How can educators recognize and intervene when student behavior is escalating?
Page 10: Putting It All Together
Throughout this module, you’ve had the opportunity to view Nora and Kai’s behavior in each phase of the acting-out cycle. You’ve also seen how Mr. Santini has responded. In some videos, his response escalates the students’ behaviors. In others, he employs strategies that de-escalate their behaviors. Now that you’ve learned more about each phase of the acting-out cycle, let’s re-visit the videos illustrating Nora and Kai’s behavior as they progress through the seven-phase process (as seen on Page 2).
On this page, Johanna Staubitz analyzes Nora and Kai’s behaviors and provides additional commentary on Mr. Santini’s actions. She also offers tips to help educators know when and how they can address challenging student behavior.
Note: If you would like to re-watch the videos depicting the acting-out cycle for both Nora and Kai, they have been included below.
Teacher: All right friends, you’ve had time to check your homework. What questions do you have?
Teacher: Yes, Jordan.
Jordan: Can you show me how you solved number three?
Teacher: Number three, sure. Let see, we have 40 times three. Remember, we always start multiplying with the digit in the ones place. So we have three times zero. What is three times zero?
Jordan: Three times zero equals zero.
Teacher: Yes. Three times zero equals zero. And where do we write the zero in our answer?
Jordan: In the ones place.
Teacher: Nice. Three times zero equals zero. Next, we need to multiply …
[Nora sighs heavily in frustration, rolls her eyes, and crosses her arms.]
Teacher: … three times the digit in the tens place which is four. What do we do next?
[Nora sighs heavily in frustration, makes noise expelling through her mouth.]
Jordan: Multiply three times four, which is 12.
Teacher: Nice, three times four is 12, and there we go.
Teacher: Yes, Colin?
Colin: Can you look at mine?
Teacher: Yes, I will be right there.
Teacher: [To Nora] You know what, I don’t know why you’re being so rude today. What’s going on?
Nora: This is a waste of my time!
Teacher: Excuse me. You need to speak to me with respect.
[Nora sighs loudly.]
Teacher: Friends, any other questions before we move on?
Nora: I said, this is a waste of my time!
Teacher: That’s an inappropriate way to speak to the teacher. If you don’t get your tone under control, there will be consequences.
Teacher: [To class] Last call for questions? Otherwise, we’re going to get started on today’s warm-up.
Nora: [pushes over chair] You’re so annoying! I hate this class!
Teacher: [To another student] Take this to Ms. Chen, please.
Teacher: [To class] Class, let’s line up at the door and go next door to Ms. Chen’s just like we practiced.
Teacher: Nora, I see you’re feeling upset. Do you want to go to the Peace Corner and do some deep breathing? OK. Good call. Thank you.
[10 MINUTES LATER]
Teacher: Hey Nora, how you feeling?
Nora: A little better.
Teacher: Oh, yeah? Well, if you’re ready, you can go work on the math review worksheet and I’ll bring the class back.
Teacher: All right, cool. Thank you. Here you go. Nice job.
Nora: I’m finished.
Teacher: Great Nora. Thanks for finishing your math activity. I’m going to give you this debrief form, and you can use this to tell me about what happened earlier, OK?
Just let me know when you’re done.
[3 MINUTES LATER]
Nora: I’m done.
Teacher: Great! Thanks for completing the debriefing form, Nora.
Hey, let’s talk through what happened earlier. Can we start with your reflection?
Teacher: Great! I see that you were frustrated by having to wait to do your math work. It was hard to hear other students ask questions that you already knew the answers to? I can totally understand that, but what did you do?
Nora: I talked out. Then I yelled and I knocked over my chair.
Teacher: I saw that too. How did that work out? How do you feel about the result?
Nora: I feel embarrassed, and I wish I hadn’t done it.
Teacher: I know. What do you think about what you could do the next time? Give me some ideas, I can help you.
Nora: Maybe I could ask to work ahead?
Teacher: Nice. That’s a super idea. How about I find some challenging activities for you to keep at your desk just for times like this?
Teacher: Also remember you always have the option to go to the Peace Corner and use the activities over there.
Teacher: Great. Now, here’s the thing: whenever a student shows any unsafe behavior in the classroom, the teacher needs to call home and write an office referral. OK, I just want to make sure you’re aware of that so it’s not a surprise. You have any questions about that?
Nora: No. I get it.
Teacher: Great! Before we move on, is there anything else you need or want me to know? Anything thing else that I could help make you wait better the next time?
Nora: I don’t know. I’m always waiting for adults to help other kids so they can help me.
Teacher: That’s right. You have a baby sister.
Nora: Yeah. She gets all the attention.
Teacher: I’m sorry to hear that. That must be pretty hard. If you ever want to talk about that we totally can.
Teacher: How are you feeling now?
Nora: I feel a little bit embarrassed, but I’m feeling a lot better.
Teacher: That’s totally understandable. I’m glad you’re feeling better, and I just want you to know, I’m very glad to have you in my class.
Nora: Thank you.
(Close this panel)
Transcript: Acting Out Cycle – Kai
Teacher: Alrighty friends, we are going to read a passage about the landmarks in Tennessee. Would someone like to volunteer to pass out the readings?
Teacher: Thank you, Kayla.
Teacher: Colin, nice job sitting quietly.
Teacher: Kai, excellent job showing me you’re ready for reading by sitting quietly.
Teacher: Okay, so today we are going to do a popcorn activity with fun facts you learned about Tennessee and if you want, you can read them right from your book.
Teacher: Okay, let’s see. Diamond, could you start us off?
Diamond: Sure. Tennessee touches eight other states: Missouri, Kentucky, Virginia, North Caro-N-North Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. Popcorn, Haley.
Haley: Tennessee is tied with Missouri for the state with the most borders. Popcorn, Riley.
Kai: Ugh [puts head down, taps pencil on desk]
Riley: Tennessee is famous for its music, hot chicken, and rolling hills. It’s called “The Volunteer State.” Popcorn, Kai.
Kai: Uh. That’s the one I was gonna say. Umm… Tennessee is pretty moun-mount-uhh-a [puts head on desk].
Teacher: Kai, that word is mountainous, and please keep your head up and keep trying your best.
Kai: Uhh I’m done with this!
Teacher: Excuse me, sir, that’s not how we talk to each other.
[Kai gets up out of his seat and pushes the papers off his desk.]
Kai: Leave me alone! [runs out of classroom]
Teacher: Class, please continue with your reading [looks out the classroom door].
Teacher: [[picks up the classroom phone] Hi. Kai is headed towards the cafeteria. Thank you. [hangs up phone]
Principal Sanders: Kai is back, and he’s calmed down a little bit.
Teacher: Great. Thank you. Can you take over the reading activity for me?
Principal Sanders: Yes.
Teacher: Sure. [hands Principal Sanders the reading activity]
Teacher: Class, Principal Sanders is going to take over the reading activity, and when you’re done, you can work on your comprehension section.
Teacher: [meets Kai in classroom doorway] Kai, I’m so glad you’re back. This might be a good time to go straight to the Peace Corner. Does that sound cool?
Teacher: Right on. Go ahead. Relax.
[Kai reenters the classroom.]
[10 MINUTES LATER]
Teacher: Hey, Kai. Are you good?
Kai: Yea, I’m good.
Teacher: Awesome, bud. If you’re ready, I have an activity for you to complete at your desk.
Teacher: Okay, cool. Why don’t you pick up your things and get settled and then I’ll give you the directions.
[Kai picks up his things from the floor and sits in his desk.]
Teacher: Great. Thanks so much for picking that up, Kai. [puts worksheet on Kai’s desk] This activity is about the story we read yesterday, so these are pictures of events in the story, and your job is to put them in order.
Kai: Got it.
Teacher: Cool, and just let me know if you have any questions.
[5 MINUTES LATER]
Teacher: Hey, Kai. Do you think you’re ready to give some thought to what happened earlier?
Teacher: Great. [places debriefing behavior form on Kai’s desk] You can use this form to talk about what happened, why, and what we could maybe do differently next time. Okay, and you can let me know when you’re done.
Teacher: Any questions, just let me know.
[5 MINUTES LATER]
Teacher: Hey, Kai. Let’s revisit what happened earlier. Okay?
Teacher: I’m going to use this form to guide our conversation. [touches debriefing behavior form]
Teacher: [picks up debriefing behavior form] Cool. I saw you get upset and run out of the classroom. Umm can you tell me about what happened from your perspective?
Kai: I knew I was gonna have to have a turn. I don’t know how to read all the words, and everyone else knows it.
Teacher: I see. So, you were already upset before you even started and then when it was your turn, you ran into a tough word. What did you do to deal with all of that?
Kai: I don’t know. I got angry and ran away.
Teacher: Yea. How did doing that work out for you?
Kai: Not good. Now I look bad in all kinds of ways.
Teacher: I can totally understand you feel that way, but I think your classmates like you and appreciate you and you don’t have anything to worry about. But is there something else you could try next time that might work better?
Kai: Can I skip my turn?
Teacher: That’s a great idea. Then next time we can just agree if you come to a word that you don’t know, just popcorn to someone else. Okay?
Teacher: You can also always ask for help. There’s no shame in that. Umm, I’ll also try to give you some time to look at the passages in advance if you want. Okay? Maybe we could practice the first sentence and have you start the popcorn activity the next few times.
Kai: I would like that.
Teacher: Umm. I want you to try writing down these strategies. You can write “Ask for teacher’s help and then keep going from there. Okay. [places debriefing behavior form back in front of Kai]
Teacher: You can let me know if you need any help.
Kai: I’m done. [hands debriefing behavior form to teacher]
Teacher: Alright, Kai. Nice job writing down those strategies we identified. One more thing we need to talk about. Any time a student shows any unsafe behavior in the classroom, like leaving the room without permission, the teacher needs to call home and write an office referral. I just want to make sure you’re aware of that so it’s not a surprise. Do you have any questions about that?
Kai: No, but my mom is gonna be mad.
Teacher: I’ll do my best to make sure your mom understands that this is all part of the process and that you’re learning how to get your needs met. Okay? So, no worries about that.
Teacher: Cool. And what do you think about making some extra time to practice reading?
Kai: I’d like that.
Teacher: That sounds great. Umm, I’ll talk to your mom about that too, and then really thanks so much for having this conversation. I think you did a great job, and I’m really glad you’re in my class.
Kai: Thanks, Mr. S.
(Close this panel)
In the following audio clips, Johanna Staubitz offers commentary, first on Nora’s acting-out behavior and then on Kai’s. She then compares the acting-out behaviors of the two students.
Johanna Staubitz, PhD, BCBA-D Assistant Professor, Department of Special Education Vanderbilt University
So we just saw a video of Nora’s acting-out cycle in which we also saw Mr. Santini responding to Nora in different ways at different stages of the cycle. There are a couple things to note about this example. One is that the escalation happened very quickly from start to finish. That’s the case for Nora; for some students, there’s a slower progression where there’s a little more time for a teacher to think about how to intervene and maybe de-escalate somewhere along the way before behavior peaks in intensity. And so it’s just important to know that that pacing is different across students. But for Nora, it happens quickly and that highlights something else that’s pretty important to think about, and that is knowing your students. The better Mr. Santini knows Nora, the better he understands her triggers and understands what her behavior is communicating, the better able he will be to select strategies that can interrupt the cycle of escalation and keep things safer.
Building a relationship with a student is very important for lots of reasons. One, again, it helps a teacher learn more about what may trigger behavior that can become dangerous and disruptive. And two, it also builds trust between the student and teacher such that when Mr. Santini does intervene, it’s going to be more likely to have an impact on Nora’s behavior because they have that trust even if she is in a stressful state.
Now we also saw Mr. Santini take some steps to respond to Nora’s behavior that weren’t particularly successful at interrupting the escalation. First, during the Trigger Stage we see Nora looking irritated and kind of rolling her eyes and sighing, and those are really subtle cues. They’re easy for a teacher to miss. Mr. Santini misses those cues that Nora’s behavior is starting to escalate. And sometimes it’s good for a teacher to overlook minor disruptive behavior, but sometimes it isn’t. And so, for a student whose behavior can peak in this way, it’s important to intervene early at that Trigger Stage. So, we have to know what the trigger is and be looking for it. And to address it we have to think about what that behavior is serving to do for the student.
For Mr. Santini to intervene in a way that’s more effective, he would need to think about what the trigger is and how to address the need. For Nora, we saw that the peers’ questioning had her bored and start to get irritated. So Mr. Santini needs to think about, “How do I get her less bored and less irritated? How do I move her out of this context in which she’s starting to escalate?”
Some other general observations are that as Mr. Santini intervenes at each stage of the cycle, he misses the mark because he isn’t necessarily matching what he does with the need that Nora’s behavior is communicating or with the triggering situation. For Nora, it’s this kind of slow pace, waiting on the teacher to help everybody before she can move on to the activity she’s ready for, that is the problem. So the strategies Mr. Santini selects to be effective really need to mitigate that issue, not some other issue like telling her she needs to be more polite versus being rude or questioning her about those things. Most importantly, Mr. Santini needs to think about mitigating the situation that led to the escalation in the first place, and so strategies for that can look different as escalation continues, as Nora proceeds through Trigger, Agitation, Acceleration, up to Peak. And higher intensity strategies may be needed as she approaches Peak behavior. And sometimes a student really just needs to escape that situation. Especially as she gets closer to Peak, it might become more important for Mr. Santini to try something that just eliminates the scenario altogether, and something that Mr. Santini and teachers should consider in a situation like that one is that if you do give a student a break (which is a great idea if that’s what they need), then that triggering situation is still out there, and it’s still going to be a problem when the break is over. So the teacher needs to think about how to change the environment that the student’s going to come back to or, in the longer term, teach the student the skills to tolerate situations like that in the future.
So some of you may be thinking, “Why do I need to adjust the environment, shouldn’t students adjust to my expectations as a teacher?” and that is such a reasonable question that many of us have. But the fact is as long as the environment stays the same, we’re going to continue to see the same behavioral issues from students who have them. Ultimately, we do want students to have the skills to adapt and behave in a way that meets the expectations in any given classroom. And so, as we work toward that, we don’t ever want to forget that our goal ultimately is for the student to be able to evaluate the situation and match their behavior to it. We need to begin by making a situation tolerable for them so that we can gradually add components that present challenges so they can learn and practice meeting those challenges, like listening to peers ask a lot of questions while they wait for the activity they’re ready to do.
Transcript: Johanna Staubitz, PhD, BCBA-D
Kai’s Acting-Out Behavior
So you’ve seen Kai’s full acting-out cycle. We began in the Calm Stage where he’s successfully preparing for an oncoming reading activity in the classroom, and the teacher, Mr. Santini, does a really nice job of acknowledging that through behavior-specific praise and really supporting Kai in that Calm Stage. Nevertheless, the reading activity comes and it is the popcorn activity. And you can kind of see Kai start to subtly move his materials around his desk, and this is so subtle that Mr. Santini doesn’t pick up on it as a sign of anxiety, although Kai is a little restless. Then, the worst happens from Kai’s perspective and the popcorn is called on him. And so he’s tapping his pencil, and he’s like, “Oh, well, somebody already said the one I was gonna say,” and these are more signs of agitation and anxiety. And then he takes a shot at reading his sentence. And unfortunately, these triggers are accumulating. He runs into a challenging word and expresses more frustration there. And Mr. Santini, although trying to be supportive, is not picking up on the fact that something needs to change about this instructional activity for Kai to be diverted off the path of escalation. And ultimately what happens is Kai is so stressed out by this requirement that he read in front of his peers after making mistakes that he ends up yelling and running out of the room, knocking all the stuff off his desk. And Mr. Santini needs to make a call to the front office to make sure that someone can come and look at Kai and keep him safe. Then we see Kai coming back to the classroom, and Mr. Santini doing a really nice job of very gradually reintegrating and beginning in a separate area where Kai can continue to cool down, to giving him an independent instructional activity that is at his level that he can do to kind of get re-acclimated to the classroom environment. Along the way, Kai restores his environment because he’s going to need those materials he knocked on the floor and also needs to start to take some steps toward repairing the damage, so to speak, that he’s done through acting out and ultimately in that debriefing phase completing a form once he’s reintegrated into the academic setting that helps him think through what happened. “What caused my behavior? What was my behavior? Was it right or wrong? Did it pay off for me? Yes, or no?” And that process ultimately sets up a conversation that happens during the Recovery Phase. Once he’s really calm, it’s a separate time, a one-on-one with the teacher, and that recovery conversation is really important as well. And in that conversation, Kai and Mr. Santini are together able to identify the trigger, identify the forms of Kai’s behavior so Kai has a real firm idea of what was the issue, and then they proceed to brainstorm about what they can do next time that would work better for Kai and leave him feeling better. Before ultimately concluding the conversation, Mr. Santini also very clearly communicates the consequences of acting out and making sure Kai’s in the know about what’s going to happen next. But ultimately Mr. Santini concludes on a compassionate note that communicates Kai’s firm place in the classroom as part of this classroom community, which is super, super important.
Transcript: Johanna Staubitz, PhD, BCBA-D
Nora and Kai Comparison
You’ve seen examples of acting-out cycles for two different students. These students have some things in common. They’re both well-liked. They both are active members of their classroom communities. Yet, they both have struggles that result in them acting out in ways that are unsafe for them and their peers, and also create some disruption in the classroom environment. That can be a problem both academically and socially for these students and their peers.
Nora and Kai are different from one another, though, in some really meaningful ways. Nora, on one hand, excels academically as a really strong student and that relates directly to her triggers where Kai has academic strengths, but struggles more in some areas and that relates to his triggers. For Nora, because she’s so academically strong, she gets quite frustrated and bored when peers need more academic support than she does, and she’s not able to move forward to something that challenges her, whereas the triggers are almost to the contrary for Kai. If instruction is moving too quickly or he’s required to do something for which his skills aren’t fluent, particularly if it’s in front of the class, he’s going to struggle. And these different triggers also translate into a different manifestation of disruptive behavior. For Nora, she looks more bored and frustrated, at least at the outset, and she appears angrier as she moves through the stages from Trigger to Peak. Kai, on the other hand, looks more agitated and anxious throughout the process than angry, and his behavior appears more oriented toward escaping the environment entirely by the time he reaches the Peak Stage. And this results in some key differences in what Peak looks like for them and for what Mr. Santini needs to do to keep everybody safe. For Nora, she’s in the classroom expressing her frustration with the teacher, and the rest of the class needs to go out. For Kai, he leaves the classroom. He wants to get away from all of the eyes on him and his struggles with reading and that requires Mr. Santini to call somebody to intervene with him, while Mr. Santini stays with the classroom. Before each of these students reach the Peak Stage, different interventions would have been necessary for Mr. Santini to de-escalate things. While both students, in a sense, have something about the classroom context that they need to escape, the form of that escape looks different. Nora needs to move on where Kai needs an out from the activity. Both of these students might be differentially receptive to different types of breaks. For Nora, going to the Peace Corner is a perfectly acceptable alternative once she’s in that Acceleration Phase. But for Kai, Mr. Santini judges that that’s just going to draw more unwanted attention to what Kai might feel are his failures here, so let me give him an alternative task, a helping task instead. So once again, Mr. Santini really needs to know his students when he uses effective de-escalation strategies that are really matched to their needs in these situations.