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October 12

3 Powerful Teacher De-Escalation Strategies



3 Powerful Teacher De-Escalation Strategies


Introduction to Teacher De-Escalation Strategies

Teacher de-escalation strategies are not at the top of the list of classroom management skills taught in undergraduate or graduate teacher education programs. The teacher training curriculum assumes that kids are coming to class well-fed, emotionally safe, untraumatized, and ready to learn. Everyone knows these assumptions are based on myth, not on fact. The assumptions make teaching teachers much easier and professors don’t have to get into the messiness of reality. “Let them learn the truth in their student teaching year” seems to be the prevailing thought.

The reality is truly messy. Even in schools with “normal” kids, students are traumatized, emotionally unsafe, and not ready to learn. Teacher de-escalation strategies therefore become critically essential in the classroom.

A Typical Student-Teacher De-Escalation Strategies Problem

Emily is in her 4th grade art class. Her art teacher sent to her to the office last week for throwing pencils in class.

Today, Emily comes to class, sits down calmly, and seems ready to work.

The art teacher says, “Hello everybody! Welcome to Art Class! I see some students are in their seats with their pencil cups and tablets out and ready to go! Thank you for that!”

“Ok, class, today you will draw your favorite pet. If you don’t have a pet, just draw someone else’s pet and underneath the drawing, write why you like to spend time with this pet.”

Emily looks upset, angry, and sighs deeply.

 “Emily, I don’t like that look on your face, and I am certainly not going to stand for more of your bad behavior and acting like a big baby again like you did last week, do you hear me?”

Emily stares back at the teacher.

 “Did you hear me? Are you deaf? Now get drawing and try to follow directions this time Emily!”

Emily says, “I’m not drawing a stupid pet!”

 “Oh yes you are, or you’re losing recess again and maybe even taking a trip to the principal’s office.”

Emily knocks over the pencils on her desk.

“Now look what you did!!! Pick those up right now!”

Emily puts hands on head, confused as to what to do.

 “Hey, I’ll give you until the count of 3 to pick those up. 1, 2, . . .”

Emily begins picking up the pencils.

The teacher points at Emily, and says, “Look you, you’re acting like someone half your age!! Maybe you’d like to join the kindergarten class on the first floor! You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”

Emily picks up a pencil, waves it at the teacher, and screams, “Leave me alone!!”

The teacher gets right in Emily’s face and says, “You better calm down! I’m sure the entire class is sick and tired of your ridiculous behavior – now. Apologize to the whole class right now!!!”

 “I hate you!!!” Emily throws a pencil, knocks the table over and runs out of the room.

The teacher stands out of the classroom door and yells, “You get back here right now!!!! Where do you think you’re going? You better be heading straight for the principal’s office!!!”

This may be an extreme example of non-existent teacher de-escalation strategies, but it is all too typical of an untrained teacher escalating an emotional student to greater agitation.

There is a much better way to handle Emily using neuroscience as the basis for calming her down.

The Noll Affect Labeling System

The Noll Affect Labeling System is a 3-step neuroscientific process for calming angry, upset brains in 30-45 seconds. Teachers trained in the Noll Affect Labeling System have reported remarkable changes in classroom control and in classroom culture.

How It Was Developed

Professional mediator and lawyer-turned-peacemaker Douglas E. Noll, JD. MA developed the system after a particularly contentious mediation forced him to examine human emotions. He learned that if the parties labeled each other’s emotions, they calmed down and became reasonable.

In 2010, with his colleague Laurel Kaufer, Noll founded the Prison of Peace Project to train life and long-term inmates how to reduce violence in their prison communities. The core skills included learning how to read emotions and reflect them back to angry inmates on the verge of violence. Kaufer and Noll discovered that this reflection process, called affect labeling, was the only effective tool that worked every time to diffuse potentially violent prison fights.

Why It Works

The system works because of how the human brain is wired. When someone is intensely emotional (Emily, in the above example), her prefrontal cortex shuts down. Her emotional circuits dominate her neural networks and she is unable to self-regulate. In a ground-breaking fMRI study in 2007, UCLA scientist Matthew Lieberman and his team discovered that affect labeling had a profound effect on the emotional brain.

Affect labeling, relative to other forms of encoding, diminished the response of the amygdala and other limbic regions to negative emotional images. Additionally, affect labeling produced increased activity in a single brain region, right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (RVLPFC). Finally, RVLPFC and amygdala activity during affect labeling were inversely correlated, a relationship that was mediated by activity in medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). These results suggest that affect labeling may diminish emotional reactivity along a pathway from RVLPFC to MPFC to the amygdala

In other words, when emotions are labeled through affect labeling, the prefrontal cortex of an emotional brain increases in activity while, at the same time, the amygdala and other limbic regions, are inhibited. The practical effect is that an angry, upset student can be calmed down in less than 90 seconds. This is, indeed, a powerful teacher de-escalation tool.

The Noll Affect Labeling System

The Noll Affect Labeling System has three basic strategies.

Strategy #!: Ignore the Student’s Words

When confronted with an angry, emotional, upset student, the untrained teacher is likely to be emotionally triggered by defiant and insulting words. The teacher’s reaction to the trigger may be to escalate the incident much as the art teacher did with Emily above. The first strategy is to prevent yourself, as a teacher, from being triggered by ignoring your student’s words. The words are just noise for the moment. When you ignore the words, you protect yourself from becoming triggered, and you free up brain bandwidth for the next two teacher de-escalation strategies.

listen to the emtions, not the words Strategy #2: Read the Student’s Emotions

The second teacher de-escalation strategy in the Noll Affect Labeling System is to read or guess at the student’s emotions. The surface emotions will always be obvious. However, anger usually hides deeper emotions. Your job is to read those deeper emotions.

Emotions are layered and present themselves in groups. The Noll Affect Labeling System uses 6 layers for ease of application. They are:

  • Anger, Frustration
  • Unfair, Unjust, Not Being Listened to, Not Feeling Supported, Unappreciated
  • Fear, Anxiety
  • Embarrassment, Shame, Humiliation, Guilt
  • Sadness, Grief
  • Abandonment, Unloved, Rejected

Strategy #3: Reflect Back the Student’s Emotions with a “You” Statement

The third teacher de-escalation strategy is to reflect back your student’s emotions with a “you” statement.

“You are angry.”

“You are frustrated.”

“You are unappreciated.”

The statement should simple, direct, and student-focused.

Effective Teacher De-Escalation Strategies in Practice

Here’s how these teacher de-escalation strategies would work with Emily.

Emily comes to class, sits down calm, and seems ready to work.

Her art teacher says, “Hello everybody! Welcome to Art Class! I see some students are in their seats with their pencil cups and tablets out and ready to go! Thank you for that!”

“Ok, class, today you will draw your favorite pet. If you don’t have a pet, just draw someone else’s pet and underneath the drawing, write why you like to spend time with this pet.”

Emily looks upset, angry, and sighs deeply.

The teacher sees that something is bothering Emily. She says, “OK, class, please get started and I’ll be coming around the class to see how you’re doing.” The teacher goes to Emily and sits a few feet away from her.

Emily blurts, “What do you want??!!”

The teacher says, “You are angry and frustrated.”

Emily says, “I’m not drawing a stupid pet!”

The teacher ignores Emily’s words and says, “You are angry, frustrated, and sad.”

Emily nods her head in agreement and puts her head in her hands.

The teacher asks, “What’s going on?”

Emily says, “My dog died last week. I really loved him so much.” She puts her head down on her desk and starts to cry.

The teacher says, “Oh, Emily, you are so sad. You feel alone and abandoned. You are grieving over your loss. You are so sad.”

Emily nods her head in agreement.

The teacher says, “Tell you what. What you like to draw today?”

Emily says, “Well, we are going on vacation this summer, and I have been thinking about that to make me feel better. So maybe I can draw the beach or something.”

The teacher says, “I think that’s a wonderful idea. If you feel ok now, I’m going to check on the rest of the class. Please let me know if you need me, ok?”

“OK, I will.”

Instead of escalating the situation, application of the Noll Affect Labeling System allowed the teacher to calm Emily with deep compassion. The emotional moment passed for Emily and she was able to return to a calm emotional state ready to learn.

Teacher De-Escalation Strategies to Avoid (Despite “Expert Advice” to the Contrary)

Most of the de-escalation advice on the Internet for teachers is worthless. Some of the advice is outright abusive. Only use strategies supported by empirical science. Otherwise, you risk escalating an emotional moment into a bigger problem. How to Calm Someone Down-The 15 Worst Tips

Do Not Reflect Emotions with an “I” statements

Despite the science, many “experts” persist in advising the use of “I” statements as teacher de-escalation strategies. For example, “I see that you might be angry.”

Never use an “I” statement to de-escalate a student. A decade of research and practical experience in maximum security prisons established that only “you” statements were effective at calming down intense emotions.

The reason that “I” statements persist is because using an “I” statement soothes the teacher’s anxieties. Teacher de-escalation strategies are not about soothing the teacher, they are about soothing the upset, angry student.

No Questions

Other than a door-opening question like, “What’s going on?” do not ask questions. Too often, your questions become interrogative and escalate your student’s emotions.

No Problem-Solving

Teachers and administrators often rush into problem-solving before their student is calm. Never try to solve a problem or discuss consequences until calm is restored.

Do Not Emotionally Invalidate Your Student

Emotional invalidation occurs whenever you tell your student not to feel what she is feeling or you shame or humiliate your student for experiencing strong emotions. Emotional invalidation is a pervasive and insidious form of emotional abuse, especially to children and young adults.

Mastering Teacher De-Escalation Strategies

The Noll Affect Labeling System is a set of powerful and effective teacher de-escalation strategies acid-tested in violent environments. Although these strategies are counter-intuitive and counter-normative, brain scanning studies show how they calm angry brains in literally seconds. These skills will make classroom management simple, compassionate, and caring. Students will develop a close loyalty to those teachers deploying these strategies in their daily work.

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    About the Author

    Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA left a successful career as a trial lawyer to become a peacemaker. His calling is to serve humanity, and he executes his calling at many levels. He is an award-winning author, speaker, teacher, and trainer. He is a highly experienced mediator. Doug’s work carries him from international work to helping people resolve deep interpersonal and ideological conflicts.


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