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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

Emily's picture

I really liked this blog and the Do's and Don'ts . I am a second grade teacher and have one student in particular that is a handful. I plan on trying these steps to see if anything changes in the behavior. Thanks!

Teach B-More's picture
Teach B-More
Pre-K teacher in Baltimore City

I really enjoyed reading this blog and I completely agree with you. At the school I currently work at, we try to focus on the student who is doing the right thing by narrating to the student that is doing the right thing. This is one of Lee Cantors methods. For example if Tom, Sarah and Jacob are doing the right thing and Fred and Mary are not, the thing is to focus on what the first three are doing right that the last two are doing wrong. Tom is sitting ready and his eyes are on me, Sarah has her book turned to page 1 and her eyes are on me and Jacob is focused, his paper and pencil are on his desk to take notes. Once you have narrated to a few students who are doing the right thing, the hope is that the other students will use this opportunity to get themselves together. If they do not then you do one or 2 more things. Either way this keeps confrontation and classroom disruptions to a minimum as well as gives the teacher an opportunity to repeat her directions to the students.

Fang Yang's picture

I'm a teaching assistant in an international school. It is true that we want to show respect to those students who don't behave but we also fear that others will do the same, so sometimes I'm not sure what is the proper response. I tried "use humor" before and it worked very well. I will try other "do's and don'ts" to improve my classroom management skill. Thank you for sharing and I do benefit a lot.

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

I really like the strategy that teach b-more mentioned. I have been using it for over 20 years, but I find that saying these things to students privately works so much better than publicly. It's embarrassing to the students, both good and bad, to be mentioned in front of the whole class. Also, those students who never get mentioned feel resentful. Have you ever been in a class where some students get public recognition but you never did? If so, how did you feel about that class or the teacher? Private communication is the cornerstone of effective discipline. Thanks for the idea and I hope you try it privately and see how much better the class runs.

Teach B-More's picture
Teach B-More
Pre-K teacher in Baltimore City

Thank you Dr. Curwin. I will definitely try the private compliments. As far as the students who are not mentioned we acknowledge them for doing the right thing as soon as they correct the behavior which is almost immediately with me because I teach Pre-K and at that age they want to please you and be acknowledged but I will definitely try the private compliments. Thank you again.

Judith's picture

My name is Judith Sandoval, and I am a student at Pepperdine University in CA. I am currently student teaching, and could use a variety of classroom management techniques to apply to the classroom. The teacher I am currently student teaching is incredibly calm, and there is a mutual respect in the classroom; if she tells the kids to quiet down, they quiet down. If I ask, they still talk over me. I wish I would have been able to observe her classroom since the beginning of the year. I feel she could have been more strict at the beginning of the school year in order to command the classroom, and create a respectful classroom. Does anybody have any suggestions that work for them?
I could use all them help available!

Jennifer's picture
Science Teacher and Education PhD student

Hi Judith. Student teaching will be different from your own classrooms. In some ways having your own class will be much harder, because you need to set up the rules, in other ways it will be easier because the students will see you as more of an authority figure. My first year teaching I read every classroom management book I could get my hands on. Dave Foley's Ultimate Classroom Control Handbook saved my career. A lot of it's about learning what is attention seeking and can be ignored, and what needs to be addressed. Using humor (but not demeaning) can really help diffuse a situation and makes students more likely to follow your directions without talking back. I also find staying very calm and giving students two options helps a lot. For example, "you can sit in your assigned seat, or you can sit in the office, it's your choice, but you can't stay here and continue disrupting my class." Make sure you're really consistent with enforcing your rules. Just like a police officer writing speeding tickets, you won't catch everyone misbehaving, but you do need to consistently deal with the ones you catch.

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

HI judith,
The comments by RobertaN and Jennifer are very helpful.At this stage of your development strategies are less important than attitude. My first year of teaching, I cried more than I taught. What experienced teachers have that you don't is confidence. Confidence only comes with experience. Ask your master teacher what her first year was like. You can develop confidence by believing in yourself, knowing that what you are asking your students to do is right and you are in control of yourself. That being said here are a few things you can do.
1. Use P.E.P.(Privacy, eye contact and proximity). Get very close to your problem student, look him right in the eye and tell him privately what you want him to do.If more than one student is a problem, pick out the ringleader and start with him. Others will follow.
2. Practice with your friends, speaking with P.E.P. so you are confident that you can do it. How close you get is determined by age and culture and is too long to explain here, but in general a little closer than arms length away should work as long as your words are private.
3. Remember that great athletes make playing look easy, like good experienced teachers, but we rarely see how much experience, practice, frustration, mistakes and repetitions of good habits that go into that perfect play.
4. Ignore the flawed but commonly used idea that you shouldn't smile until Christmas. You don't need to be tough at first and then gradually lighten up.Be yourself at all times and develop ways that make who you are, work. Kids can see through phoneys. Be comfortable in your own skin and never pretend to be what you are not.
5. The books already suggested are very good. I humbly suggest that you read my book, DISCIPLINE WITH DIGNITY 3rd edition.It will offer both strategies like P.E.P. and attitudes.

Good luck and keep positive. Great teachers are developed over time.

Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

Great article--very helpful. Defusing and simultaneously analyzing problem situations is not for the faint-hearted; all teachers should have training and regular updates.

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