De-escalating Conflicts and Aggravating Behaviors that Sprout in Spring

One of the major problems with addressing annoying and conflicting behaviors before they escalate to the level of aggravation is the dynamic manner in which they affect teachers and students. An annoying behavior at one time can lead to aggravation, while the same annoyance can be easily ignored other times. Some days a teacher, because of the many facets of human nature and dynamics of the classroom, is able and willing to show more tolerance and patience. Even more frustrating and confusing for students, aggravating behaviors of one student might be overlooked more often than when the same behavior is exhibited by another student. This can happen because of bias, teacher preferences, other students’ reactions to the behavior, prior behavior history, or the level of disruption accompanying the behavior and its duration.  Some behaviors that are acceptable of young children and considered part of the maturation process become aggravating and unacceptable with age. Pouting, tattling, and whining are perfect examples of annoying behaviors that become major aggravations and cause significant conflicts with age when students are expected to demonstrate more self-control, acceptable replacement behaviors, and coping mechanisms.

What are the common aggravating behaviors that are typically exhibited in classrooms? They vary with age groups and cover a wide range of behaviors.  The most common behaviors identified as aggravating by teachers are those that are annoying and detract from instruction and learning while not meriting removal from the classroom and include, but are not limited to:

  • passing notes
  • texting/misuse of technology
  • humming
  • talking back or sassing
  • singing or making sounds/noises
  • ignoring or failing to follow directives or instructions the first time they are given
  • inattentiveness
  • roughhousing and horseplay
  • name calling/racial slurs
  • putting down or agitating others
  • tapping or breaking objects
  • purposely delaying activities
  • whining and complaining
  • throwing objects
  • getting out of one’s seat
  • bothering other students’ materials and belongings
  • making faces or inappropriate facial expressions or gestures
  • tattling to get others in trouble

When exhibited repeatedly and consistently over time, the annoyance becomes an aggravation that tests the patience and self-control of the teacher and other students.

(Note: Teachers who work with students with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome and other behavior disorders need to be aware that repeated motions, such as rocking, tapping feet or pencils, etc. are common behaviors for these students and serve as a calming device during stressful situations. When instructed to stop the behavior, more often than not, the behavior actually exacerbates through no intended fault or purposeful act on the part of the student, but rather as a characteristic of the disorder.)

So if the behavior is so annoying and causes so much conflict, why does it occur so frequently?  Well, for one, it’s rewarding for the students exhibiting the behavior and usually for their audience. They get the attention they craved. There is also a sense of power or control gained when you are the one getting all the attention and focus while inflicting others with embarrassment, fear, or intimidation. Exhibiting negative behavior in a classroom setting tends to elicit attention more readily and consistently than what occurs when exhibiting positive behaviors since teachers typically focus more on the negative behaviors. The short term satisfaction gained is more valued than the impending consequences.  Students might also be using the behavior as an avoidance technique to delay working on an undesirable task, a task that they perceive as too difficult or challenging, or one that others might perceive them as struggling in academically, physically, or socially.

Teachers can make mistakes when trying to correct these types of behavior causing the problems to escalate and become major classroom disruptions. Since these aggravating behaviors often provoke emotional reactions in teachers, the result is typically an attack on the individual and not the behavior. Teachers often resort to yelling or even using sarcasm and humiliating language in hopes of embarrassing the student enough to stop the behavior. Teachers often engage in argumentative exchanges that produce power struggles, or threaten and plead with students for compliance. Others try to ignore the behavior which typically prolongs it and engages more students as the audience. Other missteps are getting classmates involved for influence or support and encouraging them to ostracize or gang up on the student for retaliation. Some teachers resort to making threats or consequences that cannot be enforced or are inappropriate for the behavior like keeping everyone after class or assigning the whole class extra work. The vast majority of teachers will tell you these techniques seldom work.

To overcome these missteps, teachers need to work on developing not only coping skills, but practical strategies to use to minimize the occurrence of the conflict and refine their ability to redirect the behavior with minimal disruption to the classroom learning environment.  It is important to develop and follow a structured process when de-escalating a situation. Here are some steps in this process:

  • Teachers should acknowledge students’ feeling when they are upset and listen to their concerns.
  • The use of diffusing statements can calm students. (e.g. “I can see you are angry, but throwing books is not acceptable. Take a few moments to regroup and then we can talk.” or “We don’t use that language in this classroom, so I’m going to let you calm down before we talk.”)
  • Try to use a mild manner and positive body language and tone.
  • Ask more “what” questions to get to the root cause of the problem (What is upsetting you? What are you doing? What should you be doing? What are our expectations?) “Why” questions are more accusatory and blaming and often get the response, “I don’t know,” which leads to additional frustration.
  • By establishing a respectful environment and calmly but consistently disallowing sarcasm, put-downs, and name calling on each and every occasion they occur will reduce the frequency. Students will quickly learn it is not an acceptable behavior in your classroom.
  • Time should also be spent on teaching alternative, acceptable replacement behaviors such as:
    • “Wait, Think, React”
    • Cool-down time
    • Backward counting from ten
    • “What Would You Do?”
    • Self-removal to a quiet location in the room, etc.
    • Journal writing thoughts and emotions

If you model a consistent, equitable, and definitive approach when dealing with difficult behaviors, you will be better able to address and resolve troublesome issues in the classroom.