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6 Powerful De-escalation Strategies

Implementing de-escalation strategies with students who exhibit extreme behavior episodes can be challenging, but knowing how to effectively navigate these situations is crucial for maintaining a safe and supportive learning environment. When a student becomes emotionally heightened, it’s essential to use strategies that help them regain control and feel understood. This blog post will explore successful de-escalation techniques, including keeping a calm and neutral voice, avoiding unreasonable directives, maintaining personal space, validating feelings, providing safe redirection, and following up to maintain a positive relationship.

Keep a Calm and Neutral Voice

One of the most important de-escalation strategies I utilize often is to maintain a calm and neutral voice. When students are in the midst of an emotional outburst, they could be highly sensitive to the tone and volume of your voice. Speaking calmly and evenly can help reduce their anxiety and prevent further escalation. While my students may be yelling or screaming toward me, I avoid the impulse to speak over them in a louder tone, as this can be perceived as threatening and can intensify the situation. Rather, I purposely lower my voice and speak neutrally. While this is not always immediately 100% effective, I often notice my student quieting down in efforts to hear what I am saying!

Tip: Model deep breathing and use a soft, steady tone. Your calm demeanor can help the student feel more secure and less overwhelmed.

Avoid Giving Unreasonable Directives

During a crisis, it’s essential to avoid presenting the student with unreasonable or overly complex directives. Effective de-escalation strategies include offering clear, simple instructions that are easy to follow. In the event of a behavioral crisis, it can be natural to want to rattle off a list of requests to ensure safety, but remember that overloading a student with demands can lead to increased agitation. Instead of presenting consecutive verbal directions, I try to use non-verbal cues (point or gesture) when I can, and focus on one action at a time.

Tip: Use short, concise statements such as “Let’s take a deep breath together” or “Can you sit down with me?” Ensure that your requests are achievable given the student’s current state.

6 6 Powerful De-escalation Strategies

Maintain Non-threatening Body Language

Respecting personal space is one of the most crucial de-escalation strategies to remember when your student is emotionally heightened. Crowding the student or standing too close can be perceived as a threat. Similarly, crossing your arms in front of you or pacing nervously can also escalate their behavior. Instead, give your student enough space to feel safe while remaining close enough to offer support.

Tip: Position yourself at a slight angle rather than directly facing the student, and keep a relaxed posture. This body language conveys that you are not a threat.

4 6 Powerful De-escalation Strategies

Validate Feelings

One of my favorite de-escalation strategies is to validate my student’s feelings. This can significantly de-escalate a situation by showing that I understand and empathize with their emotions. This does not mean that I am condoning any aggressive behavior, but rather that I can sympathize with feeling frustrated and a loss of control. What may seem trivial to an adult can be deeply distressing to a child, especially one with a history of trauma. Acknowledge your learner’s feelings without judgment, and let them know that it’s okay to feel upset.

Tip: Use phrases like “I can see that you’re really upset” or “It’s okay to feel angry. I’m here to help.” This validation can make the student feel heard and more willing to cooperate.

5 6 Powerful De-escalation Strategies

Provide Specific Redirection

Offering safe outlets for the student to express their emotions can be one of the most effective de-escalation strategies to redirect their energy. Use specific verbal directions (e.g., “squeeze this ball” or “Want to throw this pillow?”) rather than offer directives such as, “Calm down.” Have items like soft toys or stress balls handy that they can throw or squeeze to help them release tension in a non-destructive way.

Tip: Keep a box or bag of safe, durable items readily available in the classroom or counseling/behavior office. Encourage the student to use these items when they start to feel overwhelmed, but also provide positive practice for the student to use these items when they are calm so that they learn the skill while they are in a calm state of mind that can transfer over to times of emotional dysregulation.

8 6 Powerful De-escalation Strategies

Follow Up

With time, patience, and careful implementation of de-escalation strategies, a behavioral crisis will end, but this does not mean our work is over. After an incident has passed, it’s important to follow up with the student (if they are capable of engaging in this type of discussion) to maintain a positive relationship and reflect on the situation together. Do not rush this process, and ensure that your student is fully calm before this takes place. This could mean it happens later in the day, or even the next school day. Discuss what happened, how both of you handled it, and what can be done differently in the future. I like to ask my students questions such as, “Was it helpful when I offered you a sensory item?” or “Where would you prefer me to stand next time you are upset?”. This collaborative reflection not only helps build trust and repair the relationship, but also empowers the student to take an active role in managing their behavior.

Tip: For students who do not have the verbal ability to engage in this type of discussion, a more appropriate follow up could be simply going to get a drink of water with them, or offering them a fist bump or high five on their way home that day.

3 6 Powerful De-escalation Strategies

Conclusion

Successfully using de-escalation strategies during extreme behavior episodes requires a combination of empathy, patience, and strategic action. By keeping a calm and neutral voice, avoiding unreasonable directives, maintaining personal space, validating feelings, providing safe redirection, and following up to maintain the relationship, educators can create a supportive environment that helps students regain control and feel understood. Implementing these techniques consistently will not only address immediate crises but also foster a more positive and trusting classroom atmosphere.

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