“Get Out of My Face!” Handling Student Outbursts with Verbal De-Escalation

“Get Out of My Face!” Handling Student Outbursts with Verbal De-Escalation

“Child Arrested, age 7, in Classroom Assault”

“8-year-old Child Assaults Teacher.”

Reading headlines like these always make me feel sick. Maybe I’m a bit odd, though, because my first instinct isn’t usually to wonder if the teacher is okay. Don’t get me wrong. Of course, I’m concerned. No one should ever be attacked, or feel unsafe in the classroom.

Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t first think of the child, and how that day in the classroom has, quite possibly, changed the trajectory of a life. For one thing, the child is now defined as a criminal and is probably headed to alternative school. More importantly, how does the child define himself or herself after this incident?

De-Escalation: Why It Matters 

If the teacher of that 8-year-old child had been trained in crisis de-escalation, I wonder if that whole tragedy could have been avoided. I’m not blaming the teacher. Maybe the child didn’t give any warning signs, but he or she probably did. Would a new or inexperienced teacher know what to do and how to respond?

Imagine this scenario: An angry, probably traumatized kid starts yelling and knocks his books off his desk when the teacher tells him to start doing his work and stop staring out the window. After the outburst, he is sitting silently in his chair, with his head down on his desk.

Teacher A has never been properly trained in verbal de-escalation and is having a bad morning himself. He’s been dealing with this kid for months, and he’s sick of it. He raises his voice, changes his face to an angry expression, and threatens the child with punishment if he doesn’t pick up that pencil right now and lose the attitude! He isn’t about to let this kid sit there doing nothing while everyone else works. It wouldn’t be fair.

Teacher B smirks, roll her eyes, and says something like, “Yeah, we can all see how hard you’ve been working this morning. Poor thing, you must be exhausted!” The class laughs. This teacher has perfected the art of sarcasm. She can’t help laughing a little, herself because she now has the upper hand, and the audience is on her side.

Teacher C picks up the pencil, directs the other children to get back to work. Since the student hasn’t said anything else and is still in his seat, she keeps quiet for now. She stays nearby, in case anything happens, but doesn’t add fuel to the fire by trying to force eye contact. She doesn’t try to make the student do his work. If he becomes violent, she won’t hesitate to call for help and move her students out of the way.

After class, she talks to him privately, telling him throwing a pencil and yelling in class is not acceptable. She arranges a time to work with him and the counselor about better ways to handle his emotions in class, and possible ways for him to signal her if her if something is seriously wrong when he enters the classroom. They work out a game plan so this doesn’t keep happening.

Teacher C has protected her students, and they know she can keep calm and handle herself under pressure. The difference is, she had a protocol in place. Even though the students’ outburst took her by surprise, she knew what to do, and what not to do, so she didn’t react fearfully and defensively.

how to handle angry students in the classroom

Now, I understand this might not work in all situations. There are times when you might need to call for help to protect other students from getting hurt, and no, the other kids in your class shouldn’t have to listen to someone screaming obscenities every day in class. I get that. De-escalation doesn’t mean you let it happen. It means that you don’t add any negative energy to the situation, so it’s less likely that anyone gets hurt or is taken away in handcuffs. This takes training and practice.

Professional De-Escalation Training 

The first thing you should do is request that your school or district train all teachers (and substitute teachers) in verbal de-escalation techniques.

Until that happens, here are a few things I’ve learned from the classroom experience, research, and years of parenting a child who struggles with self-control and anxiety.

  • Examine your own emotional triggers – After a blow-up with a student, dig deep and ask yourself the hard questions. What really made me so angry or afraid when this student challenged me? Where is this coming from? 
  • Just breathe a few times, and unclench those fists. Let your shoulders drop, too. Look at the student’s angry posture. Make yours the opposite. 
  • Make your facial expression completely neutral – This means don’t roll your eyes, smirk, or giggle nervously. 
  • Don’t try to enforce consequences or make ultimatums – Wait until the student is calm to talk (privately) about consequences. 
  • Do not argue, period. Do not lecture. The student will not be able to process any of this while angry, afraid, and overwhelmed. 
  • Try not to take it personally – It’s really not about you, though it might feel that way. 
  • Let go of your need to “win” in front of your other students – This is really hard, especially for inexperienced teachers. Realize they will be more respectful of a teacher who stays calm than of one who tries to “win” in this kind of situation. 
  • And for God’s sake, resist the urge to use sarcasm! I know I’m guilty, and maybe you are, too. If so, just don’t. If you don’t believe me, look up the research on sarcasm in the classroom.

 

If you’re thinking that all these suggestions are basic and obvious, maybe you’re missing the point. Yes, I suppose they are. You’ve probably heard them a million times, and some of them are just common sense.

The point I’m really trying to make is that you need to write out a protocol if you haven’t received training yet. It’s easy to intellectually understand these de-escalation techniques, but extremely difficult to use them if you don’t make a protocol and rehearse it until it becomes second nature.

Otherwise, you are reacting from a place of stress and fear, and that means a dangerous situation for you, the student, and the rest of the class. If you become skilled in verbal de-escalation, your classroom will feel like a safer place, and you will become a more confident teacher.

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