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Intro To Trauma Responsive De-Escalation

We don’t get to decide whether we have challenging students in our classes, but

we can certainly decide how we respond to them.

                                                                                                                            ~Carol Ann Tomlinson


When educators understand the underlying causes of student emotional outbursts and respond to acting-out behavior in positive and proactive ways...

Externalizing classroom behaviors are at the top of most educators’ concerns. This is because externalizing and escalating behaviors such as classroom outbursts, verbal jabs, or even physical attacks not only derail instruction, but can compromise the safety of students and educators.

If the underlying cause of outbursts and escalating behavior is trauma and the resultant emotional dysregulation, what educators’ see as intentional disruption of the learning environment, may actually stem from the student feeling a lack of emotional, psychological, or physical safety. Punitive discipline will only make the student feel more unsafe and the intensity of the behavior is likely to escalate, as these students often have an overly sensitive perception of threat. 


Common educator reactions to challenging student behaviors such as calling out the student’s name, public reprimands, or threat of punishment, ultimately escalates rather than de-escalates student behavior. To counter this, a trauma responsive educator recognizes a student’s pattern of acting-out behavior and escalation and intervenes early to support the student with self-regulation, calming strategies, and by offering ways to separate, physically or emotionally, from the triggering situation.


Trauma Responsive De-Escalation will equip you with a toolbox of preventative de-escalation strategies that have been shown effective in addressing challenging student behavior. Preventative de-escalation begins before the emotional outburst and is focused on educators’ abilities to recognize the early signs of behavioral escalation.

Benefits for the Student
  • Preventative de-escalation helps build educator-student relationships. Done well, students will feel heard and respected, and may also come away from the experience having learned self-regulating behaviors they can use when feeling agitated in the future.

  • When successful, students stay in the classroom, are quickly re-engaged in learning, and are kept out of a punitive cycle that may decrease their school belonging.

Benefits for the Classroom Community
  • De-escalation serves as a lesson for all students in the classroom. Being witness to an interaction where an educator listens to and responds to the needs of a fellow student builds trust and feelings of safety throughout the entire classroom community.

Benefits for the Educator
  • Engaging in preventative de-escalation can improve your overall effectiveness, minimize workload, and promote personal well-being. By building trust, teaching expected behaviors, and establishing an emotionally supportive classroom with students, you will be able to spend less time on behavior management.

Why Learn Trauma Responsive De-escalation


De-escalation strategies are most effective when you can express emotional neutrality while implementing the strategies. But very rarely do educators receive any training on the meaning and actions that would enable them to “go cold” in ways that are supportive for students who are struggling to manage an emotional outburst.  


Emotional neutrality is about not taking the behavior personally. It takes an understanding that although the escalation that is happening in front of you does involve you it is often about much more than just you, especially when you know that the student is coping with trauma. Because of their decreased frustration tolerance, the small momentary agitation/frustration is the pressure that broke the already cracked dam that leads to an outpouring of emotion. 

To respond with emotional neutrality…

Maintain self-awareness

of your emotional (thoughts and feelings) and physical state (heart rate, clenched muscles, etc.).

Ask yourself questions

about what may have triggered the student or may be the underlying cause to help yourself get out of your emotional brain and into your thinking brain.

Breathe slow and deep

and put your hands on your chest if needed so that you can be aware of your breathing. Deep breathing tells your brain and emotions to calm down.

Talk to yourself

using planned calming mantras to remind yourself of what you know you need to do to demonstrate calm during student outbursts.

- “I know this is not a personal attack against me.”

- “I will remain calm while trying to help him/her.”

Emotional neutrality is only for negative interactions. It is equally important to be emotionally engaged with positive interactions.

  • Emotionally plug-in with positive interactions

    • Teasing and kidding about the good things strengthens the relationship

  • Emotionally unplug with negative interactions.

    • Negative teasing, "clapping back", and “going there” with them brings the two of you closer as peers in student’s perspective and erodes your professional authority

Emotional Neutrality


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Let’s spend some time on the educator before moving to focusing on student behaviors and what to do in the midst of an escalating interaction. Teachers and students each bring something to their initial interactions, and the experiences and perceptions of each other that result from those initial interactions can create a downward or upward spiral of reciprocal interactions.


Heading off a damaging cycle of negative interactions is crucial because research shows that students' challenging behaviors such as aggressive, angry, anxious, asocial, dependent, and/or defiant behaviors are significantly more impactful on teacher-student relationships than exhibiting positive and prosocial behaviors.

The Conflict Cycle has four distinct phases that describes teacher-student escalating interaction.


A stressful event may occur in the classroom, such as a triggering reminder of a traumatic event, or insult from a classmate.


The student has an emotional reaction that can involve feelings of anger, distress, sadness, etc.


Feelings are followed by a behavioral reaction that the teacher is able to observe, often without a full understanding of the cause.


The student’s behavior is met with a response from the educator that could further escalate the interaction.

This type of ineffective and escalating management of acting out behaviors, during instructional time can be one of the largest barriers to a positive, productive classroom environment.

Educators who can anticipate and adjust their role in escalating student behaviors are equipped with important advantages.  

Focusing On Educators


Learn the Predictable Pattern of Student Acting-Out Behavior

Understanding that emotional and behavioral outbursts have predictable patterns with a long lead up to the peak point of escalation is the first step to effectively using preventative de-escalation.

You will be better prepared to effectively intervene to prevent or minimize student outbursts by knowing the phases of the Acting Out Cycle and the teacher actions that work best for each phase. The acting out cycle is the very predictable pattern of escalating student behaviors, from calm, to agitation, to peak outburst, to de-escalation.

The Acting Out Cycle

Many educators tend to ignore students’ increasing signs of agitation, hoping they’ll eventually calm down if ignored. However, when these more minor behavioral signals of agitation are ignored, the most likely outcome is that the student becomes increasingly dysregulated and can escalate their attention seeking behaviors.

Particularly for students growing up with high levels of traumatic stressors, we should re-think this as the Traumatic Stress Response Cycle. Viewing acting-out behaviors from the lens of the traumatic stress response cycle helps us to see that if the underlying cause of escalating behavior is trauma and internal dysregulation, what educators see as willful disruption of the learning environment may actually stem from the students’ inability to self-regulate their emotions and behaviors. Punitive discipline will only make the student feel more anxious and unsafe and the behavior is likely to escalate, this is because traumatized students have an overly sensitive perception of threat.


The Traumatic Stress Response Cycle With Opportunities For Intervention


                                    STUDENT BEHAVIORS


                          EFFECTIVE TEACHER ACTIONS

Calm Phase

  • Engaged in instruction

  • Adhering to classroom social and behavioral expectations

  • Provide positive attention

  • Work on developing relationships with children

Trigger Phase

  • Interpersonal conflict, traumatic memory, or cognitive frustration provokes a trauma response

  • Begin to recognize what triggers are and help prevent them

  • Change the setting, offer positive attention

Agitation Phase

  • Difficulty with concentration

  • Physical signs of agitation such as tapping and rocking

  • Redirect student, offer choices 

  • Provide assistance and offer calming techniques

Acceleration Phase

  • Student seeks teacher and peer attention in negative ways

  • Attempts to provoke teacher and other students

  • Acknowledge feelings and give positive attention

  • Make high-probability requests

Peak Phase

  • Student escalates to their maximum behavior

  • Displays of verbal and sometimes physical aggression

  • Ensure safety for everyone including the escalated student

  • Stay calm and maintain safety

De-Escalation Phase

  • Withdraws emotionally 

  • Becomes more receptive to teacher redirection

  • Move child to Quiet Corner, provide calm activity

  • Check on rest of class to restore order

Recovery Phase

  • Student calms down

  • May avoid talking about the incident

  • Debriefing of incident is critical

  • Discuss incident and make plan for prevention in future

Focusing On Studets


Because students coping with traumatic stressors have low levels of frustration tolerance, a mildly frustrating classroom experience or interaction that could be managed by the average student is overwhelming to the traumatized student and can result in an emotional overreaction.

When students enter the classroom, they carry with them feelings and emotions from earlier experiences. This ranges from feelings of frustration after a stressful experience at home, to anger after being approached by a bully at school, to lingering embarrassment from an uncomfortable interaction with the previous teacher.


Essentially, if a student has experienced a stressful incident before entering your classroom they are carrying with them the physiological and emotional side effects of those experiences that can make it difficult for them to regulate their behavior. And, because they are still maturing, students often do not have the coping skills needed to manage this physiological escalation, and if the classroom, lunchroom, or playground is chaotic it will be especially difficult for them to de-escalate themselves.

Establishing clear behavioral expectations, providing strong instruction, and preparing individualized behavioral plans for students with histories of challenging behaviors all contribute to maintaining a classroom culture and environment that is less susceptible to behavioral escalation.


Universal precautions are best done through our preventative actions. We recommend Calm Centers and Mindfulness as universal preventative practices that should be available in all classrooms and regularly practiced with all students daily to support the development of behavioral and emotional regulation. We provide comprehensive guides on both practices.

Classroom calming centers provide students with the physical space needed to self-calm and self-regulate after an event or interaction that may have triggered emotional dysregulation. Calming centers provides them with the independent tools and manipulatives they can use to become calm and ready to either resolve a conflict or re-engage in their academic tasks. 


The use of calming centers in the classroom is a proactive strategy that can build student agency around emotional and behavioral regulation and conflict prevention.


Post-traumatic growth occurs as students learn that they have the ability to manage their emotions as well as their behaviors in social and learning interactions.

Leather Chair

Mindfulness in the classroom engages students in building the skill of paying attention on purpose. As with all skills, it takes time to develop and depends on frequent and regular opportunities to practice.


Mindfulness has a dosage effect. With more doses/practice, the greater the effect and the sooner the benefits will be realized.

Like a vitamin, it is a great idea to begin each school day with a dose of mindfulness for everyone in the building.


Three times a day is a recommended daily dose: first period, after recess/lunch, and before dismissal.


Identifying other points in the day to add a dose of mindfulness will strengthen their practice and ability to use it for themselves for self-regulation.

Meditation in Forest
Focusing On Prevention


Albin, R. W., O'Brien, M., & Horner, R. H. (1995). Analysis of an escalating sequence of problem behaviors: A case study. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 16(2), 133-147.

Colvin, G., & Scott, T. M. (2014). Managing the cycle of acting-out behavior in the classroom. Corwin Press.

Huth, M., Tartaglia, H., DuBois, J., Dunn, E., Barclay, C., & Stein, R. (2019) Applying a Trauma Sensitive Lens to De-escalation: Cultivating Safe and Supportive Schools. Presented at the Northeast Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (NEPBIS) Leadership Forum

Muscott, H. S. (1995). Techniques for Avoiding Counter-aggressive Responses When Teaching Youth with Aggressive Behavior. Reclaiming Children and Youth: Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Problems, 4(1), 41-44.

Price, O., & Baker, J. (2012). Key components of de‐escalation techniques: A thematic synthesis. International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, 21(4), 310-319.

Shelby County Schools PBIS and Student Leadership Team. (July 16, 2015 ) De-escalation Strategies: Keeping Behavior from Going BOOM!: Incorporating techniques that work with Love and Logic. Shelby County Schools.   

The IRIS Center (2018). Understanding the ActingOut Cycle. Peabody College Vanderbilt University. content

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