De-escalation is the process of calming down a situation before it escalates further. It is helping to slowly bring the temperature down before it reaches a boiling point. This is critically important skill for all educators and parents because children and young adults feel overwhelmed and angry sometimes; we all do.
With that said, learning to de-escalate situations is not always easy. It requires practice and a toolbox of techniques. Not every strategy is going to work perfectly in every situation (or with every child). Sometimes you will need multiple strategies, or trying different techniques to see what works in that moment.
Challenging behaviors happen. Kids and teens can act out in disrespectful ways, refuse to work, yell, or swear. These are just a few examples. It’s important to note that there is always a reason for the behaviors, even if we don’t see that reason in the moment. Often, kids and teens might feel overwhelmed, angry, frustrated, or worried about something going on. With that said, how we, as adults, handle those challenging behaviors can make all the difference. We can choose to engage in an argument with kids and teens, or we can help de-escalate the situation. De-escalation is the answer.
De-escalation doesn’t prevent all challenging behaviors from happening, but these techniques can help defuse a situation before it gets worse.
A question commonly asked is: Doesn’t this mean we are letting kids and teens get away with challenging behaviors and outbursts? No! De-escalation is about helping kids calm and think clearly, so we can get to the root of the problem and work through the challenges together. There might be a need for logical consequences (such as cleaning a mess up), but that comes later, only after the child is calm and can rationalize their actions.
As always, the goal is to help the child calm down so they can think clearly and make good choices moving forward. And if we want kids and teens to make the best choices, we have to help them get calm first. De-escalation strategies are the tools in the toolbox that help us get there.
So, the important question is, what de-escalation strategies can educators and parents use when kids and teens are overwhelmed, upset, or engaging in challenging behaviors? There are actually MANY de-escalation strategies to try. In this post, I decided to focus on the most important and effective techniques.
Here are the 7 more important de-escalation strategies for educators and parents to have in their toolbox:
1. Act calm.
There is a reason this de-escalation strategy is listed first. Acting calm is the single most important de-escalation strategy for teachers in the classroom. Having a calm demeanor and tone of voice helps set the tone for the child. Even research suggests that appearing externally calm can help reduce aggression. Acting calm can be incredibly difficult since challenging behaviors in the classroom aren’t calming at all from an educator’s perspective; they heighten our emotions too.
Imagine a student yelling or swearing. Your heart might beat faster and blood pressure might rise. It’s a stressful situation. Of course, the goal is to help calm the child. This is why it is critical to model the calm we want the child to feel.
One important manta to remember is: Act calm, even if you’re not. Not only will this convey a calming message to the child or young adult, but it also gives you time to use some strategies to calm down too.
Some strategies to help you (as the adult) feel more calm during challenging situations include:
- Practicing deep breathing
- Using positive self-talk
- Thinking of something calming (your dog or favorite vacation spot)
- Take a break (walk away or switch off with another colleague)
2. Give a choice.
The truth is that we, as adults, cannot force kids and teens to do anything. We can, however, give choices, which helps learners feel more in control of their own actions.
Also, giving choices helps empower kids and teens. So often, learners act out in negative ways because they feel they don’t actually have a choice. By giving them a choice, we are reminding them that they are in control. Choices also reduce the chance for a power struggle.
Some examples of choices to help de-escalate a situation might include:
- Do you want to do your work at your desk or standing by the counter?
- Would you rather read with your group or go back to your desk and read on your own?
- Choose any 5 questions to answer, and then you can take a break.
3. Give space and wait time.
Our brains don’t think clearly well when we’re overwhelmed by strong emotions. There is a scientific reason for that; When we experience strong feelings, the amygdala in our brains takes over, activating the flight, flight, and freeze response. At the same time, this response can override the part in our brains that help with decision-making. From a survival point of view, this is important. It’s what allows us to survive in life-threatening situations. The problem is that kids and teens with growing brains are still learning how to manage those emotions.
This is why giving space and wait time is crucial. Kids and teens can’t think clearly in the moment when they are overwhelmed or upset. Trying to rationalize with them can sometimes be met with more resistance, possibly even escalating the situation more.
Giving space and wait time isn’t about sending a child to “time out.” It is letting them know you are here for them in a compassionate way, while also recognizing their need for calm time on their own. Sometimes a little space and quiet go a long way. Try some strategies and phrases to give space and wait time:
- Say, “I’m here when you need me, but I’m going to give you some space.”
- Say, “I can tell you feel ______ right now. Take some time to yourself and I’ll check back.”
- Just politely give the expectation and walk away.
4. Listen and repeat what was said.
Actively listening to kids when they are upset is a key de-escalation strategy because we all want and need to be heard. Here are some tips to consider when practicing active listening with kids and teens who are upset:
- Prompt with questions: What happened? Can you tell me about what’s going on? Do you want to talk about it?
- Be compassionate. Remind them that you care and want to listen.
- Give your full attention. For smaller kids, it helps to kneel down to be eye level with them.
- Don’t interrupt. Let them share what they need to.
- Repeat back what you heard. This mirroring approach can help kids feel calm and listened to.
- Validate their feelings. Let them know that you understand and can see their perspective.
5. Say, “Let’s talk about this later.”
Saying, “Let’s talk about this later,” is a de-escalation strategy for a few reasons. It pauses the conflict, giving critical calm-down time to the child who is struggling. Also, this technique lets others around (including other students) that you aren’t ignoring the challenging behaviors; you are just addressing them at a more appropriate time.
It is a win-win technique that helps reduce the chance for a power struggle in the moment.
6. Invite them to join a calming activity.
Helping kids and teens regain their calm is an important goal of de-escalation. There are many coping strategies and activities students can try: reading, drawing, mindful breathing, journaling, and exercising to name a few.
Of course, it can be difficult for children and teens to engage in these calming activities on their own when they are overwhelmed. This is why it is important to invite them to join a calming activity, or co-regulate. Use this free printable coping strategies list to come up with ideas together.
Co-regulation is setting a positive and supportive tone, modeling a calming activity, and encouraging others to join. You might say, “I’m going to sit and color here. Feel free to join me when you are ready.” Even if kids and teens don’t join to start, many times they will with just some time and space.
One important note: When a child is frustrated or overwhelmed, this isn’t the time to teach new coping strategies and skills. If you notice a student is struggling with engaging in calming activities (like coloring, positive self-talk, deep breathing, or journaling), it might be helpful to teach and practice these skills at a later time when the child or teen is calm.
7. Change the subject to a more positive one.
Changing the subject is a strategy to help invite calm into the moment. When kids and teens feel more calm, they’re better able to process information, problem-solve, and work through challenges. It’s important to note that changing the subject to a more positive one needs to be done thoughtfully. A strong relationship should already exist, since you don’t want the child to feel you are ignoring their current needs.
The idea is to calm the child by talking about something else that makes the child feel happy and calm. A few conversation-starters to help change the subject might include:
- Let’s look at pictures of _______ together. (photos of any favorite item or animal)
- Can you tell me about _________? (favorite activity)
These prompts and questions should be tailored to the individual learner.
Free De-escalation Strategies List
Use this free printable de-escalation strategies list to help remind you about these techniques and several more.
Above all else, do what works in the moment. Different strategies are going to work for different students in different situations. Keep the strategies in your “toolbox” to help struggling students work through escalating situations in the future.
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