How can educators recognize and intervene when student behavior is escalating?
Page 6: Acceleration
During the Acceleration Phase, student behavior becomes more focused in an effort to engage the teacher. Although the Acceleration Phase is in the middle of the acting-out behavior cycle, indicating that the behavioral concern has been building for some time, this is often when teachers first recognize that a problem is occurring.
What a Student Looks Like
During acceleration, students engage in a variety of behaviors that can provoke the teacher and interfere with instruction. These behaviors are more intense than in the previous phase and can include:
Questioning or arguing
Unwillingness to rationally communicate
Off-task behaviors that disrupt the learning environment (e.g., inappropriate noises, loud tapping)
Refusal to work by:
Completing required assignments but with poor quality
Completing only a portion of the assignment
Not completing any portion of the assignment
Engaging other students
Minor property destruction (e.g., ripping up a test)
In this video, note the behaviors that Nora displays during the Acceleration Phase (time: 0:59).
Teacher: Friends, any other questions before we move on?
Nora: [pushes desk away] I said, this is a waste of my time!
Teacher: That’s an inappropriate way to speak to a teacher. If you don’t get your tone under control, there will be consequences.
[ Johanna Staubitz commentary ]
We see Nora’s behavior escalating further. She is now shouting out at the teacher, who responds in a way that’s completely understandable, which is to let her know that her behavior is unacceptable. And once again he does this somewhat privately, and with a calm tone of voice. And those things are worth replicating. However, he’s not responding in a way that addresses Nora’s problem. He’s just kind of telling her to stop it and so he needs a better strategy, and that’s why we can expect Nora’s behavior to continue to escalate to the next stage.
Strategies To Implement
Managing the student’s behavior and preventing further escalation is imperative during this phase of the acting-out cycle. Below is a list of strategies and tips to defuse a student’s behavior.
Remain neutral when interacting with the student.
Don’t take it personally, even if the student’s behavior feels disrespectful.
Avoid responding with annoyance or anger. Doing so will only reinforce the student’s behavior.
Briefly step away from the situation and regain control if you feel like you may respond negatively to the student’s behavior.
Note: Because the student is directly attempting to engage the teacher, this can be a tense or stressful situation.
Give the student an individual prompt or redirection.
When prompting or redirecting a student, remain calm and respectful.
Avoid reactive or escalating prompts that will only make the situation worse, such as:
Arguing with the student
Making sarcastic comments (e.g., “You’re not in 1st-grade anymore,” “Maybe you should listen better during class.”)
Getting in the student’s face or personal space
Touching the student
Allow the student adequate time to respond.
Momentarily shift your focus to a task or another student in the class to allow the student time to process the prompt or redirection. Giving the student time (and space) can prevent a power struggle.
Reinforce the student for compliance or on-task behavior.
If the student has complied either partially or fully, offer praise.
If the student has not complied, continue to address her calmly and respectfully.
Note: After praising a student for demonstrating the expected behavior, request additional, limited engagement in the activity. Encouraging the student to solve the next problem or read the next paragraph can defuse challenging behaviors and allow the student to refocus on the task at hand.
The teacher’s response to a student’s behavior in this phase can greatly influence whether a student returns to the Calm Phase or escalates to the Peak Phase. Although further escalation is sometimes unavoidable, this is the teacher’s last chance to implement strategies to interrupt the acting-out cycle. In this video, Mr. Santini intervenes effectively to interrupt the acting-out cycle at the Acceleration Phase and helps Nora return to the Calm Phase (time: 2:26).
Transcript: Acceleration Phase with De-escalation Strategy
Nora: [pushes desk away] I said, this is a waste of my time!
Teacher: Hey I can see you feeling frustrated, why don’t you go to the peace corner.
[ Johanna Staubitz commentary ]
All right. So here we are with Nora, demonstrating agitation: “I said, this is a waste of my time,” that raised voice. And in this scenario, Mr. Santini again approaches her privately, uses a calm tone of voice. In fact, he sounds empathetic, and says, “Hey, I can see you’re frustrated.” Not only is his tone expressing empathy, but what he says is a recognition of what she might be feeling. And he offers her an out. It’s like if the trigger is this situation where she’s bored and annoyed and wants to move on, he’s saying, “You know what it’s cool, like, go ahead and take a break in the Peace Corner,” which is a nice thing for people to have available in a classroom.
So, in summary, some of the same elements are here that were in his response, you know, that we saw previously— where he kind of failed to de-escalate Nora— which include using a calm tone and speaking privately. But in this case, what he said to Nora was empathetic and matched to the trigger. It was an out, an escape from the situation. Also notice that this tactic of offering a break, or the Peace Corner, is different than the ones Mr. Santini tried when Nora was in the Trigger Phase in our alternate universe and also when she was in the Agitation Phase. In both of those phases, he offered an opportunity for her to move on to the next activity. And, you know, I just want to point this out, because as a student gets closer to Peak, we may want to think about more intense strategies as being the ones we go to. So here a break is more disruptive to the classroom routine and more disruptive to instruction, for Nora, than, for example, going ahead, moving on to the academic activity. But once she gets close to Peak, her, she’s responding emotionally, and he might have a better chance at, you know, de-escalating her before she reaches a crisis level if he kind of goes for something that is a bigger interruption, like a break, or time in the Peace Corner.
Though it can be quite difficult, a teacher must put away his pride during this phase of the acting-out cycle. Remember, at this point, the situation is not about the teacher but about the student. When dealing with a student in this phase, the teacher must always consider the student’s dignity. The teacher can respectfully address acting-out behaviors by:
Using the student’s name when prompting or redirecting
Focusing on the behavior not the student
Speaking to the student discreetly or privately
Speaking to the student at eye-level
Kathleen Lane explains more about how a teacher can interrupt the acting-out cycle during the Acceleration Phase. And although it may seem counterintuitive, a teacher may need to overlook some minor behaviors to de-escalate the situation. Next, Pamela Glenn and Janel Brown describe common mistakes new teachers often make when addressing challenging behavior.
Kathleen Lane, PhD, BCBA-D Professor Department of Special Education Associate Vice Chancellor for Research University of Kansas
Without any kind of awareness training about the acting-out cycle whatsoever, this is typically the stage when teachers would begin to know for sure that there’s a problem. And this is when the student is trying [laughs] to take you on as a teacher. And oftentimes in this phase of acceleration, the students are trying to engage you in an argument, and it might come across like, “This is so boring,” or, “I can’t believe I have to do this again,” and they’re intentionally trying to provoke you or capture your attention. Your typical response might be to say something like, “You need to do this because I told you this is what needs to be done.” And then you might find yourself engaged in an argument with a seven-year-old. But at this point, it is critical that you not engage in sarcasm that way. And instead, we want to reach deep, and we want to show empathy towards them and find a constructive way to move that conversation forward without embarrassing them. So you might say something like, “I know you’re really upset right now, but I really need you to start these problems.” And maybe your intervention at that point is as simple as taking a highlighter and then underlining the first three problems. And then you can say to them, “When you get done with these first three, go ahead and check them with a partner and I’ll be right back to check on you after that.” Even if they make a comment when you start to walk away, that is still not the ideal time to take them on. You’re giving them an opportunity to save a little face there. And this is one of those situations where you’re going to lose the battle to win the war type of a thing. Because if you attempt to engage them, then you’re likely to propel them into that next stage. And instead, when you start to walk away and they make somewhat of a snide comment, just keep going.
Another thing that will show up during this time is that for many students, they will engage in what’s called partial compliance. So if you tell them to do an assignment, they’ll do it in a very, very sloppy or rushed way and just turn it in and think, “Okay, that’s good enough.” And sometimes as a teacher, this is hard to do, but the ideal response might be to say something like this: “I appreciate your turning that in. However, as I’m looking over this last one, I simply can’t read it. Could you go back and redo just this one so I can make sure that I can give you full credit if this answer is correct.” But if you were to go back to them and say, “I need you to redo this whole thing” at that very moment, you would likely push them over the edge and they may move even further up the acting-out cycle into that peak behavior. So in summary, the best way a teacher can interrupt the acceleration phase is to offer a prompt and then walk away. In other words, make the request known and then give them an opportunity to get back on track. And then as soon as they do get back on track, that’s the time you want to give them immediate acknowledgment or reinforcement. As simple as “I really appreciate you getting back on track, that’s awesome.”
Transcript: Pamela Glenn
I think some of the most common mistakes that new teachers make is getting in a power struggle with a kid. Don’t do it. You’re not going to win. It’s not productive at all. There’s something about knowing when to not speak and let the child get it out. And then wait for the child to have completely depleted themselves [laughs] and then move in. I’ve seen more teachers: Child gets angry, teacher gets angry. And it’s just a spiral of a disaster. My biggest advice is do not get in a power struggle with a child, you’re not going to win. When they are talking and they’re talking back, you’ve set your expectation. That’s when you have to be calm. “This is not the behavior that I expect.” And you’ve got to give them a minute, because if you think about it, when you’re upset, you can’t rationally think through what’s going on to respond in the moment. I know I need a minute to calm down. Especially if they’re in front of their friends, they’ve got to save face. “You need a minute. Go take a minute. I’m not going back in for an argument with you. So just take a minute.” And then afterwards we address, “That’s not how you talk to me.” So, we always address the behavior. Then we look at why were you behaving like that? It’s never a case of “I can throw a chair, and she’s not going to do anything.” We’re going to talk about it. The other thing that I think is also a common mistake that teachers make is we have a lot of preconceived ideas about what a certain type of student is going to do. I think sometimes we’ve already decided in our minds ‘This student is going to do this. I’m going to treat them like this.’ The student’s been treated like that. They lash back and then it’s a never-ending cycle of what is expected or how they’ve been treated. I think everybody just has to judge the child based on who they are in the moment and set the expectation. The children will rise to the expectation if you help them.
Transcript: Janel Brown
As a new teacher coming in, you really cannot take anything personally from your students as far as behavior, lashing out. These kids, they go through so much, and they just don’t know how to express themselves properly. You have to understand your kids’ background, where they’re coming from, what they’re dealing with. Some are dealing with homelessness. Some of them are dealing with not having enough food to eat at home. Dad’s missing, Mom is missing, drugs, just all types of things. The best thing that you can do, as a new teacher coming in, just let a student know that “I’m here for you. If you ever need to talk or anything, I’m not going to force you to talk, but if you ever feel that you want to tell me what’s going on, I’m here to listen. I’ll try my best to do what I need to do to get the help that you need for whatever your issue is.” Just have compassion for the students. If Johnny did something yesterday, don’t hold it against him tomorrow. You give him new grace and new mercies. Just like we get new graces and mercies every day, we have to extend that to our kids as well. Love them. But if you’re constantly just fussing and yelling, and Johnny can’t ever do anything right, this child may be going through this at home. And then at school, which is supposed to be his safe place, he’s getting the same thing. He’s just at a loss. So, yes, grace, mercy, compassion. Don’t take it personal.
Watch Video 1 and Video 2 and compare Mr. Santini’s response to Kai in each. Identify another strategy that Mr. Santini could have implemented to de-escalate Kai’s behavior in the Acceleration Phase. You may type your answers in the field below the video. However, this field is provided for reflection purposes only; your answers will not be available for download or printing.
In Video 1, Kai puts his head down, says “I’m done with this!” showing that his behavior is escalated further, and Mr. Santini responds by highlighting what we don’t do in our classroom,(which is talk to each other that way) rather than giving Kai something constructive to do or finding a way to mitigate the existing trigger, which is this reading requirement, which now includes Kai actually having a turn and encountering a challenging word. What would have been better, and what you saw in Video 2, is Mr. Santini getting wise to this problem and real quickly, and sort of subtly, as much as you can do so while delivering whole class instruction, kind of privately slips Kai an alternative task. “Hey, can you go grab that thing for me? Help me out, buddy,” kind of conversation which just gives Kai something to do that is unrelated to reading and removes him from the situation. And then to take it a step further, Mr. Santini really makes it clear that Kai’s off the hook by popcorning to another student.
Now, there are other strategies Mr. Santini could have tried that could have been effective. One example is simply recognizing that if Kai needs a break, maybe other people do too and if not a break an opportunity to prepare their response. So, Mr. Santini could have paused and said, “Hey, you know what? I realized I didn’t give you guys any time to pick out your fact about Tennessee. Let’s take a minute to do that. Once you have your fact picked out, look up at me to show me you’re ready and then we can continue.” That would give not only Kai a chance to figure out what a sentence says but everybody else because there may be other students who have the same struggles. That’s just one example. There are a lot of different strategies that could have worked here. Remember, for a strategy to be most likely to work it’s one that addresses the problem, the trigger, which is Kai being in the spotlight and expected to demonstrate a skill that he really doesn’t have or doesn’t have confidence in. So, the effective strategies need to be aligned with that problem. Now, you might think, “Oh, well, because he needs to escape that requirement, maybe we offer him a break in the Peace Corner,” and that may work well. One thing to consider, though, is Kai’s sensitivity to what his peers think, and it may be that giving him the opportunity to remove himself from the physical setting, draws unwanted attention to the problem, in which case his behavior could escalate further. That’s why I like the strategy that Mr. Santini used so much because it’s a little more subtle. And yeah, it is clear to everybody that he’s kind of interrupting the requirement, but he’s asking to do something that students like to do. It’s like, “Kai, help me out by going and grabbing this other thing. Do a classroom chore.” It’s a little more natural than sending a student all the way out of instruction to take a break because the implication there is that they need a break rather than that you need a favor as the teacher.