Intervening During the Escalation Cycle (page 2)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
If you are unable to or unsuccessful in your attempt to intervene early or move the student to the deescalation stage and find yourself in a situation where the student is truly endangering himself or others in the environment, your only goal now is to make sure that everyone remains safe and that the student in crisis is provided as much dignity and privacy as possible. When prevention and interventions are not sufficiently effective and a student is endangering himself or others, two ways to maintain safety are physical restraint and the use of seclusion. These topics are extremely controversial and are discussed in great detail in the next chapter.
During this stage, it is important to be supportive and allow the student time to truly reach recovery, or he may reescalate. Allowing him to get a drink, have a snack, or engage in a preferred calming activity for a short time and giving him encouragement is reinforcing not inappropriate behavior but rather appropriate calming-down behavior. The main goal during this stage is to ensure that the crisis has truly passed and that the student will be able to remain rational and engage in the problem-solving process. A good analogy is if someone ran a red light and was in a car accident that resulted in critical injuries. Would you lecture the driver while he was in the hospital immediately after lifesaving surgery about his poor choice of running the red light? Of course not. The time to address the potentially negative logical consequences of this choice, particularly if others were hurt, is once everyone is calm and stabilized.
During this stage, problem solving and accountability for poor choices take place. Sometimes this does not happen until the next day because the student and others involved in the situation are not truly stabilized until they have had a chance to go home, sleep, and put some time and distance between themselves and the crisis. Deciding to wait to go through this process is a judgment call and is highly dependent on the student's ability to connect choices and their consequences after some time has passed. Nevertheless, this stage is crucial and should not be skipped, so if you do wait until the next day, do not be tempted to just ignore this process.
During this stage, keep the tone positive and praise the student for engaging in and exhibiting appropriate behavior during this process. It is difficult for anyone to talk about his or her mistakes and take personal accountability. Think about how difficult this is even for typical students or adults. This is a time to reestablish communication, rebuild relationships, problemsolve through what happened, and make a plan for what all involved parties could do differently next time. Instructional strategies such as writing social stories, practicing, and role playing are all appropriate during this process.
After this process, the student may return to his normal routine—or he may not. We strongly believe that experiencing logical undesirable consequences for aggressive or outof- control behavior is part of the learning process. This logical undesirable consequence may take the form of a red schedule (discussed in Chapter Thirteen) until complete trust has been reestablished or by having those who were physically or emotionally hurt by the student not interact with him for a certain amount of time, thereby providing the lesson that others do not like to be around those who scare or hurt them. The reasoning for the undesirable consequence should be clearly explained to the student so that it has a teaching rather than a punitive focus. Acting as if nothing happened and going on with a normal day in many cases can send the student the inaccurate and unintended message that there are no real-life consequences for these dangerous behavior choices. Remember that we want to teach life skills by structuring consequences that are related, reasonable, and respectful and mirror real life.