De-escalation Techniques & Questions

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

Escalations, we do our best to avoid them, but they are an inevitable part of any classroom and require specialized behavior plans. Especially if you support students with traumatic backgrounds. There’s no magic button to turn them off or shorten them, but there are trauma informed strategies you can use to hone your focus and support students in times of need.


One way I do this is with my Core Four Check-in. These questions are quick to reference and cover all the bases, are purposeful, and provide behavior management strategies to support during student escalations. These are not classroom behavior management techniques, but can be integrated into crisis response team planning.



#1 What’s the non-negotiable

Too often, we ask students to perform multiple tasks out of a feeling of control as the teacher. Instead of focusing on just one skill, we tell students to use multiple skills. Students must learn to integrate these skills and perform complex tasks, but for students with trauma, this can be especially anxiety producing. They become frustrated and dysregulated which leads to an escalation. When we see this start to happen, we should get very clear on what the outcome should be for the specific task. We should ask ourselves what the non-negotiable is in the situation. Is it spelling, reading comprehension, safety, or respectful language? What is the one thing you are going to hold that student to?

For example, if a student is becoming frustrated with a writing assignment, we need to find the non-negotiable skill and hold the student accountable for just this. It could be handwriting, but more often than not, you will be looking for idea generation, drafting, etc. If we pair this student with peer or adult support, they can dictate their ideas with a scribe. In this way, we remove some of the frustration while maintaining the non-negotiable. This increases the student’s ability to continue working in the classroom.



#2 Does the student need additional support?

This may seem obvious, but we have to ask ourselves, what’s missing that could help regulate this student? If the academic skill is frustrating them, what manipulatives could support them? Students with trauma histories may also have difficulty with sensory processing and could benefit from sensory input. Deep pressure is a great way to support students with grounding in the moment and connecting to staff through this co-regulation technique. Students may also be in need of a pep-talk. Remind students that can do hard things. Teach perseverance and resilience, but always allow for breaks and regulation techniques. Trauma informed care in schools requires on the spot creativity and an arsenal of regulation techniques at the ready. Remember, our goal is always to offer positive behavior support and intervention.


#3 Are you the best person for this interaction?

Please hear me on this...there is no shame in tapping out! Teachers are not indestructible and we do not have to be heroes. In fact, we do more harm than good if we get to our frustration level working with a particular student and we stay engaged. Of course we teach self-regulation and hope we will continue to be able to regulate our frustrations in the classroom, but the truth is, that isn’t always the case!

When a student becomes violent, or when they have an escalation that lasts an hour or more, your ability to respond appropriately diminishes. That’s why you should always have an exit plan. Maintain the safety of your students, but have a designated person you can call to relieve you. Go for a walk, get a drink, cry in the bathroom. Whatever you have to do, do it! There’s nothing wrong with tapping out of high-stress situations as long as you do so as a precautionary measure in order to maintain composure. We always have our students top of mind, but sometimes we aren’t the best person in the moment and that’s okay.



#4 Environment Check

This step is pretty straightforward. During an escalation we need to ensure the location and environment is conducive to maintaining safety. This goes for the student in crises, surrounding students, and staff involved. Plan for the worst, intervene for the best!

Check the items surrounding the student. Does anything heavy or sharp need to be removed if they have a history of throwing items? Are they sensitive to sensory input? Maybe you need to close the door or shut off the lights. Can you move calming items into the environment like pillows or the student’s regulation materials? We also need to be prepared to move students or staff members into safe or more supportive spots. Students don’t escalate in convenient locations. So, when you see things brewing, start thinking about the surrounding environment and possible relocation places that will support the student.


The most important thing to remember is to maintain the student’s dignity during an escalation. They are in crises and may act in socially unacceptable ways, or may cause destruction to materials and the environment. They should never be made to feel badly during or after these incidents. The reasons behind these behaviors are deep and complex. They require understanding and compassion. Be mindful of what peers hear and see, as well as other staff. Escalations are not shameful, but they should not be on display. Teach students how to restore the damage or hurt done while maintaining their dignity throughout.


Use the Core 4 as a visual in your classroom to remind you to integrate positive behavior supports and interventions in your trauma informed classroom. I printed these questions out and hung them next to each doorway. You can also use this framework to train staff and paraprofessionals in trauma informed strategies. As I say all the time, trauma supportive practices are creative. Allow these guided questions to inform your creative teaching practice!


If you’re looking for targeted, tried and true, deescalation strategies to support this work, download my free E-book by clicking the image below!



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