The acting-out cycle is proposed by Geoff Colvin and Hill Walker out of the University of Oregon, and it’s a really wonderful theoretical illustration about how problem behaviors occur. A lot of times teachers will say, “This child just started screaming out of control,” or, “This child just blatantly refused to do their work or just stormed out of the room for apparently no reason.” And what they’ve shown through this acting-out cycle is that behavior actually does occur in a chain and that what most teachers are noticing are either peak behaviors where kids are completely out of control either throwing a chair or using profanity or being verbally or physically aggressive or sometimes they know earlier symptoms. But, in general, teachers haven’t been taught that behavior problems or concerns actually happen much, much earlier within the cycle.
Click on the roller coaster graphic to learn about the acting-out cycle (time: 0:56).
Narrator:The cycle generally begins with this Calm Stage. And, although not every child comes to school calm, we’d think at some point in their life they have some calm experience. And then something sets that child off, and that’s called a trigger. And sometimes those are school-based things, like assemblies or a schedule change or being given a difficult assignment, something like that. Or it can be nonschool-based. It could be coming to school tired or hungry or having had an argument with your parents before you get there. And then, if those triggers aren’t noticed, then the behavior will move from signs of agitation to acceleration. And then acceleration can last for kind of a long phase. And then it will continue to escalate if it’s not nipped in the bud right there, and then eventually the behavior peaks out. Then there is a de-escalation and then a recovery. So it kind of looks like you are climbing a mountain. You’re going up and then down.
The acting-out cycle diagram is adapted from Colvin, G. (2004). Managing the cycle of acting-out behavior of the classroom. Eugene, OR: Behavior Associates.
One strategy for preventing serious problem behaviors from occurring is to intervene early in the acting-out cycle. In essence, the goal is to interrupt the acting-out cycle by intervening when behavior problems are less serious and when students are more amenable to intervention efforts. If teachers can prevent problem behaviors from gaining momentum, they can prevent more serious forms of acting-out behaviors from occurring.
Why is it important for teachers to understand the acting-out cycle? If a student misbehaves, teachers should be able to use consistent consequences, regardless of whether a student is in the Trigger or the Peak Phase, right? Wrong! Click to listen to the incentives for teachers to understand the cyclical nature of behavior (time: 1:45).
Kathleen Lane, PhD Professor of Special Education University of Kansas
I think it’s really important for their comfort as a teacher and the student’s learning experience that they understand the cyclical nature of behavior. Because good teaching, good discipline, all can begin much, much earlier in managing behavior problems. It’s much easier to deal with the child when you’re starting to notice some simple signs of agitation than it is to manage a child who’s completely gone ballistic in your classroom. So it allows teachers to intervene much earlier, when it’s easier to get behavior to shift back on track than it is to wait till the consequences become much more deleterious, in terms of people getting hurt or feelings really hurt.
For example, if you saw that a child was showing some signs of agitation, we can redirect that child at that point and say something along the lines of, “I noticed you’re struggling a little bit, you know, would you like to take a break?” Or maybe there’s not even that dialogue. Maybe you notice as a teacher that this child’s struggling at this point…maybe their pencil tapping or maybe their eyes are darting around and they are looking a little agitated, you can simply write a note saying, you know, “Please hold this child for two minutes, sign here, and send him back to my classroom.” And then you would staple that shut and then say “Hey, Mark, could you go run this to Mrs. Whomever next door?” and then it will give him a respectful break. It’s not like you are saying in front of the whole class, “It looks like you are about to lose it, so I need you to leave.” But if you were to try that same strategy when the child is really gaining momentum and accelerating or in a Peak Stage, they would respond much less favorably. It would be more verbally hostile, more likely to view your comments as being confrontational, and that’s not going to work at that phase. So how you intervene is different at each of these phases. So you have to recognize the characteristics so you know what strategies to use.