Strategies for Defusing and De-escalating Behaviors (Ep. 288)

This school year has seen an increase across the board when it comes to behavior issues–both in frequency and severity. So how can we help our students (and ourselves) with these issues? Today, Tim talks to Janet Taylor and Christine Cusack about strategies to defuse and de-escalate behaviors when students become dysregulated. Listen as they discuss how behavior is a type of communication, why we may need to re-frame our assumptions, and how you can find the resources needed to best handle these issues.  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, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

Last week, the AOEU Facebook account posted a question about whether teachers have seen an uptick in student behaviors this year. The response to that post was fast and furious and suffice it to say that teachers are seeing plenty of misbehavior. One comment that I saw and I think summed up everything just said, “uptick is an understatement.” I think most of us would agree that. We’re seeing more issues and more serious issues than we’ve seen in a long time. There’s a million causes of that but I think it’s important to note that no matter how well developed to your structures and your classroom routines and your classroom management may be, students are dealing with so much and they still become angry and they become frustrated and they become overwhelmed and they begin to act out. When we’re thinking about this in relation to our classes, to our classroom management, to what’s best for kids. I think it’s worth asking a couple of questions.

First, Why is this happening? Second, what can we do about it? That’s what I want to talk about today. About three weeks ago, Janet Taylor friend of the pod wrote a great article about this topic. It’s called Four Practical De-Escalation Strategies to Support SEL in the Art Room. Great article. I’m going to encourage you to read it. We’ll link to it in the show notes, of course, and we’ll dive into some of those concepts today. In this article, Janet collaborated with Chris Cusack, who is a licensed clinical social worker and clinical trauma professional. Their focus in this article was on motivational interviewing, which offers strategies like shifting mindsets and reflective listening, using empathy to connect and questioning, to unpack. I’m lucky enough to be able to talk today with both Janet and Chris and we’ll chat about those strategies as well as the big questions of why we’re seeing more of these behaviors and what we can do about them. Let me welcome them both on now. All right. We have two guests joining us tonight. Janet Taylor and Chris Cusack. Janet, welcome back as always. You’re here a lot. How are you?

Janet: I’m good. I’m good. How are you doing?

Tim: I’m very excited for this conversation. I’m doing well. Chris, how are you?

Chris: I’m good. I’m excited that you’re excited about this conversation. These are the things that I geek on. This will be fun to talk about those things.

Tim: I love it. Well, perfect. Welcome to the show. We are thrilled to have you.

Chris: Thank you.

Tim: I think this is going to be a great conversation. To begin with, can we just do some quick introductions? Janet, we will have you go first. Can you just tell everybody who you are and what you do?

Janet: Yeah. If you haven’t heard the five million podcasts that I’ve been on before with Tim, I’m an art educator and a K12 content specialist here at AEU. I’m excited to bring Chris on here. I know her pretty well because she has worked very closely with my own children were at her school.

Tim: Oh, that’s perfect. Chris, that’ll be our segue into you. Can you introduce yourself and let everybody know a little bit about you?

Chris: Yeah. My name is Chris Cusack and I am a school social worker. That’s what I do all day every day, but I also a licensed clinical social worker, so I have my LCSW and I also have a credential as a certified clinical trauma professional. Then, I recently completed another graduate degree in applied behavior analysis, which is the understanding of behavior, what causes it to happen and ways to change the environment to change the behavior.

Tim: Okay. That is all very impressive. I would love to just sit and talk about your degrees for a little while, but we have a few other things that we need to get to. Janet, I wanted to start with you because you wrote an article last month, just about like Practical de-escalation techniques that work well in the art room. Can you tell us, I guess, the impetus for that article and why you think we need to discuss a lot of those ideas right now?

Janet: Right. So much has been going on and continues to go on and what we’re seeing in the classroom and what’s going on in our schools with our students has really led us into that whole SEL. Right? Social Emotional Learning, that has been going on for a couple years, I would say the trend and the initiatives in that has been picking up steam, but it’s so important right now. Right? We’ve talked about SEL, there’s so many SEL initiatives. What does that look like with lessons and engaging SEL with our students? Then, Jonathan Juravich had that amazing SEL series, the podcast series through us, which is The Art of SEL, right? Isn’t that?

Tim: Yes, that’s correct. The Art of SEL.

Janet: Right. All these things are like really amazing, right? But when we are… Or I guess, and also, right? Not, but. Also, we have been seeing such an uptick in big… Maybe sometimes even characterized as explosive behaviors from our students. We’ve seen that in the past anyway from dysregulated kids, but we’re just seeing a lot more of that happening right now. Social Emotional Learning lessons are amazing, but what happens when you’re in the moment, right? The student is severely struggling and how are you to navigate that moment and diffuse it. Right? Our kids haven’t been in the classroom for over a year. Some of them haven’t right.

Tim: Yeah. Yep.

Janet: Maybe they’ve never been in a classroom. The days are longer. I don’t know about you. We’re exhausted. I can’t imagine how they’re feel. Right?

Tim: Everybody’s exhausted. Yes.

Janet: Yeah. There’s just a piece to that. Right? When we’re sitting there going like, “I was never trained to do any of this.” Now is the time to lean on our experts. That’s when I was like, “Hey, what do we do in the moment? I’ve got some ideas, but I know I need to lean on some experts I know.” That’s when I called in Chris and interviewed her because I really wanted to get that other side of what’s going on and how can we help our art teachers manage some of these things.

Tim: Yeah. Perfect. Well, and that is the perfect segue for me. Chris, we… Thank you for that, Janet. Chris, getting your perspective on all of these ideas, just as art teachers, we’re thinking of Social Emotional Learning as something we add on, like extra lessons we do, like Janet mentioned. But what does happen when we’re in the moment? Aren’t all of these deescalation techniques just exactly what Social Emotional Learning is all about.

Chris: Yeah. They are. There are those techniques that kids need to have in the moment and I think Social Emotional Learning is such a buzzword right now and for good reason, but at the same time, pulling a book out of a box or having a conversation about kindness, doesn’t always give kids the deescalation skills that they need. Those are things that de-escalation techniques are reactive, not just reactive. My words are all general today.

Tim: That’s okay.

Chris: Yeah. Social Emotional Learning shouldn’t just be reactive is where I’m trying to go. Instead of just looking and saying, “Kids are struggling. Kids need more support.” Let’s pull a curriculum out of a box. Let’s teach them how to be kind and how to be empathetic and all of those great things. That is great and wonderful and is absolutely needed, but we’re also seeing kids that don’t have experience in social situations. They don’t have experience in challenging academic situations. They haven’t developed their basic functional skills because of the pandemic for the last year and a half, so they haven’t been in as many soccer teams and mommy and me classes and park district classes and girl Scouts and all of these things, and so they are struggling more with self-regulation than they have before. On top of just mean these reactive strategies, part of Social Emotional Learning is also those proactive strategies. What can we do on the front end to facilitate learning for kids?

What can we do to create environments where kids feel safe, where they take a risk and it fails? How do we help them figure out how to get to work their way through it, rather than just having an adult swoop in and save the day and help the kid out, but then how do they know how to handle that situation the next time around? I think Social Emotion Learning is so important, but also have to be a little bit more aware of the proactive side of helping with the overall self-management and self-awareness, and self-regulation.

Tim: Yeah. That’s an excellent point. Actually, it made me think about another part of the article. Janet wrote that in our conversations with you talked about how student behavior is a type of communication when you’re talking about kids don’t have that, self-regulation, they can have trouble communicating. I guess the question is, how can we as teachers recognize our students communication needs and how can we use their behavior or what can we do to meet their needs when they’re struggling with that?

Chris: I think it’s listening to the behavior. The behavior is always telling us something. There is a reason why a child engages in every single be behavior. Typically, there are four functions to a behavior. They’re either attempting to escape something or avoid something that is really challenging, aversive uncomfortable for them. They’re attempting to gain attention either from an adult, from a peer. Sometimes it is sensory in nature. Then, the fourth function would be attempting to obtain tangible objects. When we think about behavior from that perspective, that there is some need in the child that every single behavior is meaning. If we want them, if the behavior that they are demonstrating or exhibiting is maladaptive, we can’t just make them stop the behavior.

We actually have to listen to what the behavior is telling us, notice what need is being met for that child, and then help the child come up with another behavior or replacement behavior that’s going to meet the same need, but it is more effective and more adaptive. Because when we just want them to stop, we’re not giving them what to do instead of, so those replacement behaviors are huge and we can’t get to the replacement behavior until we listen to what their kid is telling us with their behaviors in the first place.

Tim: That makes a lot of sense. Janet, let me ask you, just turning it back to the art room and specific strategies there. Once we have this communication piece figured out, we’re understanding why kids are behaving as they are. What strategies can we use? You listed a lot of different ones in your article. Can you maybe just pick one or two that you think work well and maybe give us an example or two as to how you could use those with students?

Janet: Right. First of all, all those strategies that are in the article and in the resource that you can download are all collected from research from Chris. There’s that. Then, really just picking, backing off of what she was saying is the first and foremost is always to lead with empathy. Right? Shifting that mindset in that article talks about that from a place of judgment about the student’s behavior, or what’s going on to a place of curiosity and trying to understand what’s going on. Like Chris said, understanding that communication. It just goes along with the reframe your assumption, which is in that handout. For example, if a student doesn’t understand something, we’re teaching them, right? We don’t sit there and shame them and say like, “What’s wrong with you?” Maybe in our heads after like a million times repeating it, right? We’re not going to say that and shame them. Right?

Tim: Right.

Janet: What works for me is to think about what’s the way that I can communicate this so that the student understands this? Right? The behavior is the same way. What’s the way right now or what’s in the way right now that’s causing the students big feelings, right? What’s the obstacle that they’re trying to hurdle? Right? Once you have that understanding, I think that’s first place to always go to and try to get yourself there. That’s easy to practice because you’re not actually doing anything, right?

Tim: Right.

Janet: It’s more on your own self. You’re not doing something with the kid to understand that. Once you get that, then I feel like the next thing is to identify the problem, what is that problem where it’s coming from and so that you can address it. For example, maybe a student is frustrated with their fine motor skills, maybe a concept is too complex or confusing. Right? We can offer things like controlled choices. That’s a real big one. In my classroom is a choice-based teacher. I like to give choices, but sometimes that can be really overwhelming and cause more problems and escalate the problem. Right?

Tim: Right.

Janet: If a student’s frustrated and maybe you don’t know why they’re frustrated, they might not be able to articulate why they’re upset or why they’re stuck. You can’t expect them to be able to just identify that for you or help you with that necessarily. But let’s just say, it’s really easy to identify something they’re gluing down their artwork and the glues getting everywhere. Right? Their hands are sticking to everything that they touch. That’s like a pretty common thing I think. Right?

Tim: Yes. For sure.

Janet: Now we know we can see why the kid is melting down. As a teacher, I might be melting down, but instead of getting angry at the mess that’s happening, which would definitely escalate that situation, it’s a moment to take a breath, state the facts that are going on and offer maybe two choices, instead of saying something like, “I can’t believe you’re doing that. Go fix it.” That’s just too open ended for them.

Tim: Right. Right.

Janet: Instead you could say, “Oh, man, that glue is really misbehaving today. That must be frustrating for you. What if we try a glue stick or how about I show another way to use the glue so that it stays put, what do you think?” That’s identifying… I mean, basically here in this small little section, we’re separating the behavior from the child, we’re acknowledging and validating their feelings. We provide controlled choice to move forward so that we feel good about it, they feel good about it. If that’s not enough, you can always toss in and if this, then that incentive, and that is also in that resource explains that too.

Chris: I would jump in on the choices thing.

Janet: Oh, go ahead. Yes.

Tim: Yeah.

Chris: Just to circle back to that, because I think that controlled choices sometimes for some teachers feels like they’re letting the kid run the show, right? And they’re letting them do whatever they want. They also sometimes feel like it has to be this activity or that activity, but there are so many ways to do choices. It can be where to start. It can be what supplies to use. It can be where to sit when they’re doing the task. It can be when they’re doing the task. It can be who they do task with. It can be which task to complete first or in what order. There are so many different ways to add in choices, and that is so important. Especially if we’re talking about trauma-informed kids when they feel a loss of control, they try to create control.

When you give them choices, you’re giving them control in a way that is going to work for you as the adult and allows them to feel a little of a sense of safety and control of the situation. Just to circle back to your point about choices, Janet, I think that there are so many different ways to use choices that can help with preventing escalation from the start that people maybe don’t realize, and they get stuck on thinking it has to be, “You can do this task or that task.” It doesn’t have to be, it can be the way, “You do the task. Where do you do the task? When you do the task?” There’s a lot of other ways to offer choices.

Janet: That’s a really good point.

Tim: I was just going to say, that’s an awesome point. Thank you, Chris. Janet, can I ask you about one other one before we move on?

Janet: Sure.

Tim: I really like the idea with questioning to unpack. Can you just talk about that really quickly?

Janet: I love this one too, because I love asking. I feel like it’s a great way to get kids to talk and think about their own actions and choices, whatever it is. Right? The idea behind that, and maybe Chris could talk probably a little bit more about that specifically, but the idea is asking them questions so that they can start to understand where they’re coming from and how to address that moving forward. The only thing that I will say difficult is that if you get a kid and I’ve experienced this, right? Where if you have a kid who’s really regulated, right? The zero to 60 approach questions can be really provoking for them and actually cause escalation in my experience. They have to be done at the right time to address the kids’ space and time that they have to address that.

Right? You have to be aware of what’s going on with the student and you have to be intuitive of that. I think that can be really hard. You got a lot of things going on.

Tim: Yeah. For sure.

Janet: I was thinking about Chris talking about the choices. Right? I was thinking, “Man, that’s a lot of things to think about.” I really feel like you have to practice these and not just think like, “Okay. I’m just going to pull them out of a hat or out of this resource is great, but how do you actually authentically do it as opposed to trying to execute them when the kid is totally dysregulated?”

Tim: Yeah. Well, actually, Chris, let me ask you about, are there ways that teachers can practice this? What are some effective ways to help teachers remember how to do this in their classroom? How can they remember what to do to de-escalate in the moment in their classroom?

Chris: I think a lot of that starts with practicing skills in a safe space, right? Which is usually with your work person. When you are problem-solving a challenging situation that came up in your classroom and afterward going and talking to somebody at work that gets your job, that understands that you have a good rapport with and having a conversation about it and then practicing those skills even in that conversation using empathy. If your coworkers coming to you with a challenging situation, same thing, then you have an opportunity to practice that empathy to ask questions to unpack the situation to try to get more information about what happened and how they responded and how they were feeling.

If you’re practicing these skills with your coworkers, you’re going to build your own fluency in these and they’re going to become more comfortable for you and become more natural in the classroom setting. The more that you practice that, the more that you’re going to be able to draw on those a little bit quicker and use them to intervene more effectively in future similar situations after you’ve debriefed something that you’ve been through. It simply…

Tim: Oh, go ahead. Go ahead. I’m sorry.

Chris: I was just going to say, circling back to Janet was talking about curiosity a little bit earlier and I think when in doubt, just be curious and ask questions. I think a couple of my favorite words when it comes to this are notice and wonder, and those are words that I even use with children. I’m noticing that you are and then giving them the opportunity to say, “No. That’s not how I’m feeling. That’s not what I’m doing.” Because then I’m not imposing my own judgment on them, but they’re going to give me more and they’re going to tell me what’s going on. Then also, I’m wondering if you’re feeling this. If I was in this situation, I would feel this. I wonder if you’re feeling that and when you get stuck at any point in time, if you go by to those two things and you notice and you wonder what’s happening with the child, most of the time they’re going to give you that information.

Tim: Those are some really, really good strategies there. Chris, I wanted to ask you also before we get to feeling like we can do everything and solve all the problems in the art room. I think it’s important to remember that, as our teachers, we’re not equipped to handle all of the trauma that, that some of our kids might be bringing with them into the classroom. Getting your perspective, can you talk about why we as teachers need to lean on our support system? Why we need to bring in the people who do have that expertise and who are those people? How can we best have them support us?

Chris: First and foremost, I think it’s an issue of safety for the kids, right? It’s knowing where our area of competence is and knowing what our skill set is and reaching out to others when we are in a situation that’s just a little bit bigger than what we’ve been trained for. I think in schools, we have this wonderful opportunity of being in a building typically with a bunch of experts and people who have different experience and different backgrounds and different training. Anytime that you’re facing these challenging situations, reach out to the people in your building, reach out to your team and have collaborative conversations and do problem-solving together. Even if you don’t have a mental health professional in your building, having conversations with other people that have again different experience, different background, different training. The more minds you put together, the more creative solutions you’re going to come up with. But in a lot of buildings, hopefully there are social workers.

There are school psychologist counselors, even occupational therapists. When we’re talking about sensory stuff or attention. Even speech pathologists sometimes can help with the language piece that can lead to escalation. Then, some districts are even lucky enough to have a behavior analyst, which is a bonus. Really reaching out to those people. They are trained mental health professionals, behavioral health professionals that are absolutely going to be open and willing to sitting down and collaborating and having conversations about how to support the kids in the classroom and how to support the teachers.

I was just going to say when it comes to trauma, I think too. When you talk about the trauma that kids are coming forward with, and really also thinking about the fact that everything about the last year for a lot of the kids that we are seeing in classrooms was traumatic, whether they know it or not. We, as educators, as adults in their lives, we don’t have to quantify or qualify the trauma. We don’t even have to know what it is. All we have to do is recognize that there may have been something in their life that was traumatic for them and that they are experiencing as a traumatic experience.

If we just recognize that’s possible and we open up our classroom to these trauma informed strategies, they’re good for all kids. They’re good for all learners. We don’t have to be the expert to be able to recognize when there has been trauma present. But if we get in the habit of using these trauma-informed strategies like, providing choice and pre alerting to changes and things like that, then we’re going to see kids who are a little bit more resilient and feel a little bit safer in these learning environments.

Tim: Okay. That’s a really good point. I do want to circle back to something that you were talking about, Chris. You talked about all of the social workers, school psychologists, counselors, maybe even behavior specialists. I know there are a lot of people who are listening right now and be like, “I wish I had even one of those supports at my school.” What suggestions would you have for teachers who may not have that type of support staff available in their schools? How can they address these issues or who can they collaborate with?

Chris: I would still say to collaborate with your team, to talk to other teachers, to talk to administrators, any other specialists that you have in the building that you have access to. Because again, the more that you’re collaborating, the more brains that you put together, the more creative you’re going to be able to be as a team. I also think it’s really important to have clear and consistent communication with parents, especially when you don’t have those additional services or specialists in the building. Because the more information you give to parents, A, they can possibly give you information back. I mean, they know their kids better than anybody else, right? If we’re letting them know, “Hey, I’m noticing that your child is struggling a little bit when this is happening. What have you tried at home? What has worked at home?” We’d love to try to incorporate some of those things at school.

Sometimes just getting treating the parent as an expert in their own child, because they are, can give you a lot of information, but it also lets parents know if there is a challenge going on at school that they don’t have line of sight to. If you are clearly and consistently communicating that to parents, it gives them the opportunity to stop and go, “Hey, wait a minute. I didn’t know my kid was struggling like this. Maybe I do want to get them some extra support outside of school since it’s maybe not available in the school setting.” That’s really important too, because then parents have the information to know and to move forward if they want to seek outside support like therapy.

Tim: All right. Then, Janet, I know you’ve been part of some of those teams before, just in your role as an art teacher and I believe 504 specialist.

Janet: Right. 504 coordinator. Yep.

Tim: I don’t remember exactly what you’re doing. Yes. That’s a long way of me saying, do you have anything else to add? In your experience, is there anything more that you think is worthwhile for teachers to do?

Janet: I would say just in general, I think finding resources, I’m sure Chris probably has a bunch of books that she could recommend and whatnot, but I think this is a good opportunity too. Especially if you don’t have this support staff at school to reach out to your administration and say, “Hey, I think it would be beneficial if we got some professional development in here on this, or connect with any local supports outside of school, your community that you could bring in, have a conversation, help support you guys.” In that way, I think is a big piece.

Chris: There are a lot of times local agencies that do provide behavioral health support will do professional development opportunities in school. Sometimes we’ll even do them for free because it is basically free advertising for them. But for example, like Linden Oaks in Naperville, I know has goes out to school districts and provides professional development. In Elmhurst, we’ve had people from [inaudible 00:27:46] and Chicago come out, we worked with the Center for Creative Arts Therapy. A lot of these local agencies will send someone over to a school district to provide specific training and they will even tailor it to the needs of the teachers and create a presentation that’s specific to that group of teachers. Reaching out to local agencies that provide any type of behavioral health support probably will result in some pretty good options for professional development.

Tim: All right, nice. Now, Chris, before we get out of here, I do need to put you on the spot. Janet mentioned that you may have some suggestions for books.

Do you have anything that you can share with our teachers? If they’re interested in learning more suggestions for what they can check out?

Chris: Yeah. I think one of my… Or two of my favorites when it comes to understanding the fight flight or freeze, which is what’s going on in a child in their brain when they’re having these big emotional moments is there’s one book, but called Fostering Resilient Learners. That really is trauma inform strategies specifically for teachers. Then, Ross Greene’s work. Dr. Ross Greene, he wrote The Explosive Child. He wrote Lost At School, Help for Billy. He’s got some great books on understanding those big emotional reactions and then Brain Science too is fabulous. The whole brain child goes into all of the brain science and what happens in the brain that causes the amygdala to go offline and causes some of these big emotional reactions.

Then, my last one, Yardsticks is a book that actually goes through just the different developmental stages and it goes through social development, language development, motor development by age, and it’s a really quick read and a great resource. it gives you a great understanding of exactly what skills child should have at each age, which can help teachers make some informed decisions about what they can do or what they should be able to do and what they maybe developmentally are not able to do yet. Just another great resource.

Tim: Oh, those are all awesome. Thank you. I think we’ll wrap it up there. Janet, Chris, thank you both so much for coming on. I think this is a great conversation. I think it’ll be… I don’t know, given me a lot to think about, and I think everybody who’s listening has a lot to reflect on a lot to think about here too. Thank you both for coming on.

Janet: Thanks for having me.

Chris: Thank you.

Tim: There is a lot to take in from that conversation, but I think the part toward the end might be the most important. Not only can you not do this alone, you aren’t trained to do alone. You shouldn’t do this alone. You can, and you should call on help from the professionals that are trained to help your school or your district, probably has the experts you need, but no matter your situation, no matter what’s happening in your school or in your school district, it’s worth reach out to who you can and getting their assistance. In the meantime, deescalation strategies are helpful. They can help your students feel heard and acknowledged and validated.

Think about what we talked about today and what might work for you, what might work for your students, what work for your classroom. Go check out Janet’s article on the AOEU website and the download that comes with it. That outlines a lot of good strategies. We’ll link to that in the show notes, of course, as well as put links to some of the books that Chris referenced. Overall, I hope this conversation and these suggestions and these resources can help you and help your students as we continue to navigate this school year and all of the challenges that have come with it.

Art Ed Radio was produced by the Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you for listening and we’ll talk to you again 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.