The Power of De-Escalation

When I went through teacher training, I was coached in using a commanding "teacher voice" and the all important Behavior Management Cycle (constantly referred to as the BMC).  And when I mean coached, I mean actually coached.  We would have "snappy practice" in which we had to take turns with another teacher pretending to order them to do something.  It never felt right to me.  And I was bad at it.  Here's the thing: when you order a student to do something, and they don't do it, then what do you do? You're stuck in a power struggle.  If you back down, you lack authority and you look weak.  If you punish a student, or worse, send them out of the room, you've probably lost any chance of them learning for the rest of the period.  And even if you command a student to do something, and they grudgingly do it, you may have lost them anyway.  Some of my fourth graders (the oldest students that I work with) asked me the other day why I don't yell at them or make them do things.  I told them the truth-- I don't think yelling or forcing a student to do something is an effective way to help students learn. It might get them to sit down, or be quiet, or stop tapping their pencil.  But none of those things are learning. So, what do I do instead? Well, I want to preface all this by saying that I'm very lucky to have my own classroom (well, shared with two other teachers, but I am the teacher who primarily works with kids there) and very small groups (no more than five). However, I also work in an inclusion setting in a room with 31 kids, and find these same strategies to be effective.
  • Give the reason for anything you're requesting.  This feels a little awkward at first, but it's really become second nature to me now.  "Please stop making noises with your fidget.  It's really distracting for the other students."  "I'd really like you to stop tipping your chair because I care about you and I don't want you to fall and hit your head."  "Please work hard on your task! It's helping you to become a better reader."
  • Speak in a quiet voice.  When my students are being defiant, I think they're very often stressed out and overstimulated.  Instead of increasing their stimulation, I try to lower it.  I speak very softly and calmly.  The most worked up I ever get (or try to get) is to tell a student that I'm getting really frustrated.  
  • Give the student an out.  I frequently see teachers get into power struggles with students, where neither of them feel like they can back down.  Yes, as the teacher, you can ultimately "win" because you have more authority.  But again, to what end? As the adult and teacher, you have a responsibility to be the more mature one and let it go.  If I am trying to get a student back on task and they are refusing, a way to give them an out can just be to say, "Okay, I'm going to work with another student.  I'll check in on you in a little bit."  Frequently, when I come back, the student is on task. They just didn't want to lose face by complying.  Not ideal, but more effective than their continued refusal.  Another out can be to offer a chance to go to the cool-down corner or the chance to work on something else first.
  • Ask the student for a solution.  Sometimes, I'll have two students in a stand-off, and I genuinely don't know what to do.  For example, last week, two students were sitting next to each other who don't get along (understatement) and are not supposed to sit next to each other.  Both were refusing to move and insisting that the other should move.  So, I just said, "Okay, we have a problem here.  No one is learning right now. Does anyone have an idea how to fix the problem?"  After a pause, one of the students scooted her desk a few feet away from the other.  In a few minutes, they got to work.  I could have escalated the problem and ordered one student to move.  The student might have done it, but held a grudge for the rest of the period and not accepted any help.  Or, the student could have an outburst and disrupt the whole class.  Instead, a student-driven solution allowed everyone to learn.
I can see that a more authoritative teacher might see all the above methods as letting kids run all over me.  Or as the teacher not having enough control of her class.  Well, guess what? I don't want to control my students.  I want them to learn, and I want them to learn to control themselves on their own.  

This definitely has the potential to be a tl;dr, so thanks for reading if you made it this far! I'd love to hear your thoughts about de-escalation and whether you use any of the above strategies in your classroom.


  1. Sarah!
    I'm a little late reading your blog but I really do love it! "Snappy practice" is the worse and I feel much more in a place where I can use these great recommendations. After being in a school that constantly uses the BMC model, it's nice to be in a place that allows me to get back to my roots of teaching in the positive and calm way that I had always hoped. This line is going to be my new mantra as I transition to more holistic and restorative teaching this year: "I don't want to control my students. I want them to learn, and I want them to learn to control themselves on their own."
    Keep up the great work teaching our babies in Chicago!

    1. Heather! Ugh snappy practice really was the worst... it seriously gave me a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach which is not how I like to feel when I'm teaching. I'm so glad you're in (literally) a better place this year. Thanks for reading and for your comment!


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