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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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.

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Classroom Management
What can we do to create a positive dynamic in the classroom?

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John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

I'm glad you are going right back into the classroom. I hope you find that better fit soon. I should have clarified myself when I said it is not unreasonable to ask them for the support. I agree that hiring someone mid-year might not be possible as budgets are difficult to find extra money in. That being said, I think that is a situation where the administration should find more support no matter what. An effective administrator can do one a few things: Personnel might be able to be redirected for at least part of the school day for extra support. Maybe there is an extra duty that could be removed temporarily, someone who currently didn't need as much support, etc. In addition, the administrator could have chosen to be present in the room at times throughout the day to help rebuild a positive classroom culture. It also sounds like you could have used more support with the lesson planning so an administrator should have had a mentor teacher to help support you as well. No matter what, something more should have been done to improve the situation. Keep us posted on your progress. Hang in there! :)

Lisa's picture

Truly appreciated the article's examples. When children act out, I always try to validate their feelings first. Once the child KNOWS I have received the message (inappropriate or not), we can come up with a solution to fix it. Most of the time, validating the child's need for attention is the bulk of the problem. Once that need is met, the situation can turn into a teachable moment.

Lisa M's picture

Thank you very much for this useful article. I teach in an elementary magnet school so we get all types of students from all across the district. We are located in a fairly poor area of town and there are a lot of children from the housing projects who attend our school. Unfortunately, their home lives promote anger and "any means necessary for survival" which carry over into the classrooms. I have students who have come in and demonstrated every example you listed. Students behavior and discipline have never been a strong point in our building. However, if I could start to reach some of these angry students by exercising the skills you suggested, then perhaps I can be that one teacher who reaches a particular student. Upon my success, I can share with other classroom teachers these strategies and together we can make some positive changes in the school environment and ultimately, the students' behavior. The first step will be for me to share this article with my principal and colleagues. Thank you again for your suggestions and I will be sure to pass this on!

Esha's picture

These are great strategies to use in the classroom. I just started a new job working with 7th grade special education students. Some of the students have learning disabilities and some of them have mental illnesses. The teacher has had a rough year so far with the students acting out and the other teacher assistant leaving. She looks for me to come up with new techniques that might help with discipline. I will try to use some of these suggestions and see how they respond to them. I have tried some of these and some have worked. I am always up for new ideas. Thank you.

Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman's picture

I am a fan of your work and continue to gain helpful steps (this is so much more powerful than just reading tips) in managing my learning environment. I find the urge to "act immediately" the hardest response to do (or not do).
I have been reading statistics about tge challenges of behavior management and have learned that so much is dependent on factors outside of the student. So, I truly agree with you in pursuing strategies that emphasize what the teacher can do to address it. If interested in specific stats on classroom management I have a quick read from the ASCD educator website that begs the class management question ''What are the odds we are getting it right?"
http://edge.ascd.org/blogpost/classroom-management-what-are-the-odds-wer...
I'd love your take on it...

Thank you for sharing your strategies!

Whitt's picture

Thank you for the advice. I am a first year elementary teacher at a multiple grade level country school. I knew that one of my main focuses for the year would be classroom management. I feel very successful most days, although some days I feel like I am barely getting by! We have a very spirited and vocal group of children of vast maturity levels and what works for some doesn't always work for the entire group. I find myself offering a full buffet of behavior incentives. It really helped me to read your examples of stabilization.

Brenda Lamb's picture

I thought the article was great until I got to the scenarios and the responses. I had to laugh - I'd like to see an article of this type written by an actual high school classroom teacher and not a college behavioralist, who isn't even in a classroom. Theories like this are great, but they rarely work in real life. This might work at the elementary level , or maybe in a magnet program with learners who are intrinsically motivated - but these solutions would never work with a high school student, particularly one who hasn't had an easy life or supportive parents - those are the kids of kids who I work with everyday - the diamonds in the rough. Even the most harsh of them are great kids, when given a chance. But these strategies would never work on them - not in classroom at least. These would be great in an office, talking to them one-on-one. If you went into my school with these kinds of solutions, you'd get eaten alive.

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Teacher/leader & techie at independent, alternative, therapeutic high school

Brenda, you are right that not all strategies work in all situations, but there is hope! I use many of these strategies in a high school setting and they do indeed work.

Alison Toney's picture

My experience is that when a student is to the " this class sucks" or especially "**** off" stage, they are not going to calmly listen to my calm response. In fact, THE MOMENT I begin to say anything to them, they begin talking/arguing again and are not interested in listening. Thank you to the previous poster who said she sends kids ostensibly to get water so that both parties can cool off. Frankly, I need more suggestions like that. If disruptive and disrespectful students always listened to and internalized reason, they wouldn't be disruptive and disrespectful.

Jimmyb's picture

It is very easy to respond in a negative way but never productive. I realized that you will never win an argument with a middle school student (Going back and forth). My strategy has been to take a step back, and calmly show support for the student in a positive way. Firing back at a student who "hates this class" will only make him or her resent you more.

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