Here are nine quick ways to de-escalate arguments and serious incidents.
Here’s something you should avoid when confronting students about their behaviour or attitude – using the word ‘why’. Asking a student why they have or haven’t done something is an extremely confrontational and threatening way of approaching and almost always results in more conflict. Asking why puts them on the defensive: “Why are you sitting like that?”, “Why do you have to behave like this?”, “Why won’t you listen?”
Can you see how these questions can lead to more arguments and increased conflict? If you don’t believe this is true just try putting the same questions to your partner tonight – but have the spare room ready!
A better alternative is to ask ‘how’ or ‘what’ questions, to give your students the opportunity to explain themselves without making them feel they are being accused of something. “What makes you want to do that?”, “What were you thinking to end up doing that?”, “How can you make sure this doesn’t happen in future?”, “How could you do it better?”
A diversion can be:
I discovered, quite by accident, the power of diversions when working with a group of 15-year-old boys who had been excluded from mainstream school. I had taken them for a game of football in a public park and a fight broke out between two of them. I separated them and took Andrew, who was extremely wound up, to the sideline and tried to calm him down. He was completely out of control, wailing, screaming and hurling abuse at the other boy and nothing I said or did seemed to have an effect on him. He was completely hysterical.
Embarrassed at how bad this situation looked with members of the public sitting and walking nearby, I looked at the ground to gather my thoughts. Andrew’s day-glo socks suddenly caught my attention and I was surprised to hear myself say to him…
“Wow Andy, what colour are your socks?”
It was a completely off-topic question and was obviously a surprise to him too. As if by magic he immediately fell silent and glanced down at his feet before looking up at me with a quizzical expression on his face. The screaming and swearing had stopped and he stood perfectly still. I looked back him and for a few seconds we stood staring at each other before falling about laughing.
All my efforts to calm him down using the usual methods had failed. I tried giving him warnings and I tried giving him consequences. I tried being more supportive and I tried cajoling him. But when a person is lost in frenzy those things don’t work. What did work in this instance (and I think it’s an excellent all-round de-escalation strategy) was to radically and quickly alter the student’s mental state so as to interrupt their thought pattern and stop them from being ‘stuck’ in hysteria. Any off-topic question should do the job or, if you’re more adventurous, you could change your behaviour and do something they aren’t expecting. Try not to punch them though.
“Think back to yesterday, do you remember how the conversation we had and how you behaved?”
“Remember how well you coped last time this happened?”
“Hey, I saw you behaving impeccably this morning. Come on, get back to your true self.”
Just look at them. Let them rant and rave, the storm will eventually blow itself out. Then ask:
“What was behind all that? What’s the matter?”
You might be very surprised at how open a student will be with you when you refuse to be their enemy and instead just ‘listen’. Selective silence is one of the most effective ways of dealing with difficult people. It is easy to use, and very low threat. When people are being difficult, they are often seeking attention and power. When you respond verbally to an attack you are giving them attention and power they desire. When you use selective silence you deny them both attention and power.
“What do you want me to do to help you?”
“How can we sort this out?”
“Calm down. Hold your breath until you turn bright purple and then we’ll talk about this.”
“I don’t want you to leave but I also don’t want things to get out of control so how about this? If you need to leave the room and compose yourself I understand – there’s the door, you can come back when you’re ready and there are no hard feelings.”
“I think you’re right. I’m going to work on that, you’ve made me think that maybe I am a little bit too bossy sometimes. Will you accept my apology so we can start again?”
“Neither of us really wants this to escalate so I’m going to leave it there. We can talk about it later if you want.”
You can deflect confrontation with students by acknowledging their concerns or partially agreeing with them. It goes like this…
“I agree it may not seem fair but. …”
“That may be true but you’re still going to have to…”
So let’s say a teacher tells a child to stop talking. The student might deny that they were talking. The teacher then insists they saw them talking. They bat “Yes you were”/”no I wasn’t” back and forth for a while. Then the student appeals to those around him for witnesses and complains about always being picked on. By now the class have stopped working and are enjoying the show. The whole thing escalates way out of proportion to the original incident. Here’s a better script using the ‘partial agreement strategy:
Teacher: Fred, you need to stop talking.
Fred: I wasn’t even talking.
Teacher: You may be right. You just need to finish exercise three.
There is nothing to fight against if you have just been agreed with. So, the student has the opportunity to make things right and without loss of face.
I hope that these classroom management strategies can support you in dealing with any arguments and serious incidents in your classroom.