How to de-escalate a tense classroom situation

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by bledsoe on October 30, 2015

For any of you who may have been wondering, in the wake of a recent classroom incident in South Carolina, exactly how that incident could have been handled better by the adults involved, let me offer a thought or two.

We had a no cell phones policy at the high school where I taught previously, and I've experienced dozens of situations in which I asked a student to hand over their cell phone and they declined. Each time I calmly called an administrator to my classroom, then continued with the class. When the administrator arrived, they typically took the student out of class and either a) convinced them that things would go better for them if they handed the phone over, or b) accompanied the student to the office where things would proceed to not go better for them. It was never what I'd call an enjoyable experience for anyone, but it was fairly ordinary.

I've also had a few instances in which I asked a student to move from their current seat to a different seat in the classroom, typically because they were being disruptive and moving them from their current seat to a different location would end the disruptive behavior. The few times when a student refused to move, I again calmly called an administrator and things proceeded largely as described above.

I've never actually had a situation in which I asked a student to leave my classroom and they refused (though I've had several in which a student decided to leave my classroom on their own), but if I had, here's how I would have handled it:

If, after calling an administrator, the student still refused to leave, I would have said to the class:

Students, if you would please gather up your belongings, we're going to go down to the media center for the rest of the class period.

I would have then escorted the rest of the class to the media center, or some other convenient location, thus leaving the disruptive student alone in the class with the administrator.

I learned this simple de-escalation technique from a former high school principal several years ago who was talking about ways to deal with students fighting at school. He pointed out that the single thing that provided the most powerful incentive for two adolescents to engage in a fight was the presence of an audience of their peers, and that the easiest way to remove that incentive was to remove the audience. The same is true in the refusing-to-give-up-the-cell-phone scenario: the student refuses to back down because to do so would make the student look bad in front of their peers. Once the student's peers are gone, the stakes, and the tension level, become much lower.

While removing the audience may be difficult to do in a crowded hallway where two kids are already fighting, it's simple to do in a classroom where you have only one student who is "fighting" and a bunch of other students who are willing to do what the teacher asks.

Adults who work with teens have to accept the fact that sometimes teens are disrespectful, defiant, and just generally unpleasant to be around, and we have to be prepared to deal with such situations in appropriate ways. Some situations are completely unpredictable and can't be anticipated, but a student refusing to give up a cell phone or refusing to leave the class when asked, those things happen all the time. There are appropriate, and often simple, ways to deal with them.

Photo Credit: · David Gabriel Fischer via Compfight cc

[Updated 10/31/15 to include link to news story about the incident.]

[Also this, by Kenneth Bernstein.]

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