The List: Three Successful Deescalation Tactics for Teachers

Unfortunately, state test season always results in students making a few poor life choices. They start buckling under the pressure and are not yet able to effectively "self-soothe." Amazingly, our school has started promoting mindfulness instruction in order to teach students how to calm themselves down in high-stakes situations. (One of our teachers has extensive experience in teaching yoga and meditation. She actually leads a staff-wide vinyasa flow every Wednesday. Namaste.) But even with a chair Uttanasana starting off every class period, students will occasionally struggle with resolving conflicts, managing frustration, and refocusing after corrections. Understandable. I'm an adult, and I struggle with that too sometimes.


(Front of Mask Says: Leader.)

At Uncommon Schools, I have the privilege of working with some of the best teachers in the world. So I've seen an extraordinary amount of successful deescalation tactics this week. Here are just a few of the methods that I've observed while traveling through the hallways of our school:

1. Redirect for Success

Yesterday, two of our students got into an altercation out on the playground. When a teacher intervened, one of the students immediately started to calm down, while the other student (called "Allison" here) only became more aggressive. The teacher brought Allison upstairs to the main office, but she resisted the entire way: "You're only taking me upstairs because you think that I'm the bad one," "This just makes me hate you even more," "You should let me go back out there and punch her," etc. The teacher demonstrated incredible emotional constancy, responding with statements like "You can be angry with me" and "I understand that you're feeling frustrated right now. "

When they reached the main office, the teacher asked Allison to sit down and IMMEDIATELY redirected her attention. Our staff was having a bake-off, which meant that four trays of cheesecake were out on the table. The teacher said: "Allison, we need to choose the best cheesecake from the bake-off. I can't have any, so I need you to vote on my behalf. Do you think you can do that?" And, without even waiting for the answer, the teacher spooned some of the most scrumptious-looking dessert into a bowl and passed it over to Allison. "Here, try this one."

Within a few seconds, Allison had completely forgotten about wanting to punch her classmate downstairs. She sampled each cheesecake selection, shared her thoughts with the teacher (strengthening that relationship), and then voted for her favorite. Afterwards, the teacher was able to successfully process with Allison what had happened downstairs and schedule a time for conflict mediation between the two students. When a situation starts spiraling out-of-control, sometimes redirecting the major player(s) can calm everyone down, help repair damaged relationships, and create the mental space necessarily to actually solve the problem.

Note: I know that the cause-and-effect seems out of whack here. If you're acting out (fighting with a classmate), you're going to get a reward (eating cheesecake). However, if we're really focused on solving the problem and teaching conflict-resolution strategies to students (instead of simply punishing them), it's more important to calm the student down and move her into a receptive headspace than immediately sticking her in the detention room. Allison did receive a consequence for her actions -- but, in that moment, giving the consequence would have done much more harm than good.

2. Positive Praise (in Advance)

Yesterday, one of our more sociable students (called "Bethany" here) was striking up conversations in the hallway. A teacher asked her to please stop talking, and she turned around with a look that clearly signaled that there was an automatic detention-worthy response a-brewing. Instead of letting her dig herself into that consequence hole, the teacher cut her off at the pass: "Bethany, I'm so proud of you for making the right decision and turning around. It really shows that you have the maturity that we look for in all of our eighth graders. I knew that I could count on you to be a leader." Of course, Bethany hadn't turned around and knew full-well that she hadn't been planning on making the right choice. But once the teacher laid all of that public praise on her, Bethany didn't really have a choice. She turned around and walked silently into the classroom.

Positive praise (in advance) is a perfect example of how students will usually rise to the expectations that you set for them. The teacher set the expectation that Bethany would be a leader for her class and that she would make the right choice in this situation. Because the teacher used such positive framing (as opposed to "don't earn a demerit" or "you need to stop before you get into trouble"), Bethany was able to re-focus and successfully start the class period -- sans automatic detention.

Variation: I used a similar technique on a student that I was struggling with earlier this year. We'd gotten off to a rough start, and he was convinced that I was "out to get him." In order to turn the relationship around, I started approaching him like he was the MVP of my classroom. I made him the lead cinematographer on our class film; I entrusted him with the fragile and expensive lighting equipment; he was the only student allowed to use the box cutter. Nowadays, he's receptive to my redirections in the hallways, and he always steps up to volunteer in the classroom. I'm not saying that students will rise to your expectations every single time -- but, more often than not, they'll step up their game.

3. Show the Love

There's a teacher at our school who does SPED pull-out classes in the conference room. Because our staff restroom is located inside of the conference room (awkward architectural choice, NYC Department of Education), I frequently find myself unintentionally observing his classes while I'm waiting. One thing that I've noticed is that he uses affectionate terminology when talking with students. He'll call the fifth graders "sweetie" or "buddy" -- terms that a parent or relative might use. Now, I can't use the term "sweetie" without thinking of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, so I wasn't exactly in a hurry to run out and start using these in my teaching practice. But then I noticed that he was able to use affectionate terminology to deescalate situations with even the most frustrated fifth grade students.

For instance, one of our fifth graders (called "Charlie" here) really struggles with basic mathematical skills. When he was working on his pull-out packet, the teacher circulated to him and told him that he was doing the work incorrectly. Charlie became frustrated and threw his pencil onto the floor. Instead of aggravating the situation further (by telling Charlie to pick up the pencil or giving him a demerit for his inappropriate reaction), the teacher retrieved the pencil and said: "Come on, buddy. Let's figure this out together." Charlie calmed down almost immediately. It's really hard to direct your anger towards someone who's calling you "buddy," "pal," "sweetie," "hun," etc. (Although the last one will make you sound like you just popped out of Hairspray. Good morning Baltimore indeed.) It's a small way of verbally letting students know that we care about them and that we're on their side, even if they're not making the right choices in that moment.

Bonus: Because I'm a human being (and not a teacher-bot), I sometimes get frustrated with my students. When I push myself to verbally show them the love, it immediately takes down my guard and reminds me that we're all working together towards a common goal -- getting them into college. Even though students sometimes struggle to keep that goal in sight (and it's understandably tough to visualize college when you're only nine-years-old), they do all want to get there. So show the love!


(Back of Mask Says: Follow Me.)

Day Two (31 Days of Trip Planning): Created my unofficial travel guide that (so far) includes all of the information about my flights and hostel bookings, as well as public transportation and directions to/from airports and hostels

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