One of my favorite things about teaching is that no matter how long you’ve been in the classroom, each class has its own unique personality and set of needs. Because of this, every September brings new opportunities and challenges, especially with classroom management. Inevitably, situations will escalate in the classroom, such as when students refuse to do work or challenge authority. As we prepare for a new school year, the Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI) shares these de-escalation tips for teachers to help us respond effectively when students push our buttons.

1. Be empathetic and nonjudgmental

Try to not judge or dismiss students’ feelings when they’re in distress. Remember that their feelings are real, whether or not we think those feelings are justified (Is this assignment really ruining your life?). Respect those feelings, keeping in mind that whatever the person is going through could be the most important event in their life at the moment. Also, the root of the student’s struggles might not be in the assignment. Chances are that the student is upset about something else and needs our support and encouragement.

2. Avoid overreacting

Try to stay calm, rational, and professional (I know, not always easy). While we can’t control students’ behavior, how we respond to it has a direct effect on whether the situation escalates or defuses. Positive thoughts like “I can handle this” and “I know what to do” helps us maintain our own rationality and calm the student down. It’s OK to take a minute to gather our thoughts. When we pause, we prepare ourselves to respond rather than react to classroom conflicts.

“Our students look to us to set the tone in the classroom,” says John Kellerman, a former middle school teacher and assistant principal who now works for CPI. “If we focus on what we can control, and highlight the positives, good things follow. When we highlight the negatives, fear and anxiety follow.”

3. Set positive limits

One of the most helpful things we can do when a student is misbehaving or acting out in class is to give them respectful, simple, and reasonable limits. If a student argues with us, we might say, “I care about you too much to argue. I’ll be happy to discuss this with you as soon as the arguing stops.” When a student yells, we can try saying, “I’ll be able to listen as soon as your voice is as calm as mine.” If a student won’t do their work, we set a positive limit and say, “After your work is done, you’ll have five free minutes to talk.”

4. Ignore challenging questions

Sometimes when a student’s behavior is escalating, they challenge our authority. They might say things like, “You aren’t my mom!” or “You can’t make me do anything!” Engaging with students who ask challenging questions is rarely productive. When a student challenges our authority, redirect their attention to the issue at hand. Ignore the challenge, but not the person. Bring their focus back to how you can work together to solve the problem. So when a student says, “You aren’t my mom!” we can say, “Yes. You’re right. I’m not your mom. But I am your teacher, and I’d like us to work together so you can be successful on this assignment.”

Want more de-escalation tips for teachers?

How we respond to our students’ behavior is often the key to defusing it. CPI’s Top 10 De-Escalation Tips is filled with even more simple and effective strategies to help teachers stay calm, manage their own responses, prevent physical confrontations, and more.