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
WHY LEARN TRAUMA RESPONSIVE DE-ESCALATION?
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.
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…
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
FOCUSING ON EDUCATORS
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.
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.
FOCUSING ON STUDENTS
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.
FOCUS ON PREVENTION
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.
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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
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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