Managing Behaviors and Avoiding Escalation (Ep. 186)

After publishing her popular article last week, Abby sits down with Tim to discuss the best strategies to manage student behavior and keep those behaviors from escalating. Listen as they discuss oppositional defiant disorder, how to stay calm in the face of misbehavior, and why you should be a “second-to-last word teacher.” Full Episode Transcript Below.

Resources and Links


Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education University. I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

Last week, Abby Schukei published a great article about a topic that I don’t think we talk enough about and it was about how to handle defiance in the art room and how to avoid power struggles. She shares some awesome strategies about how to stay calm when that defiance is happening, how to avoid escalating the situation, and how to not take that misbehavior personally. I don’t know. Maybe the most important part of the article, Abby talked a lot about the causes of misbehavior, the causes of defiance, which I think help inform the conversation a lot when we begin to talk about the strategies that help us deal with those issues.

In fact, I would say it’s probably helpful if you want to pause the podcast right here before we get started with the interview. In the resources and links, the first thing you find there in the show notes, whether you’re on the computer or on your phone, whatever, the first thing there is a link to the article. Pause this, go give it a read, and I will round up Abby to come and join me. I’m actually in the back of her classroom recording right now. We will pick things up on the other side.

All right. I am here now in Abby Schukei’s classroom. Abby, thank you for inviting me. How are you?

Abby: I’m doing good. How are you? Thanks for coming in.

Tim: I know. It’s been a while.

Abby: It has.

Tim: I guess to start with, can you tell us a little bit about your article? You wrote it last Monday, I think. It kind of took the world by storm. Just a lot of good reactions because I think it’s something we don’t talk about a lot, but can you give us a rundown of kind of everything that you wrote about?

Abby: Yeah. Well, I think one of the things that art teachers just always need help with in general, no matter what is behavior management. I chose to write about this topic because it’s something that I often see a lot in my classroom. I’m constantly working with students that do exhibit defiant behaviors or causing to want a power struggle. It really is a challenge for the classroom. I think it’s something like you said, we don’t talk about enough and there are ways to make it better, but it’s not necessarily always easy.

Tim: Yeah. It’ not something that we can prevent. I guess the first thing, if we can start with just kind of a baseline of some of the things that you talked about and I guess how they affect our teachers. Can you start by talking about what is oppositional defiant disorder, ODD, and how does it affect our students?

Abby: Sure. ODD is a diagnosed condition and it affects over 3.3 of the world’s population. 200,000 people are diagnosed with it a year. That means that there are many more that are not going to a doctor and getting medically diagnosed with it. But it’s often something that you will see in children before the age of eight. But basically it’s defined as having mannerisms to be disobedient, hostile, or just plain defiant directed towards authority figures like a teacher or a parent. That might be something that we often see in our classrooms.

Now sometimes those students with ODD, if it is tied with a learning disability, they might be on an IEP for that, but sometimes they’re not. We might put them on behavior plans in our schools. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes those students aren’t on plans. But I think it’s important to understand what ODD is. But that doesn’t mean that defiant behaviors are just coming from those students that have the diagnosis.

Tim: Yeah. That was going to be my next question because obviously we do have those students who are diagnosed, but we also see behaviors from kids who don’t have ODD or that are not diagnosed with it. That disruptive behavior, that defiance is something that we all face at one time or another. My question for you is why, as teachers, why is it so important to keep those behaviors and keep those situations from escalating in our classroom?

Abby: I think it really comes down to when those issues occur, it takes away from all of the other students in your room. I’m sure that every single teacher listening probably can think of a situation or a few students who every time they come into your classroom, it all becomes just about them. There are so many issues, maybe behavioral challenges, that they bring to the classroom and you’re constantly battling with them or trying to combat how to gear them in the right direction, that you basically forget about everybody in your class, and it’s not fair. I think that’s the biggest thing about not wanting a situation to escalate because you care about all the other 27 kids that are in your classroom. But what can you do to not derail this one person who might be coming in and just creating havoc all the time?

Tim: Yeah, exactly. I want to talk a little bit more about that later, but I do want to ask about your article as well. It was all about strategies you can use to deal with defiance. A couple that I really liked were a strategy about staying calm, one about choosing your words carefully. Can you talk a little bit about those or talk about some of your favorite strategies on … I don’t know if favorite’s the right word.

Abby: Yeah.

Tim: Some of the strategies that you’ve found most effective to deal with the defiance, deal with these behaviors in your classroom?

Abby: Sure. Yeah. Let’s talk about staying calm. That’s definitely one where a student might say something to you and in your mind you are just like, Oh my gosh. There’s maybe just the fury inside. But the most important thing with that, and it’s so hard to do, like you seriously have to teach yourself to do this, you might think those things, but you absolutely cannot show it. Cannot. You cannot let your students see it. You can totally feel that way. That’s okay. But put on a show, act like it doesn’t bother you, act like it’s okay. That’s really going to be a major way that you can kind of start to deescalate a situation. Because the opposite thing that happens is when we might lash back at a student right away, that’s when the power struggle is going to incur and it doesn’t end well for anyone that that happened.

Tim: No. When kids know that they can get a rise out of you, they’re going to try to get a rise out of you. Even the kids who aren’t your worst behaviors. Like just one of those days where they’re feeling it a little bit, they’re going to come after you.

Abby: I think one of the other things that goes along with that, with staying calm, is sometimes you might just have a student go off at you for nothing.

Tim: Yes.

Abby: Oftentimes when they are showing that defiant behavior, it’s not necessarily … There’s a root issue from where that’s coming from. It could be coming from home where they don’t feel like they have enough attention or enough love and care that’s being seen to them. Sometimes when our students do that, they’re not necessarily doing it out of hate towards us or disrespect, but they’re doing it because they want us to react. They want us to feel significant. If you understand that, if a student is just going, going, going, going, going, just listen and it will make them mad because you’re not causing the reaction that they want.

Tim: Exactly.

Abby: It can help. It really can. But once again, staying calm and just keep those thoughts inside your head. Don’t say them out loud.

Tim: Exactly. That kind of goes back to one thing that I wrote an article about a long time ago. I interviewed Michael Linson who is another behavior management guru, classroom management guy. He talked about when kids misbehave, you shouldn’t take it personally. You don’t need to feel like it’s your fault or they’re doing this because of you. I don’t know if detach is the right word, but if you can step away a little bit and just kind of realize that this isn’t about you, that can go a long way to helping you.

Abby: I think something else to go along with that too is our students have a lot of issues going on outside of school that we might not even know about, whether their home life, things that have happened in their history. We definitely have students that do not react well to male teachers. They do not react well to female teachers. That’s something that we also need to understand as well because of something that might’ve happened in their history. Just exactly detaching from those situations, you cannot take it personally because we don’t always know what our students have all been through.

As you were talking about that a little bit, it got me thinking about how we can prevent more of these behaviors in the future. Because we’re never going to be able to eliminate these behaviors. We’re never going to be able to eliminate defiance from our classroom. But you and I have talked on the podcast or talked at the conference a few other times just about the idea of being proactive with your strategies. In your article, you talk about a couple of things that help with that idea, like building positive relationships, reinforcing positive behaviors. Can you dive into that a little bit more? Just tell us, what does that look like for you in your classroom? What are you trying to do on a consistent basis to kind of follow through on the ideas of building those relationships and reinforcing positive behaviors?

Abby: Sure. I think the most important thing first is to always give your students a fresh slate. If they’re an incoming student coming up from another grade or another school or how that that student acts in a different class. Obviously, teachers are always going to talk about how those students are and then they implant into your brain, this is a bad kid, blah, blah, blah. Well, give them a fresh slate. Let you determine that.

I’m going to tell you just a quick story. My first year of teaching, I had a kindergartner. I’ll never forget him. He did have ODD. As a kindergartner, I remember he was physically harmful to the classroom environment where he would throw chairs. He was a big kid for a kindergartner where you were worried about your safety and the other kids’ safety in the room.

I just remember one day … This is a little off subject, but I think you need to get the full story in order to really envision this. I have these buckets of pencils on the table. We’re just sitting there. Well, he’s the only one sitting in a chair because he can’t sit on the floor. I don’t know if we were reading a story or something. He grabs a pencil from the bucket on the table. He’s five years old. He proceeds to hold it up to his mouth. He starts like smoking a fake cigarette. He leans over. He has this raspy voice and he leans down to the kid that’s sitting on the floor and he’s like, “Do you want to smoke?” It was one of those things that I was like, what in the world?

This kid needed a lot of love and attention. He totally did. I really did come to love him, but there were times where if something made him angry, he would go throw a chair. He would do that. We had to find the sweet spot of, okay, if he was exhibiting defiant behavior where he was like, “I don’t want to do this drawing, I don’t want to do this,” be like, “Okay, what do you want to do? What can we do?” We found a solution eventually where he just loved going just right around the corner of the door where I could still see him in the window. He loved taking a blue Sharpie, and on a piece of paper he would draw these like zombie characters just over and over again. Then he’d want to come back in and tell me the story about it.

Well, yeah.

Abby: That was one of those things that it was like, you know what? Maybe he’s not doing what the rest of the classes doing, but we started building that relationship. Then as time went on, he wanted to come in more. He wanted to participate with the rest of the students. If he did ever exhibit that type of behavior, it’d be like, “Hey, do you need to go take a zombie break? Draw on your stuff?”

But that’s an example from a kindergarten student. Now that I’m in middle school, those are still things that you just have to continue to build those relationships with don’t make it related to what they’re doing in school. Ask them about their weekend. That’s how you’re going to get that positive rapport and help diffuse those defiant behaviors when they come about.

Yeah, absolutely. Like once kids know that you care about them, that goes a long way and just whether they are misbehaving or not, it’s very valuable.

One other idea that I don’t know that everybody’s familiar with that I think is worth talking about is the idea of being a second to last word teacher. I know this is a Brian Mendler thing and I know you are a big fan of his, but can you explain for everybody what it means to be a second to last word teacher?

Abby: Sure. Before I do this, Brian Mendler is like … Well, he was a classroom teacher and he speaks. If you ever have the opportunity to go to one of his presentations, do it because it’s awesome. But he would classify himself as like, “I was a problem kid. I was the kid in the classroom that,” whatever. That, “I made it difficult for teachers.” He’s self-aware of that, and so he has a really good insight to these things.

But what it means to be a second to last word teacher is when probably like when you’re in … It’s a good way to not create a power struggle. For instance, if you’re asking somebody to put their hoodie down. If you say, “Hey, I need you to put your hoodie down.” They’ll probably respond with something like, “Why do I need to put my hoodie down?” Blah, blah, blah. Continue to talk. Then if you choose to respond, that opens up the conversation for your student to come back in and you’re going to keep going back and forth because you don’t want to lose, your student doesn’t want to lose, and then you don’t want to look silly in front of your students. Your student, that you’re having this with, doesn’t want to look silly in front of their peers. It’s just this big mess that …

Yeah, just continues to escalate.

Abby: Yes. Instead, maybe you could try saying something like, “Hey, can you please put your hoodie down? Thanks.” Then just walk away. That way the student might say, “Okay.” Or they might be like, “Oh, why?” But you’ve already ended the conversation. You’ve walked away from it. If the student chooses to continue the conversation, you’ve already ended it. You can go. It’s kind of one thing where it’s like, “I should have the last word.” No, you really shouldn’t. It’s a strategy that really does work because you’re like, “Oh, thanks.” They’re like, “Oh, I don’t want to do this.” But then nine times out of 10, they’ll probably do it. Try to be a second to last word teacher and it’ll work.

Yeah. I know people are like, “Oh, I don’t want to lose control of my class.” You’re not going to lose control of your classroom. You don’t gain anything by getting into that power struggle or by establishing your power with that. I think it is a really valuable idea.

Then I guess I just wanted to close with a little bit of a discussion on how you move on when this behavior happens because we can do all of these things. We talked about being proactive, using the second to last word strategy, we can stay calm, but we’re still going to deal with behaviors.

I remember my first year of teaching high school, I had a chair thrown right at me, where I just asked the kid, “Hey, can you take a seat?” He was like, “You can take a blanking seat,” and picked up the chair and straight-up threw it at me.

We all face these sorts of issues. The question is, once that happens, once you have those behaviors, you get kids sent to the office, somebody comes to take them out, whatever, how do you move on from that? How do you go back to your class and say, “Hey, sorry you had to see me get a chair thrown at me.” How do you address that to the rest of the students after one of these incidents has run its course?

Abby: Yeah. I think most of the time after a situation like that occurs, your students are going to be the most understanding. They feel bad for you because they’re like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe that just happened.” Then they probably will work in silence. You won’t even have to ask them, which is kind of nice. If you have anything that you really need them to do, that’s your opportunity.

But no, in all honesty, some students might come up to you and be like, “Are you okay?” It’s okay to feel your emotions in that in that moment, because you are a real human, you are a real person, but do just kind of move on as normal as well because I mean your students will probably sympathize with you a little bit and that’s okay. But also don’t throw yourself a pity party because, like we talked about earlier, don’t take it personal. It’s probably nothing because of what you did. It’s just the mood of what that student was in that day. But I think in the same way, when that student does come back to your classroom the next day or I don’t know, just act like it didn’t happen. You just have to move on.

Tim: Well, and like you talked about before, that clean slate, you talked about kids coming up from grade to grade, coming from other classes, but even just on a day to day basis, the next day that kid comes back, you can say, “Hey, it’s good to have you back,” or “Hey, it’s good to see you today,” whatever. Just give them that clean slate and let them know we’re past it. I think that’s a huge benefit for them and for you.

Abby: Yeah. All of these ideas, they’re not like huge, novel, earth-shattering ideas, but they’re very simple and you might look at them and you’re like, oh, that’s never going to work. But if you really do that, you’ll definitely start being able to build relationships with those maybe struggling, challenging students and you’ll see that it does make a difference.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. Very said. I think that’s a great place to end it. Abby, thank you so much for taking some time and inviting me into your classroom again. Always good to be here. Always good to talk to you.

Abby: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Tim: Cool. All right, thank you to Abby. I want to elaborate on just a couple of things. But before we do that, I also want to tell you about some Art Ed PRO resources. If you’re interested in diving a little bit deeper on this topic of behavior management or classroom management, we have pro learning packs on, trying to think here, building positive relationships, managing your classroom, specifically managing middle-schoolers, also, that’s two different ones, and even motivating reluctant learners, and all of which can play a part in everything that we’ve talked about today. Just between those four learning packs, there’s, what, 40 some videos, 40 some resources that can help you. They all lead to a lot more in-depth learning than we can cover in the 25 minutes that we have here. Check out the PRO library. If you’re not a pro member yet, get on that. Like I always say, make sure you talk to your admin about getting pro for your school. If you want to visit theartofeducation.edu/pro-in-your-school. So, theartofeducation.edu/pro-in-your-school, with dashes in between each of those. You can learn how to hopefully get your school to pay for your PRO subscription.

Now like I said, had two things I wanted to talk just a little bit more about. First, what do you do when behavior escalates or a student chooses to escalate the situation? Obviously, this is different for everybody. It depends on your environment, your classroom, your students. But I’ll just tell you what I generally will do and hopefully that can help you.

I love to give students a choice. Again, like Abby said, it’s not a matter of “Hey, you have to do this.” I take it a step further and say either/or. For example, let’s say somebody is telling you, let’s say somebody’s cussing you out. Like Abby said, just listen. That’s fine. It’s okay to just listen. Then once they are done, I will just again stay calm and just say something like, “When you talk to me like that, when you behave like that, then you can’t stay in my room. You can’t be in here anymore.” Then I’ll give them a choice. “You can go to the office or I can have them come get you.” It’s still going to end up with the same thing, where they’re in the dean’s office or whoever takes care of of your behavior issues at school. Hey, they’re in the office facing those consequences. But you give them a choice. Do you want to go there yourself or do you want them to come get you? Usually, they’re going to say, “Oh, I’ll make it.” There’s generally a couple of cuss words thrown in there. You let them have the last word and they’ll step on out of class and get down to the office.

Now, obviously, we all know they’re not going directly to the office. I’ll call down and say, “Hey, this person is on their way down. If you can look for them.” Then you follow up later and just let them know, whoever’s in charge of discipline, let them know the situation and what happened and then that’s easy enough. But if you can give them a choice on how things are going to be done, there’s still going to face those consequences, but it allows the student to save face.

Then the other thing Abby and I talked about just a little bit was how do you come back to your class after you have a huge blow-up or a situation that has escalated pretty dramatically. I think the worst thing you can do is be sarcastic about it or be making bad jokes, like turn around to your class and be like, “Somebody’s having a bad day.” Don’t do that. That’s demeaning. It’s not a good situation. Generally what I do, again, I stay calm and just talk back to my class and say, “Hey, thank you for handling that so well. I appreciate you staying calm while that happened. Let’s get back to doing this.” Then they’ll take the cue from you. If you’re ready to move on, they’re going to be ready to move on as well. You can say something like, “Hey, that’s not our best day. I’m sorry you had to see that. But you know what? I know tomorrow is going to be better.” That can reflect on you, that can reflect on the student. But it goes back to giving kids the clean slate and letting them know we’re going to move on, tomorrow’s a new day. We’re going to start fresh and this is not something that’s going to affect our relationship. You just kind of move on, because like we said, it’s probably not about you.

Just a couple of closing thoughts. It’s hard to stay calm. It’s hard to stay cool. It’s hard to stay collected. But honestly, I think the worst thing that you can do is escalate the situation. It’s never going to be comfortable. it’s not going to be a comfortable situation. But if you stay calm, if you don’t take it personally, and if you’re willing to be a second to last word teacher, you will handle defiance and misbehaviors so much better than you would have otherwise.

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art Of Education University, with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Like I said, thank you to Abby for letting me come into her classroom and giving me some time for a conversation. Thank you for listening. We’ll talk to you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.