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Intervening During the Escalation Cycle

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Jan 19, 2011

Even if you conduct the most thorough functional behavioral assessment and flawlessly implement the best-designed behavior intervention plan, no plan is foolproof. There will still be times when an individual student may reach a crisis level and someone will be in danger of getting hurt. This does not mean you failed. Behavior management is tough stuff, and no one has all the answers. We always say that there is no such thing as failure in behavior management, only assessment. So what is best practice in these unforeseen, very difficult situations? The most important thing is to know your student.

Dangerous behavior almost never comes out of nowhere. There are usually signs that trouble is starting to brew long before behavior escalates to an unsafe level, and these signs are very student specific. Different sources call it different names such as the escalation cycle,1 the rage cycle,2 or the crisis development model,3 but the basic concept is the same. The student starts out calm (stage 1), some combination of setting events and triggering antecedents upsets him (stage 2), he gets increasingly upset (stage 3) and may become dangerous to himself or others (stage 4), and he eventually deescalates (stage 5) and becomes calm again (stage 6). (See Figure 17.1.)

Intervening During the Escalation Cycle

Stage One

If a student has a history of behavior challenges, don't wait until this individual is experiencing problems before intervening. Most intervention should happen at the calm stage, before any problems arise. This should include direct instruction in using calming strategies and helping students understand the natural and logical undesirable consequences if they do become unsafe. Parts Two, Four, and Five of this book provide multiple strategies for intervention at this stage.

Stage Two

To educators it can seem that a student is going through the day in a seemingly fairly calm manner, when something happens that upsets her world. We need to try to identify the antecedents to the crisis (setting events and triggering antecedents) and either remove them or provide additional support to minimize their influence. Once we become familiar with setting events and triggering antecedents that are common to individual students, crisis prevention becomes much easier because we are more likely to be able to accurately predict potential crisis situations and intervene early. Part Three of this book focuses on prevention and provides multiple strategies for intervention at this stage.

Stage Three

Students usually (not always but in our experience almost always) exhibit early signs of agitation, anxiety, and other negative emotions before their behavior escalates to an unsafe level. These early signs and the rate in which students escalate are specific to the individual.

It is crucial that you get to know your students extremely well or if you are just starting to work with them, talk to someone who does so that you become familiar with their unique signals and escalation patterns in order to determine your most effective response. We have had students who would engage in seemingly harmless behaviors such as acting a bit silly, getting a certain look on their face, changing their posture, or simply not following simple directions, when in fact these were early signs of agitation that quickly escalated to dangerous behavior. We call this "going from zero to a hundred." To others it would look as if we were overacting by removing them from the other students and getting them to a private, safe location. However, we had learned their unique individual patterns and found that by intervening at the earliest signs, crisis could often be averted. Some leaders in the field call this intervening when aggression is "low" to prevent it from becoming "high."4

Some strategies to try to deescalate the situation at this stage include trying to redirect or distract these students using humor, talking about something they are interested in or are looking forward to, providing a "cool-off" time or area, validating their feelings ("I know this is frustrating. How can I help?"), and providing prompts, reminders, and visuals of replacement behavior that you have taught them during the calm stage.Make sure that you are looking ahead and providing a way for challenging students to have privacy (maybe taking a walk and moving toward a more private area) as well as removing the audience (the audience can often further agitate the individual or reinforce the escalating behavior). In addition, it is crucial that at this stage you are alerting backup assistance to be ready to respond in case your attempts at deescalation are unsuccessful.

If the student continues to escalate, this is not the time to try to establish your authority or worry about what others who may be observing the situation think. In this situation, adults may panic and fall back on traditional management techniques that often cause the behavior to escalate ("Young man, this is not acceptable behavior!"). At this point, it is okay to not know what to do. If the student is in a fairly private area free of potential danger, the best thing to do is to wait it out.

Do not attempt to reason with students, lecture them on their behavior, or threaten consequences because students in this stage often are not rational and simply need to get through the episode. You cannot teach a drowning individual to swim. The time for teaching is during the calm and recovery stages, not when the situation is escalating toward a crisis. Extreme tantrums, cussing, threats, throwing items, destroying things, and kicking walls are all common during this stage. Doing nothing is doing something if no one is truly in danger. Eventually the student will calm down. No human can keep up the physical and emotional energy it takes to remain in this stage forever.

Others who are watching may think that by doing nothing, you are appeasing the student and allowing him to get away with behavior that is clearly well outside what is acceptable in the school setting. The truth is that your options are limited. Do you do something in the moment in order to exert your perceived or hoped-for power and control that will in reality most likely make the situation worse? This is a long-term process, and the student may have undesirable natural and logical consequences when the situation is over and he has become rational again. Getting to the deescalation stage without anyone getting hurt or resorting to emergency controversial interventions such as seclusion and physical restraint (this discussion is coming up in the next chapter) is the top goal.

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