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Classroom Management: The Intervention Two-Step

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

All of us have had major classroom disruptions that try our patience and push our limits. These incidents can threaten our sense of control and generate fear of looking weak to other students. We fear that other students might do the same thing if we don't take a strong stance. Couple these feelings with the possibility of taking the disruption personally, and we have a recipe for disaster. It's important that we divide our response into two parts:

  1. Immediate stabilization
  2. Intervention to resolve these issues

Crisis Management

If you go to the emergency room, the goal is not to make you better (unless the required treatment is minor). They simply want you to stop getting worse. They do not cure -- they stabilize. Once stable, you are directed to outpatient care or regular hospitalization. The same is true for firefighters, police, soldiers and all first responders. Before taking an affirmative intervening action, they stabilize the situation, environment, perimeter or people in need. The principle of all emergency situations is stop things from getting worse before trying to make them better.

The same is true in the classroom. Often teachers try to solve an unstable situation, only to escalate to the point where any intervention might not work. To be stable, both the teacher and student need to be relatively anger free, calm and willing to listen to the other's point of view.

Calming down requires time for both the student and teacher to depersonalize the incident. Often, students will rethink what they did when given time to reflect. For example, many of us write e-mails and later, upon reflection, wish we'd never hit the send button. Having a waiting period can save us a lot of pain. Thus, this two-step process might sound time consuming. In reality, time is not a major factor. When we think about how much time it takes over the course of the year as situations worsen, we save a great deal of time with the two-step, which gives us far better results than quick, unstable interventions.

Common wisdom tells us to intervene as fast as possible, that waiting is a bad thing. I agree that waiting is not usually a good idea, but I disagree that an immediate intervention always works best. Most students and some teachers make things worse when the temperature is hot and emotions are high. It is far better to stabilize things before jumping immediately into an intervention. Lower the temperature first.

Do's, Don'ts and 5 Examples

As I have said, minor inappropriate behavior does not require the two-step, but when it is required, let's see how to do it:

  • Understand that stabilizing is not excusing, letting the student get away with anything or ignoring. It is deferring the actual intervention to a more favorable time.
  • Show the student that you're willing to hear his or her side of the story.
  • Guess the motive for the misbehavior, and acknowledge it without agreeing to the student's choice of a solution.
  • Deflect attempts to argue.
  • Use humor.

Things to avoid:

  • Criticizing, lecturing, scolding and blaming
  • Arguing
  • Saying or implying "no excuses"
  • Taking immediate action
  • Embarrassing or attacking the student's dignity
  • Demanding, "What did you say?" in an accusatory manner

Here are some of my favorite examples of stabilization. If these stabilization techniques are not followed by an intervention strategy, they will not solve the problem. Try imagining what intervention you would use when things calm down.

  1. Student (in front of the whole class): "This class sucks!"
    Teacher: "I'm sure you have reasons for thinking that, but this is not the time to talk about it. I promise to listen to you after class."
  2. A student calls another student a name, and that student hits him.
    Teacher (to the hitter): "You have every right to defend yourself from insults, but hitting isn't an acceptable method. We need to have a conversation about better ways to solve this problem."
  3. Student (out loud): "I hate this class!"
    Teacher: "And yet you still come. That takes a lot of courage. Let's find a way to make this class better for you. I hope you have some worthwhile suggestions."
  4. Young student: "I'm not going to, and you can't make me. You're not the boss of me!!"
    Teacher: "That is a great refusal. If anyone ever offers you drugs, that is exactly what I want you to say. Can you practice one more time?"
  5. Student tells teacher to **** off.
    Teacher: "You must be incredibly angry to use that kind of language with me. We need to find a way that is more acceptable to display your anger, but right now, I'm too angry with you to discuss this situation calmly. We must talk later when we are both ready."

These are just examples. Each one of us has to find our own comfortable voice to be able to mean what we say. Insincerity never works because children can read it much more often than we realize.

If these expressions don't work for you, you can always use the old standby: count to ten and take a deep breath. And if you have other effective intervention strategies, please share them in the comments section below.


Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Comments (43)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Cindy Laurin's picture
Cindy Laurin
Home schooling three children in Ben Lomond Ca.

Do an about face and go look at a Montessori'll be amazed! perhaps a Montessori credential is in your future.

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

I'm so happy that so many of you are seeking alternative educational models. I agree with most of your ideas. One change I recommend is to stop rejecting discipline and classroom management, thinking it unnecessary in "free" style schools. I think these are the most important aspects of any school, the most important content. That's because I define discipline as teaching students how to be responsible, how to make real choices (see my new post coming out next week about real choices. I hope to see your comments about it because I think it is very important and will inform your ideas about discipline.), responsibility and how to get along with others. When used correctly, discipline is a laboratory of human interaction. Even free schools need to teach children not to fight with each other and to find better ways to solve problems.
We can afford more poor readers than more racists.
I encourage all of you to keep fighting for the needs of children.

zep's picture
Education Specialist

Discipline and classroom management have a much different connotation due to the manner in which they have been used in conventional schools for the last 150 years; I welcome conversation around self-discipline, intrinsic motivation, responsibility, and real choices. Your tone suggests that you have a much more holistic approach in mind which is antithetical to the philosophical underpinnings of the concept of classroom management, generally hallmarked by adult coercive discipline. I look forward to hearing more!

Cindy Laurin's picture
Cindy Laurin
Home schooling three children in Ben Lomond Ca.

yes, there's always a need for discipline/management in a classroom. But much less need for it when the children are able to develop self-discipline. For this children need freedom, real choices, ability to work at their own pace always, This self discipline takes much longer to achieve than it does to simply tell a child "Sit down! Be quiet!" using threats of punishment. But it is much more beneficial and long-lasting, both for the child and those around him. This level of discipline cannot be achieved through commands and orders, but through experiencing freedom. I can't imagine a traditional school teacher having the ability to take the time to nurture this inner discipline. As long as they have required curriculum that must be taught throughout the year, how can they slow down and put aside requirements to allow for natural development of self discipline in each child? Far more self discipline arises when a child knows they have an interesting classroom to come to where they have a lot of autonomy, have opportunities for long periods of concentration, where they are able to move their bodies as needed.
The magic spell of the Montessori child is his/her love of meaningful activity. Easy classroom management!

i wonder if state teacher training programs encourage their students to go see Montessori, Waldorf, Sudbury or other alternative schools? do they? How many have sat in one of these classrooms for a day and observed how they run?? Please, if you haven't take some time to see them treat yourself to an observation in all of them, it only broaden your horizon as a teacher..
Public school teachers generally do not study child development and what they are taught to teach, and how to teach it, is not based on developmental appropriateness, it's based in politics, test scores, fads, old outdated methods. A non- teacher centered classroom that is democratic, and allows freedom everyday is key to a peaceful learning environment for all!
Also, a teacher centered classroom sends the message to children, 'the teacher is the one who bestows knowledge upon me'....

zep's picture
Education Specialist

Cindy, "i wonder if state teacher training programs encourage their students to go see Montessori, Waldorf, Sudbury or other alternative schools? " You've captured my post-doc mission, to work with young teachers & at least give them the opportunity to read about, talk about, and of course hopefully visit some of these truly student centered education options.

Cindy Laurin's picture
Cindy Laurin
Home schooling three children in Ben Lomond Ca.

;) Hope more students have the opportunity to observe others ways of educating our children.

Laurie Boyd's picture
Laurie Boyd
Principal in Kansas City, KS

I appreciate Dr. Curwinr's more realistic take on classroom management and discipline. In a school of 500 students, with 20 adults supervising 25 kids at a time, with the requirement of delivering a guaranteed and viable curriculum, and making sure no one hurts others or disrupts the learning environment, when a significant percentage of students bring unimaginable challenges and needs to our attention, the nebulous goal of "facilitating their hopes and dreams" has to take a backseat to supporting teachers' efforts to control their classrooms. We have to make our environment safe and positive first. That takes a school-wide discipline system and considerable professional development for adults. The system has to make sense to kids and be relational. We have to methods for teaching about behavior and for managing overwhelming feelings. We can learn from all of the methods espoused here, but leaders in our school must provide systems of support for kids and teachers. I agree with Dr. Curwin's definition of discipline and would add that, done well, discipline is love.

debrahadley's picture
High School teacher in Family and Consumer Science (Home Ec). English major

I agree with Ms. Boyd's comment about the immediate needs of students. It is fine and necessary to talk about changing the educational model - but that is a massive feat that is well beyond the scope of this forum or its participants' abilities. What many classroom teachers are faced with are students with an incredible array of academic, social and emotional needs.
Talking about changing the philosophy of education isn't going to do anything for one of my former students who was living in a car because her mother's live-in boyfriend beat her up. The mother, by the way, did not put the boyfriend out because he was paying rent.
This was a student who had been performing adequately and then just disintegrated. It was two months before she found the courage to tell a trusted teacher what was going on in her life.
So philosophy is fine - but when you've got a kid who is metaphorically on fire -- a fire extinguisher is much more useful in the moment.
Thank you Dr. Curwin for your advice on putting out those management fires that can turn into a classroom conflagration.

zep's picture
Education Specialist

Principal Boyd, the question I'm asking educators to reflect on is, would we have these classroom management and discipline issues if instead of forcing an adult created curriculum onto children, we empowered students to drive the curriculum, or at least the subjects they are learning. For clarification, a conversation with students daily can easily turn the concern over nebulous goals into a tangible (I've even written them into goal forms) activity. Can an adult created and forced curriculum ever truly "make sense to kids and be relational"? Not to mention, what is the civics lesson in what is probably best described as a benign dictatorship.

Cindy Laurin's picture
Cindy Laurin
Home schooling three children in Ben Lomond Ca.

If the status quo is never challenged and changed you are right back to the classroom management mode...desperate for how to control children, asking for ideas on new tricks and bribes. Just what those children kids need is a teacher and community that knows them. Debra Hadley... It sounds like you are saying that the alternative, free schools won't work for those who have incredible social, emotional and educational needs. How do you know this??? It is exactly what they need!! If you only know and experience one model of what a classroom is then you believe that IS the only way....and so the tradition carries on, posing the same problems. Have you ever worked in a private and or alternative school that uses freedom, choice and self-governing as a philosophy? Did you even study other educational philosophies in your teacher training?? Did you observe any other types of schools in your training??

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