This Mindset Shift Will Make You (Instantly) Better At De-escalation

This Mindset Shift Will Make You (Instantly) Better At De-escalation

Listen now:


Want to know how to de-escalate a student outburst? To some extent, it will depend on the needs of the individual pupil - but there is one mindset shift you can make that will improve your de-escalation skills.

In this episode, we reveal what the mindset shift is and how to apply it when de-escalating pupils experiencing an anger outburst (or meltdown). So you minimise your pupil's distress - and the damage done to classroom learning.

Useful links:

Get our FREE SEMH Framework:

Join our Inner Circle membership programme:

Download other FREE behaviour resources for use in school:

Share this podcast with your friends:

Show notes / transcription

Simon Currigan  0:00  

It's really just about recognising that yes, there might be a consequence or whatever has happened. But it's about being strategic with the timing. De-escalation is about bringing that stress down, getting rid of the threats, dealing with the feelings and emotions now, and then having that logical conversation later.

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 another episode of school behaviour secrets. I'm not saying quality control is low here. But you'll never see us do an outtake show because it's all outtakes

Or, for that matter, a best of show for exactly the same reasons.

That's the voice of my co host, Emma Shackleton. Hi, Emma. 

Hi, Simon

In a break with a norm. I'd like to kick off the podcast by asking you a quick question In a Gallup global emotions poll. And that is a real thing. What percentage of people said they experienced anger on the day before the survey?

Okay, well, I guess it depends on what was happening in their lives and in the national news and that kind of thing. So it's pretty hard to make a guess based on anything concrete, maybe 40%. Is that anywhere near the figure in the poll?

That's a bit higher. Actually, the answer was actually 22%. So about one in five people, but I think that's still a lot of people getting angry. So alright, then just for fun. Can you guess the area of the world that led the way in positive experiences and emotions the day before the survey?

Oh, wow. somewhere hot and sunny? Hawaii?

Well, it certainly wasn't Europe or North America, where you might think that higher levels of affluence would lead to greater positive experiences, but it was...drum roll... Latin America.

Okay, so where are we going with this?

Well, today's episode is all about managing negative emotions in the classroom, particularly anger and anxiety, which can lead to outbursts and pupil meltdowns, which can be really difficult to manage for the adult. And today we're going to talk about a mindset shift to take that will make deescalating easier and more intuitive. And when you make this mindset shift, you're more likely to make better decisions, understand your students emotions and behaviour, the why of their behaviour and get to a successful outcome more quickly.

Ah, interesting. And I know that anger and strong emotions come up a lot in our conversations with schools. So this episode is going to be really helpful for lots of people. But before we get into that technique, I'd like to say that if you find today's episode useful, please help other teachers and school leaders find the podcast by giving us a rating and review on Apple podcasts. Every review encourages Apple to recommend school behaviour secrets to other listeners, so that they can find the show and start getting the help that they need to support the children in their classrooms.

So let's slip on a sports sock and tentatively insert our foot into that mud caked trainer we call behaviour or at least I hope it's mud. So what we need to think about to start with is we're not talking about kids who are making deliberate choices about their behaviour. We're talking about children that have gotten themselves into a heightened emotional state. So to some extent, they're out of control. They're having an emotional outburst say or a meltdown. And they're no longer in control of their behaviour. So they're not making choices about what they're doing. So we're not talking about kids who are deliberately boundary pushing, which is something that most kids will do from time to time, especially as they reach their teenage years and at an age where they're learning about what's acceptable in terms of social boundaries and adult expectations.

So let's think about what do we mean exactly by de-escalation? Well, the first thing we need to understand is that heightened behaviour is driven by heightened emotions. And it's nothing to do with logic. So de-escalation means dealing with emotions now and resolving the incident later on. And by that I don't mean removing consequences or giving up or backing down. It's about choosing to talk about consequences only when the child is in a calm state and they can actually learn from the conversation.

Yeah, of course point of consequences is we have a conversation where the child learns from their past experiences and if we're in an emotionally heightened state where we can't access the part of our brain that deals with logic and learning, which is the point that conversation anyway, then the child isn't going to be able to learn and make better choices in the future. So what we're doing is we're just delaying that conversation about what went wrong. And what they need to do to put it right and what the consequences might be, until they're in an emotional state where they're more able to access the part of their brain that deals with logic and reasoning. So, de-escalation is about removing immediate stress and perceived threats, and resolving the situation when the child can learn.

And I think some adults find that easier than others. I know that when children present with challenging behaviour that can feel like a threat to us. And that's normal and natural, that's a human response. But sometimes adults get trapped in that cycle where they feel like they have to have the last word, or they have to start issuing consequences. And it's really just about recognising that, yes, there might be a consequence for whatever has happened. But it's about being strategic with the timing, de-escalation is about bringing that stress down, getting rid of the threats, dealing with the feelings and emotions now, and then having that logical conversation later. So escalation is the opposite of that escalation is anything that we do or other people do to increase pressure, increased danger, increased threats, anything that we do, even subtly or accidentally, to do those things is guaranteed to prolong the outburst, it's going to make it bigger, or it's certainly going to make it last longer. So what we need to do with the adult is accept that the child is in a state where they cannot regulate themselves. So we have to do it for them, rightly or wrongly, we need to do it side by side with them. And that's called co regulation, regulating yourself alongside regulating another person, it's sitting with them being with them, and helping them to get back in control. But that's easier said than done. So let's take a look at why de escalating is so hard. Well, the first thing to say is, it is really, really hard. No matter how many times you've done this, no matter how many times you've worked with many, many children who have struggled to regulate their emotions, it still pushes our buttons when children are having an outburst or having a meltdown or exhibiting challenging behaviour, we naturally are going to respond to that our brains aren't going to sense that there is a threat, we are going to tip over into that fight or flight mode maybe as well. So it's super, super hard for us to keep control of ourselves to take a breath and to help the other person. Biologically, we are going to be having a response as well. It's one thing to read about de-escalation, you can learn about it in a book, you can Google it, you can find out about it on the internet, you can see all the strategies and the top tips. It's one thing to know what to do. But it's completely another thing to actually be able to do that. And that's the difference, I guess between practical hands on knowledge versus theoretical knowledge.

When you're the adult dealing with willows emotionally charged situations, it is really draining not kind of emotionally or figuratively or metaphorically, when you're in that situation, you're literally as an adult burning calories, trying to manage that sort of tense fraught situation so that the child is safe, the children around them are safe, and you personally are safe. And we can't underestimate that. And that's why you can walk away from one of these situations feeling absolutely exhausted. So in those situations, we do have to take care of ourselves and be really aware of our own emotional and physical state. Because the more tired we get, the less able we're going to be able to de escalate another person successfully.

Absolutely. And this is where I think if a child has got a specific plan in place, it's really important that we use it, we need to rely on systems and strategies and props that have been thought about when everybody's calm, because it's really super hard to make rational, logical decisions even as the adult when you're in that very emotionally charged situation. So being on the hop improvising feeling that you're having to make things up as you go along, which you often do actually when you're dealing with behaviour is really exhausting. So save yourself the heartache of making mistakes that other people have already made by having a clear plan in place that says when child does x, this is what we are going to do. So this is what we are all going to try and also these are things that we are all going to avoid. So here's the information about what we have learned already about this child. Anytime you go through a situation with a child where they are struggling emotionally, you come out the other side, exhausted. But hopefully you've learned something about what sometimes works, and what definitely doesn't work, and what antagonises the situation. So it's important to keep a record of that and share that with colleagues. But of course, we also need to be realistic, and we need to know hand on heart, nothing is going to work 100% of the time. In fact, the best way of de escalating is not to have the incident in the first place. And we all know that. But actually, if the child has got a plan in place, that's got proactive strategies that we learned that sometimes work to help to avoid those outbursts or crisis points, we've got to make sure that we all use those strategies and plans because that's the way that we can start to reduce the number of outbursts in the first place. And then happy days, we're not having to regulate with that child, because they're managing to stay regulated for longer. The other important point to make at this point is Do not beat yourself up if you get it wrong. When you're under pressure, making difficult snap decisions in the moment is hard mistakes are bound to be made, the best thing to do is to walk away from the situation and replay that situation and reflect and think about, Okay, today, it didn't go so great. What can I do differently next time? What will I not do next time because I've learned today that it makes the situation worse, albeit accidentally. And what can I do differently? It's really easy after the fact to think of these things. But that is part of reflective practice. And of course, that information then goes on to inform the child's plan. So if you learn something today, that is a huge trigger, make sure you make a note of that and share that with your colleagues so that they don't have to go through that pain barrier again tomorrow by falling into the same pitfall.

Okay, so let's imagine we've got a situation with, say, a 13 year old who's becoming more and more frustrated in class. And now that frustration has tipped over into anger. So they've left their seat, and they're shouting, and they're screaming at you as the teacher in front of the whole class. So what do we do? Well, first thing is first, and that is crowd control. What we need to do if the other children in the room are to feel safe, they need to feel like you're in control of the room. If they feel the room is out of control, that the adult is no longer managing the room successfully, then what you'll get is a mass panic because fear is contagious. Okay, they need to see the adult looking calm and confident however that adult feels on the inside. On the outside, they need to see someone who is calm, confident and appears to be in control of the room. And the way I think about it is imagine that you're on a plane, and maybe there's a big bang on the side of the wing. And you see that one of the engine catches fire. You know, this is one of those nightmares that you know, you might have. And then the tannoy comes on and the captain starts to speak. How do you want the pilot to sound? Do you want the pilot to sound like they're panicking? Like they're really, really nervous and that things are out of control? Or do you want the pilot to sound like they're still in control, they have a plan and you feel like they're going to be able to land the plane and the other kids in the room. When you're the teacher or the adult or one of the members of teaching staff, they need to feel like you're going to be able to land this situation safely so that everyone is safe, and no one needs to worry.

I think that's so true. Because don't forget, there's an increasing number of pupils sitting in school feeling anxious a lot of the time, especially post pandemic and if they get a whiff, that the teacher isn't in control or can't handle this situation that is scary for them. And what we don't want is other children feeling heightened, feeling more anxious, maybe even copying the behaviour that they see as well. So it's really important that that ripple effect is that the teacher looks like they are calm and in control.

I'd just like to take a pause for a moment and say that if you're finding this podcast useful, then you're going to love what we've got waiting for you in our Inner Circle programme. The Inner Circle is your one stop shop for all things behaviour. It's a comprehensive platform filled with videos, resources and behaviour inspiration to get you unstuck with classroom behaviour. We've got training resources on de-escalation, supporting kids with anxiety support strategies for conditions like autism, ADHD and PDA. practical ways of helping pupils deal with strong emotions, assertive behaviour management techniques for managing the whole class setting out your classroom environment for success resetting behaviour with tricky classes, and more. Our online videos walk you through practical solutions step by step, just like Netflix, you can turn an inner circle subscription on or off whenever you need to. With no minimum contract Plus, you can now get your first seven days of Inner Circle for just one pound. Get the behaviour answers and you've been looking forward today with Inner Circle visit and click on the Inner Circle picture near the top of the homepage for more information.

Now the brilliant thing about this is you can pretend that you feel calm, and you're in control. And if you practice, nobody can tell the difference. You can fake this and you will look like you are calm and in control. Believe me, I've done this many, many times working in pupil referral units. I've been involved in situations where my heart has been beating 10 to the dozen, I've been very worried about what's going to happen next. But on the outside, I'm like a swan on the surface, gliding along looking and sounding calm and in control. Even though underneath the surface, my feet are paddling away. So practice, first of all recognising when you feel heightened. So when you're in a tricky situation with a child, when they are not in control of their emotions, your brain is going to register a threat, you are going to have a visceral response to this situation that is normal and healthy. But the first thing to do is recognised that you have been triggered recognise that something is going on in your body and then make a deliberate and conscious effort to start acting like you feel calm and in control. How do we do that? Well, we focus on our voice, our tone and our body language. And what we need to do is actively talk less, a lot less, and we need to make our voices go lower, and slower. So the way to do that is take a breath, think about what you're going to say next. And then deliver your message low and slow. And then stop talking because more talking faster. talking louder talking higher talking indicates that we are unravelling. And what we need to do is look like we've got this. Body language, we need to be really careful with when a child is in distress when they're in a heightened emotional state. They are hyper vigilant for threats. And it's actually really easy for them to miss read other people's body language. So if we go too close, if we appear too big or imposing, if we look puffed up, or we're pointing or we're waving our arms around, that registers as a further threat to the child and will escalate the situation. So we need to make ourselves smaller, we need to move slower, we need to give personal space, we need to be like that Swan gliding on the surface. Doing that sends a really powerful message to the child who's in distress to everybody else who's looking. So that's the rest of the class and any other adults. And it's also really cleverly gives biofeedback to your own brain that goes You sound calm and in control, you're calm and in control. And that helps you to be calm and in control. If you don't believe me, fake it till you make it I promise you practice this skill. Anybody can learn to master this skill. So some people are naturally cool, calm and collected and laid back most of the time, the rest of us are not. But you can practice this and like anything else, the more you practice, the better you get at it. And you will immediately start to feel how this reduces the tension in the room. And it's a really powerful way of de escalating a situation. And don't forget, you need to regulate yourself because you need the logical part of your brain to be active and engaged because you're going to be making decisions about what happens next. And if you are in a heightened state, your prefrontal cortex is taking a backseat to and that's going to negatively impact on your decision making. Here's a little mindset shift that might help with this. And it's thinking about the difference between a child's calendar age and their emotional age. So the calendar age well that's easy. See, that is how many days old that child is. So in this scenario, we're talking about a 13 year old child. So lots of 13 year olds are as tall and as big and as strong as adults. So you're looking at a virtual adult in front of you. But actually, when we think about their emotional age, that's harder to gauge, but that is where they are at emotionally. So yes, they might be 13 years old in their body. But actually, developmentally, where are they at emotionally?

So when you're looking at this child in front of you the mindset shift to make here's I like to imagine a Russian doll that like a wooden doll, it's usually a woman on the outside, and you lift at the top half of that wooden doll. And inside, there's another wooden doll, open that doll, and they get smaller and smaller and smaller. When I went to imagine a Russian doll with two layers, when you're working with you're out of control student, what you have to recognise is you're actually managing two pupils not one pupil, but two separate pupils. On the outside the big Russian doll on the outside, what we're looking at is that 13 year old, that teenager who looks big and looks strong and looks mature, but when you open up that Russian doll, on the inside, there's another one, there's a child, there's a two year old, or a three year old, who has a much younger, emotional age. And what's interesting is in terms of how our brain makes decisions, it's that inner emotional child who's calling the shots, who's making the decisions about what's happening, because when we become angry, or when we move towards high levels of anxiety, we start to engage in more emotional thinking. And in those cases, it's not the sensible, old or logical teenager that we're looking at. It's that young adult inside that two year old, that three year old who can't control their emotions who are making irrational decisions. And it's important not to confuse the two, because if you're confronted what appears to be a six foot 13 year old who's close to adulthood, then you might be tempted to manage that situation, like you're talking to someone who's 18,19 or 20. But just because they look like an adult, it doesn't mean they're thinking like an adult, we have to think about the inner child.

Okay, so in terms of de-escalation, then how do we do that if we imagine the inner child, the two year old child, for example, let's think about how we would manage a two year old having a tantrum, or who is out of control or being overtaken by their emotions. What would we do then? Well, we'd accept that the child had lost control of their emotions. So we'd recognise that it's pointless talking and reasoning with them. And we'd realise that they need the adults help to get on top of these emotions. And to get back in control, what we wouldn't do is turn around and say, we'll sit down and talk about the Action Man incident when you're more composed and being more respectful. At 13 years old, we sometimes expect that children should be able to do this, I often see this in primary schools, there's kind of an expectation once children get to year four or certainly year five and year six, we just suddenly expect that they will switch now into a state where they are able to manage themselves. And actually just because they are older, just because they are bigger, it doesn't necessarily follow that they've mastered this skill yet, let's face it, there are adults who haven't mastered this skill yet. So we can't assume that just because they're older, or just because they're bigger, they're able to emotionally regulate. 

So we have to deal with the pupil as they are in front of us not how we think they should be behaving but how they are behaving and how they have developed in terms of their emotions we're dealing with, although it looks like a 13 year old, we're dealing with a two year old who never develop the skills to deal with this situation. They have a skills deficit, they lack the ability to regulate their emotions, they lack the ability to control their emotions, once they start to run away with them. It's almost like they're having a tantrum, even though they're 13 or 14 years old. And there are all sorts of reasons why they might not have developed the skills at an earlier age. It might be that their parents have presented them as poor role models. Often parents that shout a lot and scream a lot have kids who shout and scream a lot. And they've just learned that template for managing difficult situations from poor role models. And it might be in their early years they experienced trauma or domestic violence, and that has impacted on their ability to regulate their nervous system so they're unable to when their emotions start to run away with them. They might be hyper vigilant, constantly looking for threats around them constantly in this defence mode waiting for someone to attack them. They might have experienced any of the other ACE's adverse childhood experiences, they might have an underlying special need that's fueling high stress levels like autism or foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or attachment disorder. Are any of those other conditions. So what we have to remember is what we're seeing in class. The behaviour in front of us is just the tip of the iceberg. We don't know what happened before this event either earlier today, or 10 years ago, that has impacted on this child's skills, their emotional skills, their ability to manage and regulate themselves in difficult situations.

But this is a tricky balancing act, because although we're saying that we have to de escalate the two year old, of course, the person in front of us is 13. So a bit like a parent. First of all, we have to manage the inner two year old who's responsible for driving that behaviour because they're experiencing those overwhelming emotions. But we've also got to be mindful that we have got a 13 year old in front of us. So we have to be mindful of talking and acting in a way that doesn't offend them. So we've got to think about our tone of voice and be really careful that we're not being patronising. Don't talk down to them, like a two year old, use the language that you'd expect a 13 year old to be able to process. And if the 13 year old detects any whiff of an insult, you're going to have the two year old and the teenager getting angry with you.

So what we have to do is guide that in a two year old, until they're back in control of their emotions. And then we can start addressing the 13 year old again. So this might involve some time away from whatever they perceive as the threat. What is the thing that's frustrated them? Is it a specific piece of work? Is it another child, isn't it adults in the room, if we can give them space away from those things, their brain is no longer going to be looking for that threat or reacting to that threat, they're going to calm down and they're going to be more reasonable, we need to talk and use language that is acceptable to the outer 13 year old. And once we've got that inner child has been jumping up and down and up and down with anger once we've calmed them down, right, we shift our focus back to the outer child back to logic and talking about what went wrong, we might have a restorative conversation about who was impacted by that behaviour and what needs to happen to put that situation right, we might have to talk about consequences or inappropriate actions in the classroom, or have a coaching conversation about how to do better in this situation in the future. Whatever approach your school adapts, but there is no point in engaging in that conversation that requires logic and distance and calm until we've managed that in a two year old. So in conclusion, here are the steps. First of all, we need to accept that although on the outside, we've got a 13 year old. On the inside, we've got a two year old who's screaming and shouting and needs to be addressed. So we need to deal with that inner toddler first. But we need to speak in a way that won't offend the outer child, we need to get that inner toddler calm before we can have reasonable conversations about things that have gone wrong and try and resolve incidents.

And to do that, then we need to recognise that there's a difference between a child's emotional age and their calendar age. And we have to take into account both.

This mindset shift will help you when you're de escalating make sense of the students behaviours, which can look irrational and random and help you react accordingly. Because you'll know who you're speaking with and who you're dealing with the outer child or the inner child.

Emma Shackleton  28:24  

And remember, the best way of de escalating is never to have to de escalate in the first place. So if a child has a plan with proactive support strategies or needs to use it, it's there to make their life and your life better.

Simon Currigan  28:39  

So if you're working with a child who finds it hard to manage their emotions, the first thing you need is a plan. And we've got a free download that can help. It's called the graduated SEMH framework. And okay, that's not the catchiest name in the world, but it is going to do four things for you. It's gonna give you all the behaviour plans and risk assessments, you need to make sure you're approaching these behaviours in the right way. By focusing on causes and tackling those.

it's going to give you clarity on what behaviours you're going to focus on which strategies you're going to use and how to measure your success.

It's going to help you organise your approach. So you're tackling those needs in a graduated way. So you'll be using the best practice, plan do and review approach

Emma Shackleton  29:25  

And it will also help you to collect evidence to prove that you've acted in a graduated proportional way. And that's really important. If you're in the UK, your pupil may need an EHCP assessment for their social, emotional and mental health needs. This framework also comes with a video guiding you through the process. It's completely free, and we'll put a direct link in the show description. Or you can download by going to, clicking on the free resources buttons and scrolling down to the free graduated SEMH  framework download near the top.

Simon Currigan  30:02  

If you found this episode useful, then make sure you get behaviour tips, tricks and strategies in the future direct from us. All you have to do is open up your podcast app now. And tap the subscribe button or follow as it is now according to Apple podcasts, and your podcast app will automatically download each and every episode of school behaviour secrets as it's released, so you never miss a thing. And why not celebrate subscribing by creating your very own ham art? Yes, you heard that right, grab yourself a pack a sandwich meat, separate out the slices, a bit like a psycho killer and begin carefully cutting out shapes using a scalpel, which you then stick onto a paint by numbers kit. The possibilities for your hammer art are endless. And best of all, when you get bored of the painting, you've got a delicious meaty snack just waiting to be eaten on the wall. Assuming it hasn't been at room temperature for too long. That is the smell will be a big clue. Yeah. Don't hang it above a radiator.

Emma Shackleton  31:03  

Okay, I don't recommend doing that. But I do recommend subscribing and we look forward to speaking with you on the next episode of school behaviour. Until next time, bye

Simon Currigan  31:16  


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