The escalation cycle

Some students have difficulty recognizing the events that trigger their problem behaviour and therefore have a limited ability to prevent their behaviour from escalating. Others may be able to recognize the escalation cycle but still choose to engage in inappropriate behaviour. School staff need to understand the escalation cycle and develop skills for dealing with volatile situations proactively.

The Escalation Cycle5

The best time to teach new or replacement behaviour is when the student is in the calm phase of the cycle. Students can practise this behaviour through role-playing and then use it in actual situations.

Sample strategies for de-escalating conflict situations

  • Use brief, simple stress-reduction techniques before responding to a student’s remark or behaviour.
    For example, take a deeper-than-normal breath and release it slowly. As an added benefit, this technique creates an additional moment to plan an appropriate response.
  • Respond to the student in a neutral, business-like, calm voice.
    People often interpret their own emotional states from their own behavioural cues. Speaking calmly is more likely to help you believe that you are calm (and act like you are calm)—even when you are in the midst of a stressful situation.
  • Keep responses brief.
    Short responses give students less control over the interaction and can also prevent you from inadvertently rewarding negative behaviour with too much attention.
  • Use well-timed, supportive techniques to interrupt the escalation of student anger.
    These types of tactics have the potential to redirect a potential confrontation into a productive conversation. Interrupting tactics should be positive and respectful, such as diverting students’ attention from conflict by redirecting their attention to more positive topics or activities.
  • Try paraphrasing the essential points of the student's concerns.
    Many students lack effective negotiation skills in dealing with adults. As a result, these students may become angry and defensive when they try to express a complaint to school staff—even when that complaint is well-founded. Show that you want to understand the student’s concern by summing up the crucial points of that concern, using the student’s own words. Use phrases such as, “Let me be sure that I understand you correctly …”, “Are you telling me that …?”, “It sounds to me like your concerns are …” Engaging in active listening by using paraphrasing demonstrates respect for the students’ points of view and can also help improve their own understanding of the problem.
  • Use open-ended questions to better understand the problem situation and find possible solutions.
    Pose who, what, where, when and how questions such as “What do you think made you angry when you were talking with Sam?” and “Where were you when you realized that you had misplaced your science book?” In general, avoid asking “why” questions because the student can perceive this as blaming (e.g., “Why did you get into that fight with Jerry?”). Some students may become even more frustrated when asked “why” questions because they may not be able to answer them.
  • Use nonverbal strategies to defuse potential confrontations.
    When people get into arguments, they often unconsciously mirror the emotional posturing of the other. For example, pointing when the other person points, standing when the other person stands, and so on. To lower the tension when a student is visibly agitated, sit down next to the student (a less threatening posture) rather than standing over that student.
  • Ask the student, "Is there anything that we can work out at this time to earn your cooperation?"
    Such a statement treats the student with dignity, models negotiation as a positive means for resolving conflict, and demonstrates that you want to keep the student in the classroom. It also provides the student with a final chance to resolve the conflict and avoid other, more serious consequences. When asked this type of question, students will often come up with good ideas for resolving the problem.

Dealing with aggressive and destructive behaviour

Individual students may occasionally become aggressive and refuse to de-escalate their behaviour or remove themselves from a situation. This means the current level of support and intervention needs to be intensified or altered in some way. In the meantime, school jurisdictions need policies and procedures for responding when students threaten or place themselves or others at risk. Ideally, these procedures are individualized to accommodate the behavioural profile of specific students whose history suggests that they are at risk of becoming aggressive.

To ensure the safety of all individuals in the school, the teacher and other school staff need to:

  • develop an individual behaviour support plan that systematically addresses the behaviours of concern
  • focus on prevention and on developing positive behaviours to replace problem behaviours
  • plan how to address situations that might put individual students or their peers at risk (e.g., removing the student or removing the other students from the situation)
  • provide relevant training for staff who are involved and require them to use nonviolent crisis intervention
  • include a communications component in individual behaviour support plans and ensure that this plan provides for:
    • classroom staff having direct communication with administrative staff (e.g., intercom or cell phones), with specific communication codes for the type of assistance they need
    • a communication strategy for informing parents about what has occurred.

Social factors

Some students develop challenging behaviours because of things that are happening at home or in their community. These situations are generally beyond the influence of the school. It is often neither possible or appropriate (because of confidentiality issues) for all school staff working with a student to have specific information about family-related circumstances. However, when trying to understand and empathize with students’ behaviour disabilities, staff may find it useful to generally consider how family and community factors can affect student behaviour.

Family factors may include:

  • who is living in the home such as parents, partners, siblings, extended family
  • siblings, birth order and potential rivalries
  • the stability of home life
  • employment situations; for example, one or both parents working out of town for extended periods
  • family stressors such as addictions or financial difficulties
  • availability of family support; for example, having lunches made or getting help with homework
  • recent traumatic events such as death, divorce or separation
  • parental discipline and structure, or lack of it, in the home
  • parents’ and family members’ physical and mental health; for example, depression or serious injuries.

Community factors include:

  • peer groups: who they are and whether they share common interests with the student
  • availability of extracurricular activities
  • supervision within the community
  • stability of the community
  • drug or alcohol abuse
  • cultural factors such as ethnic issues.

Bullying behaviour

Recent research by Tanya Beran (2005) at the University of Calgary looked at the relationship between bullying and behaviour problems. Beran found that students who regularly and frequently intimidate, threaten and harass their peers experience significantly more behaviour problems than students who bully less often. Frequent bullying behaviour is associated with other types of overt behaviours including:

  • disrupting others
  • instigating fights
  • becoming easily angered
  • resisting following rules.

Moreover, students who frequently bully are less likely to accept responsibility for problems they are involved in, and are more likely to perceive the other person involved as “causing the problem” or “deserving it.”

Other social-emotional issues associated with students who bully frequently include:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • fear
  • social skills difficulties.

School-related difficulties associated with this group of students include:

  • poor concentration
  • low achievement
  • absenteeism.

Functions of bullying behaviour

It is possible that students who bully frequently do so for different reasons than students who bully infrequently. Students who engage in continual bullying may be preoccupied with the need to:

  • control
  • obtain attention
  • win in all peer interactions.

Through positive reinforcement provided by the attention of bystanders, bullying behaviours may be maintained and increased. This behaviour may also be related to depression, perhaps in realization that peers may show respect towards them in the form of fear, but may not particularly like them. Students who bully their peers may not feel a sense of belonging at school and this can be aggravated by additional difficulties with learning, attention and adaptive skills.

In contrast, students who do not demonstrate bullying behaviour tend to have stronger social and learning skills and have learned the negotiation and mediation skills essential for adapting successfully in social and academic situations.

Interventions to reduce bullying behaviour

Students who frequently bully need targeted coaching to learn alternatives to aggressive behaviours. They also need more intensive kinds of support such as coping and friendship skills training and family support. Bullying prevention approaches that provide information about the harm of bullying will be ineffective for these students who bully frequently. Rather, these students will require intensive individualized support to help them improve their social skills and emotional regulation.

Visit the Government of Alberta’s Web site at This site provides information to parents, teens and community members to help them prevent or intervene in a bullying situation.

Neurological factors

Some students display challenging behaviour because they do not have the knowledge or skills they need to behave more positively. These students may not know how to meet behavioural expectations, or have difficulty meeting them because they have neurologically-based disabilities such as learning disabilities, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD), fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), autism spectrum disorders or mental illness.

To better understand how students’ disabilities can affect their learning and behaviour, refer to the following Alberta Education resources:

5. Reproduced with permission from Geoff Colvin, Eugene, OR: Behavior Associates, 2004), Figure 2.1, p. 12. with permission from Becky Bailey, 7 Skills Poster Set (Oviedo, FL: Loving Guidance, 2003),