Editor’s Note: I’ve invited my colleague Phil Taylor to write a series of posts on “de-escalation.” I’m adding this piece to Best Posts On Classroom Management
Phillip Taylor is an educator of 18 years. He wrote the English portion of the IB application and developed the IB curriculum for the English A1 program at his school site. He currently facilitates ongoing action research projects to investigate ways to improve student performance on the school’s IB English examinations. He is currently investigating the efficacy of different feedback approaches as applied to groups of 100 – 150 students.
Part 1: Entry, Reframe and Walk Away
This article is the first in a three part series: This article, part one, is entitled, “Entry, Reframe and Walk Away.” Part 2 will be about “Circling Back,” and part three will be about, “The Explanation and the Referral.” This topic is of critical importance in the face of the School-to-Prison-Pipeline. Somehow, someway, we want to figure out how to keep some of our most challenging students in class, but we want to figure out how to keep them there without sacrificing our quality of instruction.
If you have any experience in teaching, you’ve learned by now that keeping some of those kids who are already on the wrong track in class is a lot more challenging than it seems. Too many students don’t respond predictably to redirections. Many of those wonderful ‘techniques’ we learned in our classroom management classes just don’t work the way they’re supposed to! So many students have the frustrating habit of denying their behavior when you try to redirect them, and often try to find a way to turn a polite redirection into an argument:
“Tom, let’s put away the cell phone and get on task…”
“I’m not on my cell phone!” Declares Tom loudly, while texting.
“Melissa, get back on task, no more chatting over there…”
“I wasn’t chatting with friends!” Melissa loudly declares, while chatting with friends.
So many of our most challenging students are driven to prompt conflicts with their teachers and other authority figures. They deny everything, and try to turn every exchange into an argument. Many kids do this all day long. Attempting to redirect these kids can be incredibly challenging. They often seriously disrupt the day’s learning, and leave us feeling completely deflated. Often, these are the kids who get one referral after another all day long, who seem to make a routine out of getting kicked out of class. They are masters of escalation, somehow knowing how to push buttons and turn a polite reminder into a heated exchange with the teacher, significantly disrupting the class and tearing your well-planned lesson to shreds.
Here is a strategy I’ve used and learned from practice and research in the field of restorative practices that can occasionally get these students back on track for a time, and can change the tone of office referrals when they are necessary. This article covers the first three steps and explains how to enact them in detail:
The strategy involves six steps:
- Reframe the redirection
- Walk away
- Circle back
- Office referral
The first step is about how you enter into the interaction with the student. This approach can be done even when there isn’t a behavior issue that needs to be addressed, and should be. Research has suggested that our focus on learning different types of interventions to curtail misbehavior may not be the best way to understand classroom management (Corbett & Wilson, 2002; Frymier & Houser, 2000; Johnson & LaBelle, 2017; McIntyre & Battle, 1998). Intervention ‘techniques’ are secondary to the teacher/student relationship. Students tend to comply with and be more productive with teachers they believe care about them. Such a relationship appears to be primary in terms of whether an intervention will be effective or not. Technique, the type of intervention used, is secondary.
Thus, even as I provide this ‘technique’ we have to take what’s being presented here with a grain of salt. The ‘technique’ here is about reminding ourselves about the importance of the teacher/student relationship, as well as getting onto a positive track with these conflict-driven students. For many difficult students, exchanges with teachers are one argument after another, all day long. What this approach is about is shifting that dynamic.
Thus, instead of going right at the behavior that needs to be addressed, the teacher takes a moment to create a different type of conversation. 1) The teacher sees the off-task or disruptive behavior. 2) The teacher approaches the kid or group of kids who are engaging in the behavior. What are the kids expecting? What they always get, a redirection! 3) That’s when the teacher shifts up the program:
“So, what did you do last weekend?”
There are several ways to enter, but the point here is disrupt the routine, to start a new track. We want the student who is ready to jump into their routine of denials and arguments to relax and experience a different kind of exchange, maybe even a little connection with the teacher. Simple inquiries into their interests, their lives, appropriate compliments about their attire or new hair style, are all easy entry points to cue up a different kind of conversation. Yes, this is a more time-consuming approach to redirecting students, but when you consider how much time these conflict-driven students can steal from class anyway, you’re just using up that time on the front end instead of the back end. It’s important for this exchange to be authentic. Really inquire, and really get to know that kid for a minute. Listen. Laugh if he makes a funny joke. Be with the kid and enjoy being with him.
Reframe the Redirection
Next, reframe the redirection as an expression of concern. You have already started a new conversation track, maybe something this kid hasn’t experienced in a long time – a teacher who is authentically interested in them and cares about them. So from this place, you frame your redirection as an expression of that caring:
“Alright, I’m really worried you aren’t going to get your points today, so I want to see you leaning in and working on this assignment today. Thanks!”
Then walk away.
The walk away is as important as the reframing. So often, teachers are trained not to accept pseudo-compliance, to ‘post-up’ and make sure that kid does what you’re telling them to do before moving on. Unfortunately, with conflict-driven students, this is only seen as an invitation to a fight and to push back. The more you push, the more they push back. These kids feed off of such a dynamic. So, in these cases, the walk away denies them the opportunity for that engagement, and leaves them with the positive exchange. It also give space, provides the student with a space to make a choice. Such space is a huge sign of respect. This doesn’t mean you aren’t going to circle back if they aren’t going to make the right choice, but it does mean you aren’t giving them the opportunity to turn this moment of concern into an argument.
It’s also important to carry the tone of that walk away as if you are busy. You have other kids to work with, other papers to look at, and other kids to get to know. So, move on and get to work! You aren’t worried about that kid anymore, you’re too busy to play some weird back and forth game with them. You expressed caring and interest, reminded them to get on task, then got to the next part of your job. Busy, busy, busy. You are doing what you want them to do – staying on task!
Of course, this isn’t a magic bullet! Many kids will use this opportunity to get right back to chatting with friends or playing on the cell phone or whatever it was you were addressing from the start. This is why the second article in the series is about how to circle back. I’ll have that article available shortly, but give this a try and see if you can get a different track going with these really tough cases, and I bet you’ll be surprised on a few occasions.
Please provide feedback if you have questions or concerns or let us know how this works for you! I hope this helps get you started on working with those particularly challenging students. Good luck my fellow catchers in the rye!
Corbett, D. & Wilson, B. (2002). What urban students say about good teaching. Educational Leadership 60(1), 18, 5, c1.
Frymier, A. B., & Houser, M. L. (2000). The teacher-student relationship as an interpersonal relationship. Communication Education, 49(3), 207-219.
Johnson, Z. D., & LaBelle, S. (2017). An examination of teacher authenticity in the classroom. Communication Education, 66(4), 423-439.
McIntyre, T., Battle, J. (1998). The traits of “good teachers” as identified by African American and white students with emotional and/or behavioral disorders. Behavioral Disorders 23(2), 134-142.