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 Ava and Sam’s behavior in each phase of the acting-out cycle. You’ve also seen how Ms. Harris has responded. In some videos, her response escalates the students’ behaviors. In others, she 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 Ava and Sam’s behavior as they progress through the seven-phase process (as seen on Page 2).
On this page, Johanna Staubitz analyzes Ava and Sam’s behaviors and provides additional commentary on Ms. Harris’ 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 Ava and Sam, they have been included below.
Teacher: All right, everyone. It’s a close race right now. This last question will determine who our winner is. Who led the Nashville sit-in movement?
[Students write their answers on their whiteboards.]
Teacher: Okay, let’s see those answers in three, two, one. Lift up your boards!
[Students lift up their whiteboards.]
Teacher: Great job! The answer was Diane Nash and John Lewis. Alrighty. Looks like drum roll, please… [Students tap their desks to create a drumroll sound] Ava comes in first place today!
Ava: Oh yeah! Let’s go!
Teacher: With Jeshua coming in second and Sterling coming in third!
Teacher: All right, everyone, awesome job on that review. You can go ahead and move your whiteboard and your marker to the corner of your table. For the rest of the class, we’ll continue researching the historical figure you all chose for your project. You can go ahead and open your notes and get your tablets and get started on your project. As you all are working, I’ll be walking around the classroom, so if you have a question, just raise your hand for me.
[Ava raises her hand.]
Teacher: Yes, Ava.
Ava: You didn’t assign me a person.
Teacher: That’s because you were supposed to choose a historical figure that we discussed yesterday. So go ahead and open your notes and choose a person so you can get started on your project.
[Ms. Harris circulates around student desks.]
Teacher: Thanks, everyone, for getting started.
[Ava distracts a peer by showing him her tablet. They laugh.]
Teacher: Ava, again, please start working on your project.
Ava: What? You didn’t say I couldn’t use this site.
Teacher: I said you should be researching the historical figure that you chose.
Ava: I am researching. Look. [turns tablet so that Ms. Harris can see it]
[Ms. Harris gives Ava a stern look and walks away.]
Teacher: Please close out of that site and begin working on your project.
Ava: I was looking at videos to research for your stupid class.
[Ava drops the tablet onto her desk.]
Teacher: Hey, we need to have a chat. [motions for Ava to follow her.]
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.
[Some Time Later]
Teacher: Class, continue working while I speak with Dr. Wheby.
[Ms. Harris opens the door for Dr. Wheby and Ava to enter the classroom.]
Dr. Wheby: Ava and I just took a walk to cool down. She’s filled out her debriefing form. I think she’s ready to get back to go to work. I also talked to Dr. Thouman. He knows that she’s going to be late for his class. So you’ll have time to talk with her after this class.
Teacher: Okay, great.
Dr. Wheby: Do you have something you want to say?
Ava: I’m sorry for how I acted.
Teacher: Hey, I appreciate that. We can talk later about what happened. Go ahead and just grab a new tablet and have a seat. And if you have any questions, just raise your hand for me. Okay?
Teacher: All right. Thank you.
Dr. Wheby: Thank you.
[Ava sits down at her desk with a new tablet.]
[Students get up from their desks and begin leaving the classroom.]
Teacher: Hey, do you mind staying back for a second? Do you have your debriefing form?
Teacher: Okay, good. [addresses the rest of the class] See y’all.
Teacher: Hey, I’d really appreciate if you would pick up your tablet for me please.
Ava: Okay. [picks up tablet from floor]
Teacher: Thank you. [pulls up a chair to sit with Ava] So how are you feeling now?
Teacher: From your perspective, I’d like to hear about what happened today.
Ava: It’s just that we went from a fun review game to working on our projects. It was just too boring.
Teacher: Yeah, I understand that. Sometimes it’s hard to transition from fun stuff to into independent work.
Ava: I was just too excited from the game.
Teacher: Yeah, I like to do fun stuff too, but we also have to do projects where we have to focus and do independent work. It’s to prepare you for what comes after high school. So next time, when you’re not quite ready to do independent work, what will you do?
Ava: Play a game on my phone.
Teacher: [laughs] No, seriously. What will you do when you’re not quite ready to work?
Ava: Maybe go get a drink of water to reset and take a break.
Teacher: Hey, that works for me. Um, but there is one more thing that we’ll need to talk about: the tablet. I’ll have to talk with your mom and an administrator about it first.
Ava: Okay. My mom’s going to be p****d.
Teacher: Hey, we can work through it. I just want to make sure that you’re okay and you’re back on track, back on track in this class. Okay?
Ava: I’m good now.
Teacher: Okay. Well, thank you for being able to stay after class and chat. Um, here’s your pass, and I already talked with Mr. Thouman, so he knows you’ll be coming in a little later. Okay?
[Ms. Harris hands Ava the pass.]
Ava: Thank you.
(Close this panel)
Transcript: Acting Out Cycle – Sam
Teacher: Okay, today we’re going to read an informational text. Before we read the text, I want you all to make predictions about the central idea. Take about 30 seconds and then turn and talk with your partner about your predictions.
[Students talk to their partners sitting next to them.]
Sam: Umm, something about water…
Teacher: Great predictions, guys.
Sam: I’m not sure what exactly.
[Ms. Harris circulates around student desks.]
Teacher: I’m hearing a lot of good predictions.
Sam: Yeah, yeah. That makes sense.
Teacher: Alrighty! Let’s bring it back to the front in five, four, three, two, one. Let’s hear some predictions.
[Weston raises his hand.]
Teacher: Yes, Weston.
Weston: Uhh it seems like there’s a water shortage. The author might be trying to warn us about the possibility of not having enough water to drink or use in certain parts of the country soon.
Teacher: Nice! Great! Did anyone else make the same prediction?
[Students raise their hands.]
Teacher: Great! So today we’re going to be talking about water shortages across the world.
Teacher: I’ll give you all some time to read through the text by yourself. While you’re reading, I want you to go ahead and take some notes and evaluate the author’s argument using textual evidence. Also, when you’re finished reading, I want you to go ahead and write up a discussion question for me. Okay?
[Sam sighs heavily.]
[Sam stares into space.]
Teacher: Hey, Sam, are you reading the text? You seem a little distracted.
Sam: Yeah, I’m working on it.
[Sam puts his head down.]
Teacher: Sam, I need to see your eyes on the text.
[Sam rubs his eyes and refuses to work.]
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.
[Ms. Harris circulates around student desks.]
Teacher: Great job. Great.
[Ms. Harris places post-it note on Sam’s paper that reads, “Hey, I know you’re upset. Take a minute. Is there anything I can do to help?”]
Teacher: Sam, are you feeling okay?
Sam: Yeah. I was just really frustrated.
Teacher: Yeah, I understand. This stuff is hard, and I’m trying to push you because I know how smart you are. Can you go ahead and pick up your text off the floor and fill out this form for me while everyone is finishing up their reading. [Ms. Harris places debriefing form on Sam’s desk.] And then we can talk later about what happened.
Sam: Yeah, okay.
Teacher: Thank you.
[Sam picks his text up off the floor.]
Teacher: Okay, everyone, the bell is about to ring. Make sure you have everything packed up.
[All the students leave the classroom while Sam remains sitting at his desk.]
Teacher: See y’all. See you later. Bye.
Teacher: Let’s talk about what happened. The text was hard, and I noticed you got frustrated when you were reading. What happened there?
Sam: I didn’t know where to start. You kept calling me out to get started, but it’s just it’s hard to focus when I couldn’t remember all the things I needed to be doing. And when you wanted me to talk in the hallway, everyone started laughing and I got really frustrated.
Teacher: Yeah, I understand. And I’m sorry about calling you out in front of everyone. I can definitely work on that for next time. So what do you think you can do differently?
Sam: I don’t know. Ask for help.
Teacher: Yeah, that’s a great start. So what can I do differently to help you?
Sam: You could, I don’t know, write the things we need to do on the board.
Teacher: Yes, I can definitely do that in the future. So do you have anything else you want to talk about?
Sam: Yeah. It’s just, it’s kind of embarrassing when I feel like I need to ask for help when other students don’t.
Teacher: Yeah, I get it. Other students need help sometimes too. It’s just how we learn. Everyone’s different.
Sam: Oh, okay.
Teacher: Yeah. And I bet it will also help other students if you ask a question next time.
Sam: Yeah, I know. I’ll give it a shot.
Teacher: Yeah, that works for me. Thank you for staying after class today. How are you feeling now?
Sam: Pretty good. Sorry I ripped up the text. Uhh, I can tape it back together and still use it tomorrow.
Teacher: [laughs] Thanks, Sam, but I already have another copy that you can use. So go on ahead and get out of here and I’ll let Ms. Gaines know that you’ll be coming a little later. Okay?
Teacher: All right.
[Sam gets up to leave.]
(Close this panel)
In the following audios, Johanna Staubitz offers commentary, first on Ava’s acting-out behavior and then on Sam’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’ve seen this whole progression from Calm to Trigger, Agitation to Acceleration to Peak, De-escalation, Recovery for Ava. Right at the beginning, Ava is calm. She’s participating in a little contest, a review game with response cards, and Ms. Harris did a really nice job here. And it’s clear why students are calm. The activities are engaging, and they’ve obviously been taught the routines and procedures for participating in the game.
But then we see signs that Ava has entered the acting-out cycle and is in the Trigger Phase. She looks a little confused when Ms. Harris transitions the class from that fun, gamified activity to some independent work. Her facial expression betrays confusion. She then asks a question to Mrs. Harris that sounds really accusatory. “You didn’t give me a person to research.” She appears restless, attempts to engage peers, and unfortunately Ms. Harris is reactive here. She answers the question, “You were supposed to X, Y, and Z,” redirects Ava, and moves on. And it might have been good instead for Ms. Harris to hit the pause button here and help Ava identify that historical figure before Ms. Harris continued circulating the room to actively supervise.
Then we see signs of agitation from Ava. She’s avoiding work, she’s continuing to engage the peer, and she’s really talking back to Ms. Harris at this point when Ms. Harris redirects her. Unfortunately, Ms. Harris engages with her, concluding with that teacher look, and again moves on without getting to the bottom of the issue or making sure that Ava is on-task.
Then Ava enters the Acceleration Phase after another redirect from Ms. Harris. She’s arguing with her. “I was doing it for your stupid class” in reference to what she was doing on the tablet. And that’s when Ms. Harris says publicly, “We need to have a chat.” And the class responds, “Ooh!” This is a product of Ms. Harris challenging her in front of everyone.
And here’s where we’re at the Peak. Ava is yelling and screaming, telling the teacher to shut up, using profanity. Teacher’s reactive. “Don’t speak to me like that.” Ava leaves the classroom. Then Ms. Harris does a nice job, safety first, enacting a crisis plan.
When Ava’s returned to the classroom by the principal, she looks withdrawn. She is responsive, but very quiet, which just show that she’s passed that Peak stage and in the De-escalation stage. She manages to apologize, and Ms. Harris has her go back to the task at hand, which is probably the best thing under the circumstances, letting her just reintegrate because the task wasn’t too hard. It was the transition that was the issue from the fun game at the beginning.
And finally, Ms. Harris and Ava are able to have a one-to-one meeting after class to debrief. And so we see that Ava is in the Recovery stage here. She’s able to restore the environment, and they have this conversation in which Ms. Harris is showing compassion, asking what Ava thinks happened, and they’re working together to identify solutions and wrap up with support and emphasis on the relationship.
So looking back across this progression of Ava through the acting-out cycle, it’s clear that there was a trigger and that debriefing conversation at the end helps Ms. Harris understand the trigger and in the future should be able to use that information to smooth things out along the way so they don’t have to escalate all the way to Peak. Most importantly, Ms. Harris will likely be practicing being a little less reactive and a little more curious, and ultimately that is probably the best thing for a teacher to do to aid them in selecting strategies matched to each stage of that acting-out cycle to de-escalate behavior along the way.
Transcript: Johanna Staubitz, PhD, BCBA-D
Sam’s Acting-Out Behavior
So we’ve seen a video of the entire progression of Sam’s behavior through the acting-out cycle. He begins very calm. There’s a turn-and-talk activity. Ms. Harris is actively supervising by circulating the room, praising students here and there, including Sam and his partner.
Then there’s a trigger. And we know this because Sam is kind of flipping through his materials. We see heavy sighs. He’s leaning back in his chair. These are subtle signs, but signs nonetheless that something is wrong. He’s no longer calm. And this happened when Ms. Harris gave a series of verbal instructions and released the class to independent work. And there’s no response from Ms. Harris at this point. Either she doesn’t notice the signs of Sam’s trigger, or she’s not yet concerned about them.
A short time later, she comes by and sort of inadvertently challenges Sam, “Are you reading the text? You seem a little distracted.” And then we see signs of agitation in Sam’s behavior. He uses a harsh tone, “I’m working on it.” And then, in turn, Ms. Harris sounds a little irritated, is a little reactive with the redirect.
Next, we see heavier sighs from Sam. He’s rubbing his face, and he looks upset and he’s totally disengaged from work. And these are signs that behavior escalation is accelerating here. Like at the Trigger Phase, there’s no intervention from Ms. Harris at this point. Now we’re in Acceleration.
When Ms. Harris makes the public request for Sam to come talk with her, Sam’s behavior transitions into exemplifying the Peak Phase of escalation. This is when he curses about the assignment, yells, and unfortunately, Ms. Harris responds with a renewed challenge to come up and talk with her. At that point, Sam’s behavior escalates further, property destruction, rips the book, throws it. And this is the highest intensity of behavior we’ve seen from Sam so far. And it gets Ms. Harris’ attention. And to her infinite credit, she regains her calm, states her expectations clearly for the class, and ceases pressing Sam. She gives him time and space. And that does the trick.
We start to see signs that Sam’s behavior is in the De-escalation Phase. He’s still in his seat, he’s breathing a little more deeply, and he’s starting to lean in toward his work. This is when Ms. Harris drops him a note and they communicate a little bit in an empathetic way. And during De-escalation here, Ms. Harris does have him clean up, complete a debriefing form, and this is a good thing for her to have Sam do because he still doesn’t know how to get back on-task, hasn’t gotten his instructions yet, and they simply agree to talk about it later.
Next, we see that one-on-one conversation beginning with “How are you feeling? What happened?” She’s getting Sam’s perspective and Sam has a lot to say, which should be celebrated. And I think Ms. Harris did a nice job of demonstrating that she appreciated that by just honoring his comments. He’s really willing to engage with this conversation. But again, Ms. Harris does not address the consequences during this conversation and probably should do so later as quickly as possible. Ultimately, they close that conversation, having reestablished their caring relationship and have the logistics in order for a fresh start in the next class period.
So after this entire process, Ms. Harris should be better equipped to notice signs of a trigger for Sam and also figure out what’s going on and let that inform the way she intervenes.
Transcript: Johanna Staubitz, PhD, BCBA-D
Ava and Sam Comparison
You’ve seen examples of the acting-out cycle for two different students in high school, and they have some things in common. Both Ava and Sam are kind students who are liked by their peers, yet both struggle in the classroom under certain conditions. They’re capable of disrupting the classroom in ways that can interfere with their educational progress and their peers’ educational progress. They are really different in where their issues come from and what their strengths are. So Ava is academically strong, she’s outgoing, she’s competitive, she’s fun-loving, she really likes to stand out. Where Sam, by contrast, is pretty quiet. He is not as academically strong, or maybe it’s not academic strength so much as his struggles with executive function, which impact his academic engagement performance and maybe contribute to a little anxiety. And the triggers for these students correspond to those differences. Ava really struggles moving from a place where she can show off her strengths to one in which she has less access to peers. Where for Sam, he’s concerned about not looking dumb or out of touch in front of his peers. It’s not necessarily about the difficulty of the task, but if he doesn’t know how to initiate the task or where to start or he missed the instructions, that’s where his issues are. So for both students, it’s not so much about the task, it’s about different features of the environment.
As their behavior escalates through Acceleration, Agitation, and Peak, there are some similarities and some differences. Ava tended to engage peers, while Sam withdrew from everybody. He’s just quietly in his seat, sort of in his own head, dealing with the difficulty of the trigger. Yet both students ultimately lose their cool by the time they get to the Peak stage. They’re yelling and using profanity. Ava takes it a little bit further. She’s a little bigger in her personality, and she runs out of the room, slamming the door behind her, while Sam stays in his seat, probably wanting to just shrink into invisibility.
Once the Peak stage passes for each of these students, we see them in De-escalation. And both Ava and Sam appear relatively withdrawn and kind of worn out, which is normal. Both students complete the debriefing form readily during this De-escalation Phase and do some things to start to restore the environment. They’re cooperative with that.
In Recovery, there are some differences here again just related to these students’ characteristics and behavioral tendencies and also their sensitivities or their triggers. Ava, she’s tough, she’s competitive, and she’s not giving as much in the Recovery debriefing conversation with Ms. Harris. Though she’s definitely participating. She’s definitely doing what she needs to do and by engaging with the conversations shows that she’s interested in finding solutions, but she’s still kind of saving face a little bit, even while she’s reconnecting with Ms. Harris and accepting responsibility and problem-solving. Sam, on the other hand, almost seems relieved to be having this conversation so that he can finally share what he needs. He’s very open and forthcoming and solutions-oriented and clearly is highly motivated to make sure that next time he doesn’t have to find himself in this position of not knowing how to get started without calling himself out. And Ms. Harris does a really nice job connecting with each of them on their level and just making sure it’s really clear to them how she feels about them and that she still cares about them and wants the best for them in her classroom, which is very important.
So ultimately, Ms. Harris has learned things about each student through these acting-out cycles that will help her individualize her responses to their behavior. There are common features of strategies for responding to behavior based on various stages of the escalation cycle, but she’s going to be equipped to select the right ones and deliver them in ways that are best for these different students.