Dealing with extreme student behaviors can be a disheartening experience for teachers, and diffusing small behaviors before they become big problems requires a skillful balance of concealing your emotions and using techniques to de-escalate the behavior. Here are some tips on how to handle challenging student behavior and get back to class.
1. Get to the Root of the Matter
Behavior is a form of communication, so consider what could be causing the disruptive behavior. Determining the cause can help teachers proactively meet student needs, while remaining in control and avoiding inadvertently reinforcing bad behavior.
While the type of behavior may vary, the function of behaviors typically serve one of two purposes: to get something (i.e., attention) or to avoid something (i.e., work). For instance, a student who constantly disrupts your class may be communicating a need for attention.
Rather than reinforcing this behavior by responding to a student blurting out—as negative attention is still attention—try anticipating the behavior and meeting the student's need beforehand. Meet with the student before class and ask them to help you with a special job. Make a point to have a one-on-one conversation about a subject of interest to the student. By meeting the student's need on your terms, you may stop the behavior from even occurring.
Related: How to Regain Classroom Control When Students Are Loud and Unruly
2. Reach Out to Colleagues for Support
Most schools have teachers who specialize in working with students who have behavior issues. If you're dealing with extreme student behavior, seek out these individuals and ask for their advice.
Pam Schieffer is one such educator. She teaches students with emotional behavioral disabilities (EBD) in Minnesota and frequently deals with extreme behaviors. "My best advice is to provide clear, simple, and firm expectations for the students," she said. "They will push and try to cross the line. Don't back down, and don't show them it upsets you. Also, if they are trying to suck you in, ignore it and walk away when possible."
3. Remember to Remain Calm
The Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI) offers training opportunities for schools on de-escalating and dealing with a wide range of student behaviors. In addition to training, CPI offers free resources on techniques for diffusing challenging student behaviors.
While easier said than done, CPI notes that one of the most important things you can do when dealing with challenging behaviors is maintaining your own self-control. Visualize yourself somewhere relaxing to maintain the appearance of calm, and use conversational "diffusers," which are short phrases such as "I hear you," "Thanks for sharing," or "Nevertheless." Spoken matter-of-factly, these diffusers can de-escalate a situation and show you're still in control.
Silence is another useful de-escalation tool. If a student is challenging you, try waiting silently for about 10 seconds and see if the student doesn't give up. While it might feel like an eternity, the extended wait time has shown to be effective.
Related: 5 Classroom Management Tips That Seem Counterintuitive
4. Have a Plan and Stick to It
Every teacher should have a plan for dealing with students when behaviors are chronic or continue to escalate. If you're working with a student who has an identified emotional or behavioral disability, consult with the special education teacher. The student's Individual Education Plan (IEP) or Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) should provide a detailed plan for handling their behavior.
Students will test boundaries, so teachers need to set clear limits that are consistently enforced. Whether it's a positive behavior system, rewards, or strikes, you need a classroom management system that rewards positive behavior and penalizes poor behavior choices.
Make sure your plan is clear and students are fully aware of the consequences for not following it. But more importantly, stick to your plan. Consistently enforce your rules, or students will quickly learn they can get away with misbehaving in your classroom.
5. Involve Administration When Necessary
When extreme behaviors occur, safety should be your primary concern. No teacher should tolerate being hurt or threatened. If students aren't responding to your attempts to correct their behavior, it may be time to involve administration.
With a violent incident, isolate the student and call for help. If you can't isolate the student, you may need to move the class away from the student for everyone's protection and safety. After the incident, allow yourself and your students time to cool down. Breathe and regain your composure, then be sure to write up a complete report detailing the behavior incident.
6. Document, Document, Document
If you're struggling with student behavior, make sure to document the behaviors and the interventions you've used to address them. Documentation is critical to establishing a pattern of behavior, and it's pertinent information for administration if they need to become involved. Also, if administration is not supportive or questions you, having documentation protects you by outlining the steps you've tried prior to involving them.
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Like it or not, student behaviors are an inescapable part of being a teacher. Develop a plan and practice using techniques to stop behaviors before they begin. Skillfully managing student behaviors doesn't have to be the worst part of your job; it can be your opportunity to shine.