3 De-escalation Strategies for Challenging Situations

Guest Post by Pola Morrison, eLuma Mental Health Clinical Services Specialist

De-escalation strategies are an important part of Trauma Informed training and is largely needed in classrooms across the nation. Understanding the triggers and reactions are the first steps in developing a positive SEL program with the classroom. When developing trauma-informed schools we also need to help teachers and staff members understand the value of being able to effectively defuse a crisis situation using verbal communication and respect rather than resorting to physical restraint. Over time, the strategies used will improve the overall school environment for all students, not just our traumatized or dysregulated students. Even outside of the school setting, parents and caregivers will find it helpful to use the same strategies to de-escalate tense interactions with their own children, spouse, family, and even before responding to emails or comments on Facebook.

De-escalation Strategy #1 – Avoid Overreacting

This first step is often the hardest. Hearing someone yell, regardless of the reason, is a trigger for a lot of us that activates our “fight or flight” response. When we hear someone yell or when we witness other signs of anger, our first response is to run away or to fight back. The best thing we can do is to stay calm and manage our response. Before responding, take a few deep breaths. Deep breathing slows down your fight or flight response and allows you to calm your nervous system. Taking the time to take a few deep breaths will also give you time to formulate a thoughtful and productive response. Sometimes, those few deep breaths will give you the time to decide that the best response is no response.

De-escalation Strategy #2 – Set Limits

When we set limits for students, clients, or patients in our care, the purpose is to provide predictable consequences. Limit setting is not the same as a threat or an ultimatum, it is a set of choices and consequences. We want to allow our students to make choices and provide a structure for good decision making. In a classroom, we set limits by offering first/then alternatives such as, “first we’ll do our math work, then we’ll have recess.” Outside of our professional lives, setting limits with loved ones may be more about setting healthy boundaries for ourselves; however, through setting limits, people begin to understand that their actions, positive or negative, result in predictable consequences. At home, I set limits with my children when I remind them, “After your room is clean, you’ll have more time to play.” The key to effective limit setting is listening more than talking. It is important to truly listen to the other person’s thoughts and feelings in order to learn what is important to them and set meaningful limits. Saying “When you stop yelling, we can talk about what is bothering you” may set the limits needed to start productive communication. When we communicate our point of view, how we say it is just as important as what we say. Being mindful of our tone, volume, and cadence can help us to be more effective communicators.

De-escalation Strategy #3 – Ignore Challenging Questions

It can be far easier to ignore challenging questions from students than to ignore challenges outside of the classroom, especially from friends or family. Questions like, “Who do you think you are?” are sure to draw a quick response that I will regret later. While it can be hard to remain calm when somebody is intent on getting a rise out of you, your best bet when it comes to verbal de-escalation is to learn to see past the challenging behavior and focus on the true needs of the person. We need to downplay the questions, but not downplay the person, their thoughts, or their feelings. When faced with challenging questions, it is important to validate the other person’s feelings. Providing empathy and understanding is all the person may need to feel better about the situation from their perspective. When possible, it can be helpful to respond to challenging questions with information. Express the facts that you know, and if needed, cite your sources, especially when the person’s question might have included “facts” that are somewhat dubious in nature. Tell them, objectively and rationally, that you have information from (your source) that says __. Position yourself as an advocate for the person, rather than an adversary. If you don’t know the factual answer to their question, admit that you don’t know, and either find someone who can answer it or help find the answer from a credible source—at least one you can both agree on as a credible source.

How you respond to the behavior of others can go a long way in defusing an escalated situation. It’s not always easy, but with practice, you will find that you can become more skilled at managing your own behavior, avoiding overreacting, setting limits, and redirecting challenges. Managing our own behavior in challenging situations helps us to maintain our credibility and integrity when our actions match the expectations we set for others.

Written by: Pola Morrison
Adapted from “Verbal De-escalation in Challenging Situations” by Carla Donahue, EdD
Resource: Crisis Prevention Institute

About the Author
Pola Morrison has been a school psychologist for 25 years in K-12 districts across the nation and as an Accessibility Services Director in Higher Education. She has a longitudinal view of how special education supports individuals in education because she has serviced students early to adulthood. Her passion is to help innovate and collaborate with special education support services.
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