Struggling to support students who act in ways that are disruptive and defiant?
In this article, you’ll find five strategies to proactively build a strong relationship with students and prevent outbursts, along with three ways to de-escalate students in the moment.
Working with students with behavioral issues in the general education classroom
Amir* is a ninth-grade student with a history of trauma and a diagnosed behavioral disorder. The notes from his previous school say that he has a history of cursing at teachers, storming out of class, and getting into fights with other students.
How would the way you interact with Amir be different if the first thing I told you about him were that he was highly intelligent, that his reading skills were more than two years above grade level, that he was charismatic, and wanted to be a professional musician?
For students with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD), their record of misbehavior precedes them everywhere they go. They can never get a fresh start. They feel constantly judged on the basis of their worst moments.
Emotional and behavioral disorders are a broad category of disabilities, which include depression, anxiety, oppositional defiant disorder, and conduct disorder.
Just like a student with dyslexia cannot simply “try harder” at reading, students with EBD can’t just “try harder” at exhibiting appropriate behavior. Their disability presents them with unique challenges, and they need to learn how to manage their disability.
Many general education teachers struggle with accommodating students with EBD, and worry that students like Amir will disrupt their class and interfere with other students’ learning. Or they feel they don’t have time or it would be unfair to treat Amir differently. And many teachers feel afraid that a student like Amir could exhibit violence during an outburst, worrying for their own safety and their students’ safety.
In the event that a student with EBD is putting themselves or others in danger, you will need to follow your school’s guidelines for use of physical restraint and protocols for keeping other students safe.
However, the most effective thing you can do is to learn how to avoid and de-escalate conflict with students with EBD so that such a situation never comes up.
Pro-active approaches to supporting students with EBD
Here are five proactive strategies for supporting students with behavioral disabilities, and avoiding conflicts in the first place:
1. Set goals together
Get the student involved and invested in working on their classroom behavior. Hear from them what they think they struggle with, and what they are most motivated to work on. You can also share your priorities. Keep in mind that while you may want to address more serious infractions first, the student’s goal should be attainable so that they can feel successful. You may need to compromise and start with some lower hanging fruit.
Together, decide what skills they will work on and what criteria you have for success. Set those based on where the student is at now — not where you expect all students should be. If they are interrupting class 10 times each hour, you can set an attainable goal at no more than 5 times, even if you expect other students to never call out.
Aim for progress, not perfection.
A note on fairness: sometimes we get caught up worrying that it is unfair to the rest of the class if we don’t hold every student to the same expectations. Students with disabilities — including emotional and behavioral disabilities — may not always be able to meet the same expectations, or may need accommodations to do so. Second, if one student’s behavior is affecting others in the class, it would be more unfair to the class not to use the best tools we have available to help students who are disruptive succeed.
2. Offer previews
For students with anxiety, a history of trauma, or who struggle at school, not knowing what is coming next can be a significant source of stress. Deviations from the routine can throw them off balance. To help them feel more calm and in control, you can preview the daily schedule or upcoming activities with them. Provide them with a written or picture schedule and walk through it with them. On a normal day, this might sound like “Good morning, Jamal! Here is the bell ringer for today. When it’s done, we’ll go over the homework from last night and then work on fractions with our math partners.”
Give them a chance to ask questions or raise concerns, and note how they respond. If it seems like they’re having a rough time, maybe today is not the day to cold call on them.
You should also plan to preview anything that may be difficult for them and help them strategize on how they’ll handle it. For example, if they have a hard time working with peers, ask “What can you try if you feel frustrated working with your partner?” and brainstorm some solutions together. Don’t forget to let them know if there is a change to the routine. “Remember, Eddie isn’t here today, so you’ll be working with Anayah for math.”
Transitions are often really hard for students with EBD — give lots of reminders before the transition happens. If needed, consider letting them transition early or give them extra time to move between activities.
3. Allow for student choice
Students with EBD need opportunities to feel in control. If you have a student who is defiant, provide them as many opportunities as possible to make choices and have some level of control over their experience. These choices can be big or small, and you can still ask the student to meet the same learning objectives. Some examples of daily classroom choices could include:
- Writing down the answers to questions or telling them to you orally
- Working alone or with a partner
- Choosing which question to answer first
- Which location they work in
When giving them a choice, provide 2-4 options they can choose from. Make sure that you really are ok with them choosing any of those options. If you let them choose to sit in the back of the classroom but have to move them two minutes later because they’re talking to a friend, they may not feel their choice was honored. Make sure they can be successful with any of the options they choose.
4. Provide structured breaks
Give students with EBD breaks — and teach them how to use them. Breaks shouldn’t just be something they earn — otherwise, they may never earn one. Their behavior will get worse and worse the longer they don’t have an opportunity to release steam. When the student is calm and regulated, talk about how breaks can help us focus. Help them schedule and take short, structured breaks. Some students may need to stretch or walk for a few minutes, others may need a short time to zone out, draw, or listen to music. Keep breaks short and frequent, and use a timer to monitor how long they have left.
5. Praise and affirm
Students with emotional and behavioral disabilities often have lower confidence and self-esteem. They may spend much of their time in school feeling like a failure. They (and their parents) are likely told what they are doing wrong every day.
Timely, specific praise is a wonderful tool for reinforcing good behavior for all students and can be especially powerful for students who hear it so rarely. For students with EBD, try to “catch them” in good behavior as often as possible. Each student may have different preferences about public or private praise, so check in with them first. A simple “I see Shaniya has finished her exit ticket and turned it in” or “Thank you for completing question two” lets the student know that their efforts aren’t in vain.
Make sure to include parents as well. Try to call or write home as often about successes or good days as you do about bad days.
De-escalation strategies for students with EBD
Even when you have put lots of proactive strategies in place, there will still be times when students misbehave or start to get agitated. The goal of de-escalation is to prevent a larger outburst.
This is not the time to teach, reinforce, or punish. When stress levels get high, the rational parts of our brain shut down, and the parts of our brain responsible for the fight, flight, or freeze response take over.
The stress cycle needs to resolve, and the student needs to be back in a state of calm before learning can continue.
1. Remove or reduce contact with the trigger
If you can identify what triggered the response, try to help the student take space from what is upsetting them. If it is comments or looks from another student, try to give them space to leave the room. If it is an academic task, see if you can give them a break or something else to work on. If something you said seems to have upset them, you may need another teacher or administrator to take them on a short walk.
Remember, the goal long term is for the student to develop coping strategies to deal with difficult situations, like peer relationships. But in the moment, reducing tension and preventing an outburst comes first.
2. Listen without judgment
Listen to the student’s feelings and concerns — without trying to give suggestions or problem-solve. If they seem amenable, try to reflect back on what you hear without judgment. Don’t try to argue with them over what did or did not happen, or how they should feel. Let them know that their feelings are valid. Taking a step back and getting to vent can help them work through their emotions.
3. Model calm
Don’t match their energy. If they are yelling or becoming agitated, keep your voice even and low, and slow down. You may need to take (many) deep breaths to keep yourself calm. At all costs, avoid getting into a power struggle. When a student is refusing to do what you ask and is becoming more and more upset, it is not the time to try to make them.
Avoid threats of punishment or loss of privileges based on their behavior — those are more likely to escalate them further in the heat of the moment. This doesn’t have to mean that their behavior shouldn’t have consequences — but telling them those consequences when they are upset will not motivate them to change their behavior.
By responding calmly, you can decrease the likelihood of their behavior escalating to an unsafe level. When they are calm again, you can reflect together on what happened, discuss logical consequences, and make a plan for how to handle similar situations in the future.
Amir struggled with work refusal, disrupting class, shouting at teachers, and getting into fights with other students for months. His behavior and attitude didn’t even begin to improve until December. Because of his struggles with impulsiveness and defiance, he was used to teachers giving up on him, underestimating him, and criticizing him constantly.
As he began to understand that his opinions and choices would be listened to and that his effort and successes were appreciated, he grew more willing to cooperate. He learned how to ask for breaks when he needed them, and began asking for help with academic assignments. I felt proud that, by using the above strategies, I could be a small part of his journey.
Let me know which strategies you plan to implement in your classroom!
*Amir is a composite of multiple students I have worked with. Names and identifying details were changed for privacy.
High School Special Education
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