Teacher helping group of students.

Romain Bertrand February 24, 2022

It’s Not About You (And Other Keys To Classroom De-escalation)

Romain Bertrand

Director of Solution Design, BetterLesson

Mental health issues are on the rise among our students. Teachers are seeing new and escalating behavior ranging from students acting younger than their age to being more aggressive or violent than they ever have been. And at the same time, teacher burnout is one of the leading factors pushing more and more teachers to consider leaving the profession.

Facing staffing shortages, schools have had to hire more early-career and paraprofessional staff and put them in positions they never have experienced before. The clash between these realities means that de-escalation of dangerous or dysregulated student behavior is more urgent now than ever.

Here are some of the de-escalation lessons I wish I knew when I was a new teacher starting out.

When students “act out”, it is rarely about you.

School psychologist Ann Logsdon calls out seven reasons why kids act out and they all have to do with what students are struggling with. Ranging from learning disabilities to sensory issues to mental health challenges, kids and teenagers do not easily tell you what is wrong—especially not in front of their peers. Knowing that behavior is the expression of something personal for them can make it less personal for you and allow you to react to what you see with empathy and self-control.

Behavior escalation has two sides. You fully control one.

When you think about behavior escalation, whose behavior are you thinking about? If your answer is students, try to think about the last time you saw a student’s behavior escalating without the teacher or classroom leader’s emotions and behavior escalating as well.

Behavior escalation has two sides, and the one you can always control first is yours. One of my favorite quotes to post in my classroom was written by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

It was a reminder to me that I always had the freedom to choose how to react when I saw a student getting to a difficult space. As soon as I was able to remind myself of this power, it would help me stay calm, relax my shoulders, breathe and focus on showing in my body language and facial expressions that I will not be escalating my behavior in response to my student’s. Instead, I would focus on conveying calm energy and the ability to separate a temporary behavior from a human being I knew and cared about too much to yell at.

Other students are watching—but that does not mean what you think.

During tough situations requiring de-escalation, students are watching, but they are not looking to see if you will come out on top. What they are really watching is whether you can remain the adult in the room, your ability to keep everyone safe, and your skill at bringing the focus back to learning as early as possible. And above anything, they want to see if you can do this while keeping the dignity of one of their classmates in a difficult situation. So forget about trying to win an argument publicly. The truth is even if you thought you did, you probably would not in the eyes of your students. Instead, focus on continuing to try to be true to yourself as you work on de-escalating the situation.

Keep safety and dignity at the center of your response.

Safety and dignity are my two keywords when I work on de-escalating a situation.


Focusing on safety will always make me want to intervene promptly and in a non-confrontational way when I notice early signs of escalation (like agitation or changes in body language). I focus on moving closer to the situation, lowering my voice to check on students who seem to be getting agitated, kneeling, getting to their level, and asking how they are doing and what seems to be upsetting them. More often than not, if you work on your awareness and check-in with students early, you will be able to start the process of de-escalation before the crisis peaks.


Focusing on dignity will help you avoid public confrontation, prioritize removing the student from a setting where negative attention is focused on them, and help them avoid being worried over what their peers are thinking. It will also help you ensure that your language is focused on understanding that a behavior is temporary rather than seeing it as an innate part of the student. It makes a tremendous difference for your students to hear you say: “I can tell you are upset and I can see it is affecting the way you speak right now. I know this is not like you when you are feeling well, so I want to give you a chance to work through this and to get back to a good space. Come take a minute in our peace corner to cool off.” When you are able to use this language, students know you still see them through this moment and that you are already focused on supporting them on the other side of it.

Prevention is possible and simpler than you think.

While it is impossible to completely eliminate behavior escalation (remember it is not about you), it is a lot easier than you think to cultivate your classroom culture so that challenging moments like this rarely happen. Try to focus on three key areas:

Set and maintain clear expectations.

Don’t assume students know what you mean and what you expect at all times. Most of their mistakes come from gray areas in your language that you are not even aware of. Make sure you are crystal clear about what you expect and consult your students regularly to get their input on these expectations and to involve them in the process of constantly improving your practice. The more your expectations become our learning environment expectations, the further you will move from a constant power struggle.

Build relationships every day in a variety of ways. 

Whole group, small group, 1:1, through the work, or outside of the work, these relationships will have more impact on your classroom culture than the rules and procedures you worked so hard on at the beginning of the year. Did you know, for example, that spending 2 minutes talking to the same student for 10 days about anything but work can have a huge impact on their motivation and classwork? It is even called the 10:2 strategy and it works!

Focus on the positive more than you think is necessary. 

Behavioral scientists have actually studied the necessary balance of positive reinforcement to behavior redirection and the “golden ratio” is 4 to 1. Students feel like you are a positive and balanced force when you are able to notice 4 positive things they do for every one that needs to change. And it is true with any age group. It is all about attention often with kids and teenagers; if attention comes only when they mess up, they will mess up more. Focusing on the positive will also help you be more positive, smile more, and be more yourself. All of these things will help you handle the emotional ups and downs of the classroom more effectively and for years to come.

If you’re ready to learn more about de-escalation strategies and interventions, watch the webinar hosted by Romain Bertrand from BetterLesson.