How can educators recognize and intervene when student behavior is escalating?
Page 7: Peak
If the teacher is unable to defuse a student’s behavior during the Acceleration Phase, the student will move into the Peak Phase—the most unpredictable and often dangerous phase. During this phase, the teacher should focus on addressing disruptive acting-out behavior and maintaining safety.
What a Student Looks Like
In this phase, the student may engage in behaviors that disrupt the learning environment and result in lost instructional time. In some cases, the student’s behavior may be clearly out-of-control and even pose a danger to themselves and others.
- Yelling at the teacher or another student
- Throwing a book on the floor
- Slamming the door
- Walking out of the classroom
- Hitting others
- Throwing a book at a student or the teacher
- Engaging in self-harm
- Overturning a desk
- Running out of the room or the school
The behavior at this point is often loud and explosive. Although the Peak Phase tends to be a short one, the aftermath of this critical event, or “behavioral earthquake,” is usually quite serious. For obvious reasons, it is best to prevent behaviors from escalating to this point.
Strategies To Implement
In this phase, the teacher can no longer prevent the challenging behavior. Teachers can implement the following strategies to address out-of-control behavior when it occurs.
|Have a plan and know how to implement it.||
Explicit steps for obtaining immediate assistance for serious behavioral situations. For example:
A physical restriction that prevents or limits a student’s ability to move parts of the body (e.g., head, arms, legs) freely.
The placement of a student alone in a room or area from which he is physically unable to leave. Note: Timeout is not a form of seclusion.
Note: You should be familiar with your school or district’s policy on restraint and seclusion . These practices should be used only as a last resort and only by trained personnel.
In this video, Ava displays some common Peak Phase behaviors. Note how Ms. Harris maintains control and implements her crisis plan (time: 1:47).
Transcript: Peak Phase
Ava: Shut up! I don’t need a f*****g chat! I hate your class!
Teacher: Hey, I need you to calm down! Don’t speak to me like that.
Ava: F**k you!
[Ava storms out of the classroom and knocks over a basket.]
Teacher: I need to take care of this. You all continue working on your own project. [picks up phone] Hey, Ava Jones just left my classroom. She’s headed down Hallway B, and it looks like she’s headed out to the parking lot.
[ Johanna Staubitz commentary ]
If you recall right before this, Ms. Harris said, “I think we need to have a chat” and sort of challenged Ava to cooperate with her and demonstrate that Ms. Harris is in charge by going up to the front of the room in front of everybody to have that chat with Ms. Harris. And so this is what happened next. We hear Ava shouting across the room and swearing at Ms. Harris. We hear the peers go “Ohhh” when Ms. Harris made the instruction for Ava to come have a chat. So there’s Ava is very aware there’s peer attention here. But really it’s safety that’s of paramount concern at this point because ultimately even though she was swearing and shouting, Ava has left the room in this video clip and Ms. Harris can’t leave the room to follow her because she has other students to support. And she just needs to very quickly intervene. And it’s very clear to Ms. Harris’ great credit that she knows the school’s crisis plan for situations like these. She immediately calls the front office, communicates the student’s identity and location, and then continues keeping her class who remains in the room calm.
Unlike in previous phases, once a student enters the Peak Phase, the teacher can no longer interrupt the acting-out cycle. To return to the Calm Phase, the teacher must support the student as he or she transitions through the De-escalation and Recovery Phases.
Kathleen Lane provides more information about implementing a pre-established plan and prioritizing safety during the Peak Phase. Next, Pamela Glenn and Yesmery Sanchez share considerations for responding to peak behavior. Additionally, Yesmery Sanchez explains the importance of maintaining self-control when a student’s behavior peaks and seeking emotional support from colleagues.
Kathleen Lane, PhD, BCBA-D
Department of Special Education
Associate Vice Chancellor for Research
University of Kansas
Instructional Mentor, Former Teacher
Transcript: Kathleen Lane, PhD, BCBA-D
The overriding consideration during this peak phase of the acting-out cycle is to maintain safety of the student who is acting out as well as the other students that are there in the classroom, the teacher, and the other adults as well, to ensure that nobody is going to get hurt. In order to do that, we first need to figure out long before this ever happens, ideally before the first day of school, what the plan is going to be. So in some schools, they’ll have the students who are in control line up outside the classroom and wait outside the door. And oftentimes they’ll call a vice principal or somebody else that manages challenging behaviors to come and remove the student who is engaging in this peak behavior. So there’s a variety of different methods that people can use. And what’s important for the teacher before the first day of school is to figure out how does your school’s set of leaders want you to respond to those types of problems? Is the goal to keep all the students in the classroom? Is the goal to remove the student who’s acting out? Do you have a removal policy at that point where they will send the student to on-campus suspension or phone a parent? The downside of that, though, I have to say, is that you can unintentionally reinforce this really undesirable behavior. So if you send a student out, you can be [laughs] teaching them that if you act out significantly enough, you can escape my classroom or these task demands or these assignments. And so if that student’s particular goal is to get out of a situation that they’re not comfortable with either because they can’t do or don’t want to do these activities or whatever is taking place in class, you are in danger of reinforcing some very inappropriate behavior.
So we have to be careful here. We want to think about what is the child trying to get or trying to avoid when they’re in that peak behavior? We want to get through this peak stage as quickly as possible and get out of it so that we can restore the environment, recover, debrief with that student, and get back on track instructionally. But we have to keep everybody safe.
Transcript: Pamela Glenn
The students know my first and primary role is I promised your parents I would keep you safe. If I have to get 23 students out of the room so that 24th student can lose it, then that’s what we do. I’m thinking of a couple of instances where a student has been throwing furniture, and the first thing I’m going to do is I’m clearing everybody out of the room and they know, let’s go. I think the important thing is you keep calm so that the students keep calm, and the student who is acting out is also calm within their crisis. And I’m going to put myself between the students and the student. I’m thinking of the few cases where that’s happened, and the kids will just leave the room quickly. I would encourage teachers to befriend a peer teacher so that if you need a timeout, send [laughs] Johnny out for a minute so you can calm down. Because sometimes it’s not about the student calming down, it’s about you calming down. I’ve had the students leave and go to the next classroom so I can then come back and keep an eye and then you buzz for administration, and somebody’s going to come. Typically, where I’ve experienced this, once peaks hit, the student’s in it to win it. They’ve already thrown the chair, they’re not thinking rationally. Once the chair’s left their hand or the table’s left their hand or the pencil’s left their hand, you immediately see “Oh, my gosh, what have I done?” And then usually it’s followed by tears, remorse, or even saving face. I haven’t experienced it be something that’s just kept going. It’s been an isolated incident of something followed by “I shouldn’t have done that.” If they’ve said it or not, they’re telling you physically or they’re telling you with their words. Then it’s down to keep everybody away. We’re not going to worry about why it happens at that moment. Let’s just get you safe. Let’s get you out of here. “Do you need to speak with me? Do you need to speak with the guidance counselor? Who do you want to speak to that’s going to get you back to that safe place?”
If somebody is peaked and it’s not causing physical harm to everybody else, then the rest of the room knows, “No, we’re ignoring.” And that’s a really hard skill to teach kids. However, if you do it from day one; I tell the students all the time, if you feed it, it will grow. So, when the student that’s looking for that attention is getting up there and they sometimes will peak because they’re not getting any attention, you ignore it. You turn your head. You turn your body. All of that, just ignore it.
Transcript: Yesmery Sanchez
It’s tricky because we always think that we are going to follow these steps in order. I’m going to grab the phone. I’m going to call the main desk. The Dean is in the hallway somewhere so I can just yell out and say, “Hey! Come, we need assistance.” But it doesn’t always work out that way. I think the steps end up being making sure that the students are safe. You can have the students either move to the side or you might have the students step out if there’s a monitor in the hallway to guide with that and isolate the student who’s in crisis or who’s having a behavior peak. It could be that the behavior peak can be calmed by bringing somebody into the classroom instead of having the other students leave. So if there’s a monitor in the hallway, I can bring them into the classroom to help with other students and then help de-escalate the peak.
If it’s a class that’s co-taught where there’s multiple teachers in a room, I feel that it’s a lot easier because then you can have one teacher pull some of the students to a safe space or another teacher monitor the student who might be in crisis or one teacher go grab help. So I think that it really depends on the scenario as well. If I’m by myself, my actions would entail calling somebody from the hallway or security from the hallway, which we have in a high school setting. We have the security guards spaced around where they can radio somebody to come. High school, the kids are a little bigger, it can be really dangerous in reality, so there’s a lot of things that need to be considered. It’s just making sure that you’re following certain protocols, like not having scissors out or anything like that is super important when you’re in a high school setting to make sure that these kind of actions are easily de-escalated.
You can’t be angry or aggressive towards the student. Especially when I began as a teacher, I was very emotional. It was extremely difficult to control my emotions when it came to some of the things that were going on with the students and some of the behaviors that I still wasn’t sure I knew how to handle. I think it’s important to speak your truth. So if you need to ask for help or if you need to speak to the guidance counselors that are available and see if there are any like emotional support services for the teacher, I think that’s important. In my school, we have that support where if I as a teacher, I’m struggling, I can also go to the guidance counselor and they can sit with us and we can have that conversation. I also think it’s important to understand that you’re probably not the only person that’s feeling the stress or the emotions, and it’s normal. If you hold it all in, you may get to a point where it’s too much. It’s important to be honest and remember that you’re human, so do things to take care of yourself as well. Like I know that I need to take a moment to step away and breathe. I know that that’s important for my own mental health. So I may have to, during my lunch, not allow my kids into the classroom to sit with me, but I may actually have to take my time to just relax then.
For Your Information
For students who repeatedly engage in the acting-out cycle, a functional behavioral assessment (FBA) can help teachers identify triggers and develop a plan for support. To learn more about this, see the IRIS Module:
Sam’s behavior in the Peak Phase is illustrated in the video below. After watching, respond to the following questions. You may type your answers in the field below. However, this field is provided for reflection purposes only; your answers will not be available for download or printing.
- How did Ms. Harris respond when Sam ripped his text and used explicit language?
- Was Ms. Harris’ response to Sam’s behavior effective? Justify your answer.
- Imagine yourself as Ms. Harris. How would you have responded to Sam’s acting-out behavior? What are some strategies you could use to maintain self-control?
Transcript: Peak Phase
Teacher: Sam, can you come chat with me in the hallway for a second?
Sam: No, I’m not going to chat. I’m not doing this f*****g assignment!
[Sam slaps his desk.]
Teacher: Sam, what’s going on with you today? Come out into the hallway.
[Sam rips his text and throws it onto the floor.]
Teacher: Okay, everyone, please continue working. We have about ten more minutes of independent work, and I’m seeing a lot of great note taking going on so far.
Now that you’ve had a chance to reflect, listen to Johanna Staubitz’s feedback.
Johanna Staubitz, PhD, BCBA-D
Assistant Professor, Department of Special Education
Response to Sam’s behavior
Possible teacher responses
Transcript: Johanna Staubitz, PhD, BCBA-D
Response to Sam’s behavior
Ms. Harris responded in a couple different ways when Sam ripped his text and used explicit language. First, when Sam used explicit language, Ms. Harris responded by doubling down on her expectation that Sam come out into the hallway and she made a statement that could have come across as empathetic if she delivered it differently. “What’s going on with you today?” But it really came across as the opposite of being understanding because it was delivered from across the room in front of everyone and in a tone that conveyed a little bit of irritation or, at a minimum, stress. So she wasn’t maintaining self-control at that point. And that cursing could have represented the Peak of the acting-out cycle. However, Ms. Harris’ response led to an increase in the severity of Sam’s behavior, which was his destroying and throwing property. At that point, to Ms. Harris’ credit, she changed her tack. She regained and then maintained her self-control which is an important tactic when a student has reached the Peak of the acting-out cycle. She did not draw additional attention to Sam, and that is really important because that could have been a recipe for a real safety issue, things escalating beyond just ripping up and throwing the text. She also limited her verbal communication at that point. Note that she didn’t speak directly to Sam, and all of that gave Sam some time and a little bit of space with the spotlight being off him, which is really what he needed and what students need to surpass the Peak in the acting-out cycle. Ms. Harris’ responsibility at that point was to really keep a lid on things by keeping everyone else on track and minimizing attention to Sam until he could cool down on his own. So she did a great job with that.
Her response was initially ineffective and then later effective. Initially her response is what escalated the situation. First from Acceleration to Peak, publicly asking Sam from across the room to chat in the hallway. And then when he responded by yelling and using profanity, she was even more reactive. Again, “Sam, what is going on with you today?” And again, reiterated that requirement that he come out in the hallway. So she’s sort of digging in to this power struggle at this point. And that’s when Sam responded by ripping the textbook. And this is where her response does become more effective. So in brief, she abandoned the power struggle, she ceased attempting to get Sam to do what she said and assumed a calm demeanor, calmly pre-corrected the rest of the class. “Everyone should be looking at their texts, taking notes.” And that again provided Sam the time and space to calm down. And in that way, Ms. Harris maintained order and safety.
Just remember at the Peak of the cycle, no intervention by the teacher is going to stop behavior in its tracks at that point. It just kind of has to follow its course. But it is possible to escalate behavior further. So the way Ms. Harris maintained her calm and vigilance after she saw Peak behavior, like ripping and throwing the textbook, is the best way to ensure the safest and fastest come down for the student.
Transcript: Johanna Staubitz, PhD, BCBA-D
Possible teacher responses
If I imagine myself as Ms. Harris, there are a couple of things I may have done to respond to Sam’s acting-out behaviors, some of which overlap with what Ms. Harris did. First, there are some things to avoid. I would avoid the public callouts and the power struggle. Any interactions I’d have with Sam in this situation would be private and one-on-one. But again, Sam’s behavior has reached the Peak, we have high intensity behavior here—explicit language, throwing things. That is when it’s important to just back off altogether and provide space. Another thing to avoid is criticism, even if it’s just implied. “What is going on with you?” sounds a lot like “What is wrong with you?” to a student. A student who’s stressed and emotional is going to hear that instead.
Things that we might do as teachers in this situation like Ms. Harris, use that calm voice, quietly reiterating expectations for the class, and also just watching really carefully. And I think Ms. Harris was doing this. Other things I would do, and these are more preventive in nature, if you work with students whose behavior escalates like Ms. Harris does, it’s wise to practice self-regulation techniques to prepare for that. This is where mindfulness practice can be helpful, breathing exercises, so that Ms. Harris or me if I’m in this situation, can recruit those skills if I need to calm myself because I as a teacher am probably getting dysregulated right along with the student. Also it’s a good idea to have some language prepared for the event of an outburst like this. Having to think of what to say to the class in the moment just kind of decreases the likelihood we get it right. So preparing language in advance not only makes it more likely we get it right, it sort of decreases your working memory load so that you can pay attention to other things and really prioritize safety, which is key at the Peak.