, cool, and collected in crisis, we are better able to draw from the full range of our training and skills to address the situation. Approaching a student with respect and patience is foundational in managing a crisis. For instance, if a learner had for some time been involved in conflicts with other students, it would be easy to lose patience with him; but by taking a moment to acknowledge your own bias and emotions related to the situation, you could approach the student from a calmer place.
Have one-on-one conversations with an acting-out student, using counseling skills. Counseling skills include active listening; reflection; reframing; and, in some cases, applying humor. While Aiden's outburst in the middle of a lesson was certainly inappropriate, by taking a moment to listen and acknowledge what had upset him instead of immediately admonishing the behavior, his teacher might have avoided escalation.
Try techniques like motivational interviewing (Miller & Rollnick, 2002) that help a teacher express empathy for a student and his situation, attempt to understand why he is upset, avoid argumentation, and roll with the student's resistance or frustration rather than confronting it inflexibly. Such approaches are useful for working with students resistant to change.
Use solution-focused techniques that look toward the future, away from what was and toward what can be. This means viewing a crisis as an opportunity, helping students identify their behavior choices, and encouraging critical thinking and personal responsibility. Solution-focused teachers give students outlets to avoid a further escalation of a crisis. In Aiden's example, instead of immediately demanding to know where he was going, the teacher could've given Aiden a quick option to stay in the classroom.
In experienced hands, these techniques can support a healthy classroom environment, promote student learning, and protect students and teachers from escalating violence (Van Brunt & Murphy, 2018). They are effective in helping a student thoughtfully consider his or her behavior.
Educators also need to recognize when behavior is escalating toward imminent danger. This requires shifting from a crisis de-escalation mode to an emergency mode. As students become increasingly upset, they often display a pattern of behaviors and observable characteristics (including agitated body language like pacing; accelerated breathing; or signs of withdrawal like crossing arms or staring with no response). By becoming familiar with these patterns, we can identify when a violent episode might be about to erupt. Strategies for handling emergencies include drawing on an established plan for safety and action, using physical restraint, monitoring, dismissing the class, and initiating police involvement.

Prong Three: Teamwork

It often feels like classroom management begins and ends at the doors of the classroom. That approach can create isolated responses to student behaviors that would be better understood and addressed with greater collaboration with others in the school community. The third prong encourages all school adults involved with a struggling student to see their role as a part of a systemic, coordinated crisis- and violence-prevention response. Classroom management and ongoing interventions should be combined with, and informed by, actions like psychological and threat-assessment processes or behavioral-intervention analysis. Questions of when to involve parents or refer a student to mental health treatment (or law enforcement officials) are important considerations in more serious incidents.
Behavioral Intervention Teams (BIT) (Van Brunt, 2012) are often a missing link in preventing serious school violence in K–12 schools. These teams are made up of five to seven professionals from areas such as school guidance, student discipline, psychological services, school resources, and disability and 504 accommodation support.
Behavioral Intervention Teams should meet at least weekly and follow three primary phases of action: (1) gathering information from the community about situations that involve disruptive or threatening student behavior, (2) applying an objective risk rubric or threat assessment to each situation, and (3) developing collaborative intervention strategies.
After a classroom disruption or crisis occurs, the involved teacher must share information about what happened with the BIT, supplying pieces of the puzzle to help everyone address the broader issues. If such a team had been in place with Aiden, it would likely have encouraged the teacher to report early any similar episodes with him that involved bullying and suicidal or aggressive behavior. Aiden would be offered counseling support, school staff would consider involving his family, and a progressive discipline policy would be applied to address his classroom behavior. The team would take a larger view of the problem—without becoming siloed within student discipline, counseling, or law enforcement responses—and develop a solution-focused, case-management plan to reduce the risk of future violence or disruptive behavior.

School Leaders' Role

District and school leaders can help put each prong of this approach in place. Teachers will need guidance on how to set clear expectations about classroom behavior, help students develop skills to manage their emotions, and foster a supportive classroom environment. Teachers should also be provided with knowledge and practical expertise in crisis de-escalation skills. Leaders might encourage teachers, in professional learning communities or simple groups, to practice keeping calm when challenged by student behavior, learn basic counseling skills useful in de-escalating a crisis, and learn how to stay solution-focused in their interventions.
And ideally, teachers should be connected to a larger process, such as a Behavioral Intervention Team, to address the underlying causes of any dangerous behaviors and to develop ongoing, multidisciplinary ways to intervene—for everyone's safety.
References

Miller, W., & Rollnick, S. (2002). Motivational interviewing: Preparing people for change (2nd edition). New York: The Guilford Press.

Murphy, A., & Van Brunt, B. (2018). A review of crisis de-escalation techniques for K–12 and higher education instructors. Paper presented at the Southern Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA.

Scholastic. (2013). Primary sources: America's teachers on teaching in an era of change (3rd edition). New York: Scholastic. Retrieved from www.scholastic.com/primarysources/PrimarySources3rdEditionWithAppendix.pdf

Van Brunt, B. (2012). Ending campus violence: New approaches to prevention. New York: Routledge.

Van Brunt, B., & Lewis, W. (2014). A faculty guide to addressing disruptive and dangerous behavior. New York: Routledge.

Van Brunt, B., & Murphy, A. (2018). A staff guide to addressing disruptive and dangerous behavior on campus. New York: Routledge.

End Notes

1 Providing at least some teachers in a school with training in the various crisis de-escalation techniques described here will provide a final layer of protection for violence and aggression in the classroom. The Teaching Professor Conference and the 20-Minute Mentor online trainings (both available through www.magnapubs.com) are helpful for instructors.

2 More information about developing a BIT capacity at a K–12 school can be found at www.nabita.org.

Learn More

 Brian Van Brunt teaches threat assessment at the University of Toledo in Ohio and is executive director of the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association. 

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