Quick-Fire Strategies: The De-Escalation Danger Zone

Quick-Fire Strategies: The De-Escalation Danger Zone

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If you've ever found yourself in a situation where you have to de-escalate a heightened student, you'll know that it's hard work, it's super stressful for everyone.

In this episode I'm going to talk through 3 key de-escalation concepts (the anger cycle, the de-escalation danger zone, and the valley of despair) that are essential to know for helping heightened pupils get back on top of their emotions.

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Show notes / transcription

If you've ever found yourself in a situation where you have to de-escalate a heightened student, you'll know that it's hard work, it's super stressful, and that's just for the adults. In this episode. I'm going to share 3 key de-escalation concepts including the anger cycle, the de-escalation danger zone, and the valley of despair with you that are essential to know for getting heightened pupils back on top of their emotions and avoiding additional follow-up outbursts. Keep listening for more. Welcome to the School Behaviour Secrets podcast. I'm your host, Simon Currigan. My co host is Emma Shackleton, and we're obsessed with helping teachers, school leaders, parents, and of course students when classroom behaviour gets in the way of success.

We're going to share the tried and tested secrets to classroom management, behavioural special needs, whole school strategy, and more, all with the aim of helping your students reach their true potential. Plus, we'll be letting you eavesdrop on our conversations with thought leaders from around the world, so you'll get to hear the latest evidence based strategies before anyone else. This is the School Behaviour Secrets podcast. Hi there. Simon Currigan here, and welcome to this week's episode of school behaviour secrets. It's a quick fire episode this week because in England, we're into the half term holidays. At least we are where I'm working.

And during the holidays, I like to give you one strategy or idea to think about away from the main podcast that might be helpful for improving behaviour in your school or supporting the kids that you teach with social, emotional, and mental health needs. Oh, and by the way, if you've been listening to the podcast and you've been finding it useful, don't forget to subscribe and tell your friends or colleagues about it and throw some good karma back out into the world. Help us get this information out there. I would be incredibly grateful if you could do that. It keeps the podcast going. In this episode, I want to talk about what I call the de escalation danger zone. It's a really important concept that's critical for de-escalating kids who are experiencing heightened emotions.

And by the way, the problem with de escalation is it means we, the adults, have started taking action too late. It's like the child's in this runaway emotional car. They're behind the wheel and the car is out of control, and it's skidding and veering off the road. And what we're trying to do as the adult when we de-escalate is we're saying a bad situation is happening right now. How do we stop the car from crashing and do emotional damage limitation? Now that's hard stressful work for you and the student because the situation is already out of control. It's far better to be in a situation where the car never gets out of control so the students' emotions aren't heightened to the point where they hit, fight, flight, or freeze. And we do that by looking at how we structure the students' environment and their work and social pressures and demands and other stresses.

And we've got a whole episode on writing successful student regulation plans coming up, so keep listening for that. But the truth is even in the real world, even when you have all that in place, well, there's a random element to behaviour. You can't control for all the variables all the time. There are forces in the world that are gonna knock that child's car off the road. The child's hamster died that morning, and no one's told you. Someone said something unkind on the bus. And the moment the child walks through the door, they're dysregulated already or they missed breakfast or someone said something nasty to them on social media and so on and so on and so on.

There are elements to the child's emotions and behaviour that are just simply sometimes beyond our control. And so their emotions are still from time to time going to get away from them. And we're in the situation where we, the adults, are de-escalating, and we need the skills to do it effectively. And that's where the concept of the de escalation danger zone comes in and the valley of despair and the anger cycle. So let's start by thinking about the anger cycle. This is an audio podcast, so it might not work so well, but I want you to imagine a graph with a line on it. Now the line is a bit like a sine wave.

So it looks like a large hill going up and then down followed by a small valley before coming back to baseline again. So I call that valley the valley of despair. So imagine you've got a line that goes gradually up the front of the hill. It reaches the top of a hill, and then it goes down the other side, hits ground level, keeps going down a bit into a smaller valley, then comes back up, and then levels off at ground level and runs flat again. That line represents the student's stress chemicals or another way to think about it is it represents the levels of anxiety or anger or fear they're experiencing at any one point. So let's take the example of, say, a student who's just come into school. They've already had an argument with their brother outside the school gates, and they come into the classroom and the people next to them, they're working, and the people next to them accidentally spills a drink across their paper, ruining their work so far.

And this last bit, the work, it's like it's like the tipping point with their anger, the straw that breaks the camel's back, and the student just explodes. The series of escalating events that built up to that explosion on our anger cycle, that's the bit where we're walking up the hill. So we've got the child whose emotions are building and building. And then when we get to the top of the hill, that's when you see the explosive angry behaviour, the emotions, the tipping of the chair, the shouting and swearing at the child who accidentally knocked over their drink, the storming out of the classroom. So far so simple. The next part of our story is the student walks out of the classroom and is met by a learning mentor who takes them away from the classroom where the triggers are that fuel the student's anger in the first place. And they take them to, say, a quiet room, get them a drink of water, kinda co regulate them a little bit, play some soothing music, maybe get them settled.

This lowering of emotions leads to the de escalation danger zone. At this point, we're walking back down the hill in the anger cycle, but and this is the key thing. Right? We're nowhere near ground level yet. We're still maybe, say, midway down. But here's why this phase is dangerous because it's where your student looks calm. Right? They're not strutting about anymore.

They're sat down. They're sitting still. Maybe they're starting to talk a little bit, but there's a big difference between being still and being calm. Because their amygdala, that primitive part of their brain that responded to the situation with emotions and fury, it's still at DEFCON 1 scanning the world for threats, looking for dangers, especially any triggers related to that final incident that tipped the child into anger, that spilling of the drink. Underneath that stillness, heightened feelings are still bubbling away like a volcano, right, preparing for secondary eruption. And the temptation for the adult now is because the pupil looks calm is to start talking to them about the incident. But this is bad news because we're asking the child to replay the events in their mind.

And when we do that, we don't just get, like, a visual retelling of it in our mind, like watching a film of what happened. We also replay the emotions associated with it. And our brains don't distinguish between remembered, recreated, replayed emotions from the past and the emotions we experience in the real world on a moment by moment basis. They feel the same. We're psychologically then bringing the threat and all the emotions associated with it back into the room when we ask the child to talk about what happened, and bang, we get another explosion. Or even worse, maybe the student looked calm and we decided to bring the two children together to try and resolve the incident. And then we're not just psychologically bringing the threat back into the room from our primitive brain's perspective.

We're bringing the actual physical threat back into the room from our brain's perspective. And boom, another anger outburst. Only second time over, it's going to take way longer for the child to get regulated again because of the way our brains work.

So what do we do? Well, we have to wait to get them on our anger cycle graph back to ground level before we talk about what happened. But you see, there's a second trap and that's the valley of despair. That's where some kids have a body chemistry crash and become overwhelmed with regret and sad emotions and tears. And there's no point in talking to them about what happened in this state because they're just not ready to do it. They're just sort of choked up with these stronger emotions still. It's not until they've climbed out of the valley of despair back up to ground level that we can have a reasonable conversation with them where you help them understand what happened, why the event happened, potentially reframe the event, put it in perspective, talk about how to make things better, coaching them through, how to deal with the situation better next time because now the student is back in a state where they're receptive, they're regulated, and they can learn and get things back on track because they're past the de escalation danger zone.

And they've been through the valley of despair, and they're back on level ground. And to get there on our part, that means being a little bit more patient, reading their body language more accurately, and getting them through the anger cycle back to ground level and having those relational restorative conversations when they're going to have the impact that we want them to have. Remember, being still and being calm are two very different things, and that's what I've got for you today. Hopefully, these concepts will help you if you're ever put in the difficult situation of having to deescalate a student in school. Next week, we'll be back with a normal episode of school behaviour secrets. But until then, I hope you have a brilliant and restful week. You've earned it if you're not in school right now, and I look forward to seeing you next time on school behaviour secrets.


(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)