Strategies to Deescalate Aggression & Violence at School

Instructor: Della McGuire

Della has been teaching secondary and adult education for over 20 years. She holds a BS in Sociology, MEd in Reading, and is ABD on the MComm in Storytelling.

In this lesson, we will discuss strategies that school staff can use with students to help them work through aggression. We will discuss how to recognize and avoid situations that may escalate into violence and how to deescalate these situations when they occur.

It's About to Hit the Fan

The tension in the room becomes palpable. A student's hand clenches to make a fist. They bend their elbows so their arms are around waist level. Their nostrils flare. Their eyes get wide and pupils dilate. Sweat forms on their forehead. Breathing gets audibly fast and shallow. Their chest heaves, and their shoulders square off, pushing their chest out even farther. Other students begin to notice too, and their eyes dart around the room uncomfortably, looking for an exit. You freeze for a just a nanosecond wondering what to do to deescalate the situation before violence occurs.

Understanding Violence

To help students work through aggression and avoid violence, we must first understand where violence comes from and how it functions to keep us safe. It may sound counterintuitive that violence makes us safe, but when you recognize violence as a response to danger in the fight-flight-freeze mechanism of the brain, then it makes a little more sense.

When someone encounters a potentially dangerous situation, their brain may choose to fight and engage in violence. It may choose flight by running away like the students who look for the exit, or it may choose to freeze and do nothing, like a deer in headlights or a teacher who is unprepared to act.

The brain makes this 'choice' automatically and without thinking, compelling the person to react before considering the implications of the choice their brains have made for them. It's automatic. Many of the strategies to deescalate violence rely on being mindful of the brain's automatic response to a potential threat and disrupting that process to defuse that threat.

Let's look at a few ways you can redirect a student who is aggressive and becoming violent.

Stop and Think

If you are in a situation where the potential for violence is impending, it may be necessary to intervene immediately. This can be intimidating because yelling 'Stop!' might actually startle the student enough to get them to start swinging. A better strategy might be to do something silly and unexpected, like breaking out into show tunes or starting to dance. This manufactures a more lighthearted atmosphere and shifts the focus onto you.

A more subtle approach is asking the student to count to 10 until they can relax their body. This is a good opportunity to explain how the brain responds to protect us from danger. Encourage students to be in control of their brains rather than letting this process hijack their bodies. Avoid sudden movements or getting within arm's reach of a student who is poised for a fight.

Talk it Out

Once you have everyone's attention, remind students of the consequences of their actions. For example, hitting someone could result in suspension or injury. Tell them there's no danger. If you are the source of their anger, it may be necessary to include another adult like a teacher or administrator to mediate.

When you are talking to aggressive or violent students, speak in calm, measured, smooth tones. If your voice becomes elevated, theirs will match it. People mirror the speech and language patterns of whomever they are talking to, so ensure your voice is a calm one to mimic. Identify the source of what triggered the fight response and remove that source.

Just Breathe!

Someone who is in an agitated state might get more agitated if they are reminded to breathe. One's breathing becomes fast and shallow so breathing slowly is critical to avoid hyperventilation. Model deep breathing and encourage any onlookers to join in. One strategy is to provide a visual rhythm they can follow. For example, raise and lower your arms with each breath. Never breathe into a bag because you can suffocate due to the lack of oxygen.

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