Techniques for De-escalating student behavior

The De-Escalating Discussion

  • Try to calmly bring the level of arousal down to a safer place.
  • Do not get loud or try to yell over a screaming student. Wait until he or she takes a breath; then talk. Speak calmly at an average volume.
  • Respond selectively; answer only informational questions no matter how rudely asked, (e.g., “Why do I have to do what you say?”). Do not answer abusive questions (e.g., “Why are all teachers jerks?”). This question should get no response whatsoever.
  • Explain limits and rules in an authoritative, firm, but always respectful tone. Give choices where possible in which both alternatives are safe ones (e.g., “Would you like to continue our meeting calmly or would you prefer to stop now and come back tomorrow when things can be more relaxed?”).
  • Empathize with feelings but not with the behavior (e.g., “I understand that you have every right to feel angry, but it is not okay for you to threaten me or other students.”).
  • Do not solicit how the student is feeling or interpret feelings in an analytic way.
  • Do not argue or try to convince.
  • Suggest alternative behaviors where appropriate (e.g., “Would you like to change seats?”).
  • Give the consequences of inappropriate behavior without threats or anger.
  • Represent external controls as institutional rather than personal. 

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Maintain control of yourself and your emotions

  • Appear calm, centered, and self-assured. This will help everyone stay calmer, too.
  • Use a modulated, low tone of voice.
  • Do not be defensive—even if the comments or insults are directed at you, they are not about you. Do not defend yourself or anyone else from insults, curses, or misconceptions about their roles.
  • Call on a colleague, an administrator, security, or the police if you need more help.
  • Be very respectful even when firmly setting limits or calling for help. The agitated student is very sensitive to feeling shamed and disrespected. We want the student to know that it is not necessary to show us that he or she should be respected. We automatically treat the student with dignity and respect.

Communicate effectively nonverbally

  • Allow extra physical space between you and the student—about four times your usual distance. Anger and agitation can fill the extra space between you and the student.
  • Get at the same eye level (kneel, sit, or stoop as needed) and maintain constant eye contact. Allow the student to break his or her gaze and look away if need be.
  • Do not point or shake your finger.
  • Do not touch the student—even if some touching is generally culturally appropriate and usual in your setting. Physical contact could easily be misinterpreted as hostile or threatening.
  • Keep your hands out of your pockets, up and available to protect yourself, and stand at an angle to the student.