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Classroom Management: The Intervention Two-Step

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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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 in Fourth's picture
Cindy in Fourth
I'm a fourth grade teacher in California

Teaching 6th grade, I once got an "f-you'' that was my first and only such comment. Took me by surprise. So I reacted just like I did when I was in high school, and a wise-mouth said this to me across the band room. I gave a nonchalant "No Thanks.'' And kept teaching, knowing what would happen. A few people giggled. The rest were slowly processing, processing, processing. A few "did you hear what she said?'' and "Eeuuw, that's sick man!'' and "you got served!''. The rest were laughing. I just said I'd talk with him later. Teaching continued. Later I learned there were other pressures going on with this student. I was just the punching bag/tipping point for his day. He wrote an apology to me. I called his mother and spelled out what happened. No more problems like that. I guess that comes under #5 Use Humor. They didn't teach that in credential classes or professional development.

wambukhu andrew's picture

wow this blog just created something new in me. I was so quick at throwing harsh comment to my students whenever disruptions would arise. On several occasions the entire class would put the blame on me even when i thought i was solving the crisis. thanks to Dr. Richard Curwin's Blog i now understand why.

Judith's picture


I am currently student teaching in a 4th grade classroom. I am closing in on the end of this term and shortly will student teach in a Kindergarten Dual Language Classroom. Great book choice! I have ordered it from Amazon! Very Grateful! Thank you again.

Ellie's picture

Are you a fan of Harry Wong? I'm just trying to get a feel for your personal style, maybe. I'm halfway through student teaching in elementary and quickly learned that some of the strategies which were very successful when I taught preschool are not quite so successful in second grade. While I realize that student teaching is a short time period, I feel like it's a great time to find the style of consistent management that suits me---so I'm basically trying to read whatever quality stuff I can get my hands on.

zep's picture
Education Specialist

"All of us have had major classroom disruptions that try our patience". Actually there are hundreds of teachers who have never had that issue because their Free Schools practiced one basic policy, no child is ever forced to sit in a classroom they have not chosen to partake in, and they can always leave the classroom. Nearly 100 years of experience shows that correlating with never being forced to take any class, they have graduated college, engaged in careers, become entrepreneurs at a higher rate than any conventional school. Maybe its time to dust off your old copy of A.S. Neill's Summerhill and at least reflect on the entire concept of classroom management.

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

On classroom management,

I had a student teacher last year who struggled with exactly what you describe with the students talking while you are talking.

Then one day she came in and had her "teacher voice." I cannot explain what happened exactly, and neither could she. But she did say that she had gotten tired of them talking and came in with the intention to send half of them to detention if necessary.

The students can sense when you "mean business" and when you are uncertain. You command the room by being confident, calm and having your "teacher voice." The teacher voice cuts across the room with a tone that says, "I am in charge and I expect you to be quiet."

One way you can build toward that teacher voice is to have a "marker phrase." That is a phrase that you use every time to get their attention. You should explicitly teach this phrase to them and what it means (that they will stop talking and begin listening).
Then use it loudly enough that they can all hear it even if they are talking. My phrase is "Ladies and Gentlemen."

The other thing I can tell you is if you are giving instructions or lecturing on a topic and someone begins talking, you should try one of these things.

1. Continue talking, but walk toward your talker. Catch the talker's eye and raise an eyebrow. If this doesn't work then proceed to the talker's desk and rest your fingertips on the desk. This will usually stop the talker cold.
2. You should not continue to talk while students are talking unless you are moving toward them (as in implementing No. 1). If more than two students are talking. You need to stop giving instructions. You should never compete with inappropriate student talking. Resettle the room with explicit instructions about how they behave while you are addressing the room.
3. Never begin talking to the room before you have their complete attention. If someone is still having a sidebar conversation or walking to the trash can, then you should handle that before you begin addressing the class. Talk to them about what it looks like when they are listening to you (heads, eyes, knees facing the board or you, mouths closed, sitting up straight, eyes open.)

I've found that often teachers are frustrated by student behavior that they have never discussed with their pupils. Tell them what you want to see, and reinforce it as often as necessary until it becomes their habit.

The other thing to consider is how long are you talking? More than 7-10 minutes for high school students is too long. Their eyes glaze over. They tune out and begin to look for ways to entertain themselves, and the neighboring student is handily placed for chat.

I explain to my students that I use "mini-lectures" of no more than 10 minutes. And they hold me to it, which is good because they're not learning when they are listening to me talk. They learn when they do things with my curriculum concepts.

"Chunk" the things you must tell them while they all listen into small bits. Put "stuff for students to do" in between your "teacher talking" chunks.

It will get better if you keep trying, keep goodness in your heart and don't blame the students.

Good luck and keep reading!

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

Yes!! When children are free to choose amazing things happen! There is freedom in Montessori classrooms and little discipline problems...same for Sudbury schools...both are based on choice, movement respect.. When will public schools get that message? A whole annoying industry based on how to 'manage' children...tricks and games and slight of hand...not very respectful. I wouldn't wanted to be treated that way, why treat children that way?

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

Throw out the books on classroom management, choose free schools...Montessori, Sudbury, homeschool...

the problem is with the institution not the children!!!!!

teacher centered classrooms fail children...and most are teacher centered.

zep's picture
Education Specialist

Isn't it amazing the amount of wasted time and money spent on "classroom management" when authentic alternatives such as Cindy mentions have shown for almost 100 years now to eradicate the need for such foolishness? I guess it sadly conveys the need for some to control children rather than focus on facilitating their hopes and dreams.

zep's picture
Education Specialist

Cindy, perhaps a huge step would be to facilitate conventional teachers visiting these truly centered settings; I don't think a whole lot would need to be said after just one hour, other than perhaps answering some newly found questions about how these systems are set-up.

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