Loss Control Insights for Schools
De-escalation Strategies for Violent Students (updated October 2021)
Any student can experience episodes of anxiety or agitation while in a school setting. Whether triggered by bullying, frustration with schoolwork or stress at home, these feelings can escalate to emotional outbursts and even violence when not addressed appropriately.
And violence in the classroom can have a lasting effect on your entire administration. According to a study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, almost 44% of teachers who had been the victim of physical assault said the attack had a negative impact on their job performance, and 27% said they thought about quitting their jobs afterwards.
Administrative Support and Training for Teachers
With teachers reporting assaults by students in their classrooms with increasing frequency, it’s important that your administration supports its staff and provides training resources that help them de-escalate aggressive student behavior. This training should be available to all staff, not just your special education teachers and paraeducators.
Key Training Resources
- American Psychological Association (APA) provides information on the warning signs of youth violence and offers free training courses on classroom management and disruption intervention.
- Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) focuses on social and emotional learning (SEL).
- Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI) offers a variety of training programs, including Nonviolent Crisis Intervention®.
- Vector Solutions offers a comprehensive catalog of online courses for school district employees, including de-escalation training.
Administrators need to provide appropriate support for their staff, allowing teachers to remove violent students who are a threat to themselves or others from the classroom.
Classroom De-escalation Strategies
Always respond to threats.If a student threatens violence towards someone else, it’s important to always speak to the student. Discuss with the student ways they could express their anger without affecting the safety of others.
Be empathetic and nonjudgmental.Whether or not you believe a student’s feelings are justified, do not judge or dismiss them. The root of the student’s distress might lie outside the classroom and a little support and encouragement can go a long way.
Show open, accepting body language.Stand at an angle rather than facing the student directly to reduce the feeling of confrontation. You should also avoid crossing your arms or clenching your fists. Instead, keep hands open and visible to the student.
Provide adequate space.Try to stay at least two arm’s-length away from the student. If the student tells you to back up or move, give them additional space.
Create a safe space.Defuse the situation by respecting and reassuring the student. This could be as simple as letting them know they are not in trouble. If possible, try to have a semi-private conversation with them, rather than engaging with the student in front of their classmates. Keep in mind adults should never be left alone with an agitated student.
Limit the number of adults involved.Having too many authority figures could intimidate the student or create confusion and mixed messaging.
Redirect their thoughts.If a student is acting violently, try to de-escalate the situation by speaking softly, using “you” statements and acknowledging the student’s anger. Attempt to distract the student by asking them about something they enjoy.
Be assertive but not aggressive.Do not argue with or respond to challenges of authority or verbal threats and abuse. While its natural to feel defensive or anxious, never threaten a student verbally or physically. It’s important you appear and sound calm.
Find Common Ground.Use active listening to identify the student’s wants and needs. Then, rephrase them and build rapport by identifying authentic points of agreement. For example, you could say, "I can understand why you were upset about what happened at recess. I would be too."
Use simple, direct language.Keep your sentences simple and brief. And give the student time to comprehend and respond before continuing. You may need to use gentle repetition to get your message to "stick."
Send for help.If efforts to calm the student down do not work, move the other students out of the classroom and send for help. If possible, wait for help with the student.
Report the incident.If a violent incident does occur, report the incident immediately to school administrators.
NOTE: Use physical intervention only as a last resort and only if your school’s policies permit it and you are trained to do so.
The National Education Association has scenarios and action plans that outline actions staff members can take to respond to violent or potentially violent behavior.