When the teacher is saying “you will sit down in that chair, right now, or you’ll see what can happen next! Do you understand me?” one thing is certain: ESCALATION IN THE CLASSROOM. There is a better way…
By Kurt LaRose MSW LCSW
Behavioral issues can disruptively bring academics to a halt and they can be relentless. There are students who not only do not do what they’ve been asked to do, but instead they challenge everything that teacher’s say. Things worsen if other student’s laugh and chuckle, and usually opposition strengthens. Soon, the class is out of control.
Some argue that increasing discipline in schools will decrease out of control behavior (Toby, 1998). As a child escalates, the adult should escalate. In the end, the one with the greatest power or force will accomplish resolution.
As out of control episodes (such as violence) in the public schools (urban and rural) has increased (Skiba & Peterson, 2000), the idea of also increasing security has logically followed. However depending on law enforcement to make school environments safer and more manageable has been identified as a contribution in increased aggression and violence, not less (Mayer & Leone, 1999).
The alternative to “fighting fire with fire,” so to speak, is to reduce escalating behavior in the classroom. At some level, such a reduction will require a shift in traditional ideology. The instructional dynamic will have to be altered from a problem oriented one that identifies youth as “at risk” to an instructional process based upon the idea of finding “promise” in every youth related classroom interaction and activity (Skinner, Bryant, Coffman & Campbell, 1998).
What is it that contributes to the escalation of negative classroom behavior? Are some children too emotionally disturbed, severely learning disabled, and/or mentally ill that they are incorrigible? And what about certain teachers, principals, and other adults; are they possibly in the wrong profession?
The common questions about what is happening in deteriorating classrooms generally evolve around two themes: are the problems rooted in the ever changing youth culture and their various lifestyles (family, friends, the media, etc.) or are the problems rooted in the expectations of the adults who educate today’s youth?
The answer might surprise you – it’s yes. What exists in America’s out of control classrooms is a multifaceted, and complex problem that includes many different variables (Fischer, Barkley, Fletcher, & Smallish, 1993). Finding primary responsibility (is it the youth, the parents, or is it the teachers), while partially helpful in addressing problems, achieves little to create practical solutions in the classroom. Teachers impact behavior just as parents do (Estevez, Musitu & Herrero, 2005) and certainly the children contribute as well.
As a complex problem, the solution requires an initial resolve to achieve progressive improvement. Improvement begins with less focus on primary blame and more focus on de-escalation and re-direction. Programs that preventively and quickly address problematic behavior in schools, even when the behavior is mild, not only help to manage classroom behavior but also improve academic achievement (Fleming, Haggerty, Catalano, Harachi, Mazza & Gruman, 2005).
The fact of the matter is that primary responsibility shifts depending on whom you talk to. For example, counselors working with youth who are in some kind of trouble generally seek to obtain details of events that precede crises. Usually the first statement from the youth heavily focuses on the error of the adult. Ironically, the same blaming cycle is frequently evident when counselors obtain details from the adults. The first statements from adults generally involve the error of the youth (or the adults – parents and teachers – assign some blame to one another). It can seem as if everyone forgets that everyone carries some responsibility – in every situation.
Most teachers, principals and parents have witnessed the use of “reason” for something other than problem solving. It is not uncommon, for example, to hear a suspended youth say something like “if it weren’t for Mr. Teacher, I’d be fine in this school.” Likewise many teachers can be heard saying, “if it weren’t for Johnny Troublemaker, my class would be great.”
Such reason is wrought with a degree of blame rather than a legitimate rationale for what happened, why it happened, and what was done to resolve the problem. Will removing the child solve the problem, or simply perpetuate it?
A child can be, for example, kicked out of school and after the child is gone, the classroom remains out of control. In other words, the child might be gone, and the class might still remain inoperable. Is it the youth or is it the adults?
What many adults and youth are often surprised to learn is that part of their perspective in nearly every escalating problem is true — and part of their perspective is not. Getting all of the players into one room to simply bounce around everyone’s ideas can help to minimize the seemingly adversarial relationships that polarize opinions (Simmons, 2002). A great deal can be accomplished when the teacher, the child, the parent, the administrator and other involved parties get together to discuss the details.
Teacher and child communication involves an interaction where two people engage in behavior that is reactive. From the interactionist perspective (Schaefer & Lamm, 1998), behavior (verbal, physical, and non-verbal) does not occur in isolation or mutually exclusive activity. Rather, behavior is a domino of serial and relational actions, thus reactionary responses are logical – regardless of blame or primary source.
Behavioral shifts also occur in normal developmental tasks and normal growth processes include conflict. In the normal process of childhood development, youth are biologically, mentally and emotionally evolving to become independent people, capable of taking care of themselves and making decisions for themselves (Nielson, 1991). As adults provide guidance and direction in the developmental process, a child moves from greater dependence at birth to less dependence as a toddler. The process of independence increases throughout normal childhood development and at adolescence the issue of independence becomes particularly intense – just in time for the next phase of life – adulthood (Longres, 2000).
For the adults who assume the role and task of encouraging childhood development (teachers fill this role in part), there is an inevitable clash of processes that occurs in day-to-day exchanges between children and adults – even in the healthiest of environments (Nielson, 1991). The factors of authority, leadership, and guidance – where adult roles of supervision and instruction exist – frequently contrast childhood developmental processes – where childlike roles of investigation, inquiry and progressive independence exist.
A consideration in addressing the out of control classroom is this: in the normative and healthy functioning roles of adults and children there will be a clash. The role contrasts are inherent in the adult / child interaction, and as such, clashes will occur inadvertently and unintentionally under the best of circumstances.
So, even if escalating and out of control behavior in the classroom centers around today’s youth culture (and a multitude of other extraneous variables such as the home environment, mental disorders, and learning disabilities, etc. etc.), the educational arena must adopt a method to ameliorate ongoing classroom escalation processes from a position of normal interpretation, not an abnormal one.
If things are getting worse in the classroom, which research supports and many teachers, parents, and students proclaim, the task of addressing family issues and mental health issues must be circumvented to the degree that effective teaching can occur – in the classroom. That is not to say that family problems, mental disorders, learning disabilities and/or culture related issues do not need to be addressed, because they do. But, in the classroom, behavioral problems are best addressed from a preventive and pre-planning approach, not a diagnostic one (Thompson, Iachan, Overpeck, Ross & Gross, 2006).
The solution to the most difficult sources of problematic behavior is not in making most escalations an office, disciplinary, or school resource officer referral. Lowering tolerances alone has not proven to be an effective solution in the school setting (Skiba & Peterson, 2000) and school officers provide secondary interventions, not primary ones (Toby, 1998).
When students are increasingly being moved to the suspension rolls (ISS and OSS), less and less teaching occurs as more and more emphasis is vicariously placed upon diverting behavioral problems to a different environment (the office, ESE recommendations, alternative schools, etc., etc.). It’s easy to see how the problems of the classroom become seemingly insurmountable and why many teachers and youth are increasingly frustrated about what is NOT happening at school. But there is hope.
In an ideal setting, efforts to progressively address various behavioral factors in the classroom would occur in phases, mirroring what is called a “positive behavioral support model” (Beaudoin, Benner & Knuth, 2006). Here, students are addressed from three general tiers – whereas various components of behavioral etiologies are addressed in a proactive course of routine and layered processes. The tiers operate from a broad preventive phase toward more focused interventive phases: 1) universal interventions are protective, 2) targeted interventions are used for students who do not respond at tier one, and 3) intensive interventions place students into various referral categories (behavior specialists, mental health services, and social work for example) (Houcins, Jolivette, Wessendorf, McGlynn & Nelson, 2005). The phases can be considered and applied school-wide, based upon information that is currently and readily available in the school system already – office referrals (Sugai, Sprague, Horner & Walker, 2000). But protective matters, by their very nature, must occur on the front lines, in the classroom, provided by teachers.
In using classroom methods that foster re-direction and de-escalation students are better able to learn, teachers are better able to teach, and administrators are better able to administrate. Cohesiveness enables everyone to achieve some level of satisfaction at school, and students who like school and who have a sense of connectedness to school are the same youth who are less behaviorally deviant (Thompson, Iachan, Overpeck, Ross & Gross, 2006).
Prevention and pre-planning are key approaches in dealing with very complex problems, including mental health issues (Skiba & Peterson, 2000). There’s a multitude of reasons that contribute to behavioral progressions. Some are positive progressions, and some are negative. The goal, of course, is to foster the positive progressions. De-escalation and redirection facilitate this goal.
As goal and task oriented professionals, teachers and school administrators must utilize practical ways to effectively address problematic classroom issues in a manner that is conducive to ongoing academic progress, and in spite of complex causes or correlates. Practical tools for classroom intervention strategies are useful in developing and implementing methods that serve to de-escalate and re-direct behavior.
Teachers and other classroom personnel must first assume that the professional role of intervention is initially dependent upon them – not anyone or anything else. And even students with severe emotional and behavioral challenges (with or without disabilities) respond favorably to positive interventions that begin in the classroom (Carr, et al., 2002).
The credible literature regarding tier (or phase) approaches in addressing behavioral problems (like the PBS model previously mentioned) shows impressive results. Teachers, primarily, should utilize protective processes (redirection and de-escalation methods for example), before pursuing outside support. Protective methods are applied at the universal level – in mainstream classrooms (before alternative interventions are necessary).
Research findings support early intervention in the classroom at the least intense (and least restrictive) level. Large reductions in office referrals (46%), large reductions in fighting rates (55%), and large reductions in out of school suspensions (65%) provide some evidence for the feasibility of preventive and proactive success in the classroom (Houcins, Jolivette, Wessendorf, McGlynn & Nelson, 2005).
Addressing behavior (indirectly for the most part) at the mildest forms and long before the behavior appears as an outburst reduces the need of other kinds of intervention. Some common minor behavioral infractions that occur in the classroom are:
- Long-winded contributions
- Repetitive responses
- Monopolization of conversation
- Responses that discourage others’ participation: impatience, boredom, interrupting, (Petress, 2000).
As small problems are effectively addressed, earlier rather than later, the classroom is stabilized and academic achievement improves (Fleming, Haggerty, Catalano, Harachi, Mazza & Gruman, 2005). The same is true with more intense problems. The methods of redirection de-escalation can be utilized in every behavioral interaction – mild to severe.
Prior to all interactions with children in the classroom teachers should consider the following:
- Remember that your role of influence exists, even if others discount it; do not discredit your own ability to be a source of “positive contagion” (Sotile & Sotile, 1996).
- Leadership includes the instillation of hope – which is not an abstract or in-operational concept; hope is the awareness of a will to succeed and a plan to succeed (Norman, Luthans & Luthans, 2005). Both are needed.
- Use more than one style or model of teaching – be eclectic (Sotile & Sotile, 1996). Empowerment via “I” statements may work sometimes, whereas the use of natural and logical consequences may work at other times. Praise and reward might help with some youth whereas simple assertive discipline may also be necessary (when you do “A,” then “B” happens) with the same youth (Malmgren, Trezek & Paul, 2005).
- School administrators can support you in your class, but they are not the first (or last) resort. View school administrators from a consensus building perspective, who can access important school-wide data that can help you in your class (Sugai, Sprague, Horner & Walker, 2000).
- View school administrators as team members, not as part of a military style one up / one down authority (Houcins, Jolivette, Wessendorf, McGlynn & Nelson, 2005).
- Develop a way to record positive and negative behavior that students exhibit in the classroom. The negative data is primarily for you; the positive data is to be shared. Data will show what changes students are making, because of your efforts in the classroom (Houcins, Jolivette, Wessendorf, McGlynn & Nelson, 2005).
Besides general aspects that are needed to address classroom behavior there are practical tools that you can use to implement re-direction and de-escalation efforts:
- Offer students choices in the classroom. If there’s trouble with one math assignment, offer an alternative math assignment (DuPaul & Weyandt, 2006).
- Instead of negative reprimands (“that was a mistake”), use positive re-directions with concern statements (“that’s possible; let’s see what someone else thinks.”) (DuPaul & Weyandt, 2006).
- Tell students what to do, rather than what not to do. (It’s harder to argue with “what I am asking you to do is…” vs. “you can’t do this or that…”) (Babkie, 2006).
- Provide age appropriate rationales for why things need to be done in the real world (“because I said so” doesn’t count) (Babkie, 2006).
- Teach appropriate behavior during small infractions (Skiba & Peterson, 2000). Use role-plays, modeling, and expectation statements with the students, even with students who might otherwise be in trouble.
- Enlist parents as partners, not as people to blame for classroom problems. Communicate the parent-teacher partnership to youth. “I am willing to ask your parents to come in and talk about what can be done to help make things better here” vs. “if you don’t stop, I’m going to call your parents” (Skiba & Peterson, 2000).
- Include the child in parent-teacher meetings and allow an open discussion to occur between all parties (Simmons, 2000).
- Modify teaching styles in order to accommodate learning styles (Oberer, 2003). Playful children might learn better via games; bookworms might prefer reading; emotive youth might respond to animations (facial expressions, voice inflections), etc. Flexibility can be incorporated into nearly all subject matter (use your expertise to be creative).
- Invite students to help set up the rules for daily activities. Encouraging rule development by youth fosters critical thinking and shares responsibility for why things happen as they do (Lathan, 1998). (Example: “Do you have any ideas about what should be done here?”).
- When students persistently engage in an infraction of rules, confront the issue in the classroom by saying “Joey, I need to speak to you before you leave today.” During the after class meeting speak to Joey using a formal business like voice tone, individually and in private (Johnson, 1999). Empathy & praise help too.
- Write behavioral / contingency contracts (with goal behavior noted). Contracts that include multiple parties (youth, teacher, parent, and administrators) can be incremental between parties, and modified as needed (Nielson, 1991).
- Disciplinary action may be necessary. Using disciplinary options should generally be the last resort; not the first (Toby, 1998). Don’t be afraid to remind students that “I don’t want to ask you to meet with me after class today, but I will if it will help; I don’t want to set up a meeting with you and your parents, but I’ll do whatever I can to make this work for you.” These statements are not threats, but offers of support.
- Be prepared to use the same words that you expect your students to use: “I’m sorry” and “I was wrong.” Follow-up mistakes and apologies with comments like “Now what do you think we should do, since my idea wasn’t the best?” The concept here applies not only to the youth you work with, but other adults as well.
Alternative approaches to classroom management can be supported in the literature and in anecdotal scenarios. Root causes underlying problem behavior might be accurate and/or might help to improve understanding, but understanding does not produce improvement in behavior.
Resolving behavioral issues in the classroom cannot and will not be achieved in a singular act or by singular roles. Mental health, disciplinary actions, law enforcement, parental enlistment, and partnering with administrators – while each are important, cannot be considered as mutually exclusive solutions in dealing with out of control classrooms. Resolution is not based in “either / or” efforts, nor is it based upon who has the most power. De-escalation and re-direction, when implemented at nearly every phase of the communication interaction between students and teachers, might be the next best fit when confronting and preventing an out of control class.
Re-direction and de-escalation provides a solution-focused alternative to thematic classroom conflict and disruption. Strategy will be a key component for the teaching professional to utilize as classroom control is surrendered, for the sake of classroom management and direction.
Pursue professional development and training, which will also enable and empower teachers in addressing the shifting trends of student progress – behaviorally and otherwise. As the research and social technology progresses, human resource programs that target support services for those who are front line workers – key interventionists with all children in the classroom – might anticipate more and more tenure from skillful teachers who desire to contribute to the changing face of youth.
See the De-escalation Professional Development and Training Powerpoint Presentation Videos Here Or, feel free to send us a message now, to learn more!
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