The role of an educational assistant (or a teacher’s aide or paraprofessional) is to watch for potential problems and prevent escalation when possible.
With this in mind, it’s important for EAs to develop appropriate skills to manage crisis situations. EAs need the ability to intervene proactively before a crisis occurs.
The following characteristics are important to embody when interacting with students with behavioral challenges:
- Openness, care, and empathy
By embodying these characteristics, you can work with students to help mold their behavior while helping make sure that their needs are being met.
We find the following strategies useful when intervening appropriately in an escalating situation. A good way to start is building a tool kit of go-to strategies to use when students become agitated. By employing these strategies, you move from reacting to emergency situations to responding to them.
1. Active listening
It’s important to take into account what students are saying verbally and paraverbally. It’s vital to try and really understand what they’re asking for. Listen for feelings, not just facts.
To engage in active listening, we must acknowledge that each person has their own truth. When you acknowledge that the other person has experiences that are different than yours, it’s easier to find common ground to move forward in behavioral change.
Consider engaging in a Genuine Encounter Moment. You can do this by:
- Giving the student total and complete focus
- Giving eye contact and having a friendly and open expression on your face
- Listening closely
- Withholding judgment
Children overwhelmingly are exposed to many more negative comments in a day than positive ones. Some studies show that 90% of comments directed to children are negative or directive. The more you can genuinely engage with your students in an authentic way, the more they feel respected and valued. And this authentic engagement will positively impact their behavior.
2. Set clear limits
Students need to know what they’re allowed and not allowed to do. They need to have predictable limits to help them make sense of their world, help them feel secure, and provide them with guidance for acceptable behavior. There are four things to consider when setting limits:
- Avoid using fear, intimidation, obligation, and guilt.
- Clearly state the specific boundary with a corresponding consequence.
- The corresponding consequence should be a logical or natural consequence that results from not following the limit, and it should be enforceable.
- Avoid a power struggle.
3. Sidestep power struggles
A power struggle occurs when two people hold different ideas and both are unwilling to compromise. Sometimes the best approach to dealing with power struggles is to avoid them. Instead of trying to force students to do what you want, try using these alternatives:
- Establish an agenda for the day.
- Find a common interest and build on that interest.
- Be friendly. Smile!
- Use a one-word direction.
- Remember that “No” is a complete sentence.
- Provide choice.
- Find a win-win. Compromise.
- Brainstorm solutions.
4. Meet their physical and emotional needs
It’s important to teach students to become self-aware and to engage in self-care. When your students’ physical needs are not being met, they have the potential to escalate into aggressive or acting-out behaviors. A handy way to teach children to remember their physical needs is to use the acronym HALT.
- H – Hungry. Hunger can be a physical or an emotional need. If the hunger is physical, offer nutritious snacks. If the hunger is emotional, help them name the emotional need they’re feeling.
- A – Angry. Anger is a normal, healthy emotion. Anger becomes destructive when people express it inappropriately. It’s important to name the emotion and to explore what’s causing it. Offer solutions like mediating if the student is angry at another person. Physical activity also helps with feelings of anger. Go for a walk. Go to the gym. Do some push-ups.
- L – Lonely. Loneliness can occur both in a crowd and by oneself. Students with emotional regulation issues and behavior disorders withdraw into themselves for a variety of reasons. If you notice your student is withdrawn, engage them in conversation. Reach out and engage in active listening. Help the student connect with a peer.
- T – Tired. When we’re tired, we find it difficult to cope. Problems seem bigger; the world seems more hostile when we’re tired. If your student feels tired, encourage them to rest or to take a short nap. If that’s not possible, go for a walk around the block or encourage them to take a couple of deep breaths.
5. Daily physical activity
Exercise is an important tool to help students manage both their physical and mental health. Exercise is an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression, anxiety, and stress. Exercise releases endorphins that make you feel good. It promotes neural growth and releases tension. It also allows students to focus on physical activity and interrupt negative thinking. As an added benefit, it improves memory, enhances self-esteem, and improves sleep.
Take your students for a walk through the halls; use the fitness facilities in your school. Even jogging on the spot and doing push-ups and jumping jacks can boost endorphins and reduce tension.
Participate in physical activity with your students. Be a role model for positive behavioral change. Build daily physical activity into the school day. Make moving a lifelong habit.
6. Mindfulness and breathing exercises
Mindful breathing is the process of focusing your attention on your breathing and nothing else. You concentrate on the process of your breath moving in and out of your body. The results of mindfulness are stress relief, decreased blood pressure, and improved sleep. It has been used to help in the treatment of depression, eating disorders, anxiety, and substance abuse.
There are many examples of breathing exercises that can be found on the Internet. Here we offer one strategy to get you started.
- Inhale fully. Place your hands on your belly and breathe in slowly through your nose.
- Feel your belly fill up as if it’s filled with a giant balloon.
- Exhale fully. Open your mouth and blow all of the air out of your body.
- Let your belly get flat like an empty balloon.
- Repeat five times.
7. Catch them being good
Sometimes negative behavior is the only way that students can communicate their needs to you. It may be the only way they know how to get your attention. Instead of reinforcing the negative behavior, try to catch them being good. The goal here is to praise the positive behaviors and neutralize or ignore the negative behaviors.
Steps for catching a student being good:
- Identify the negative or disruptive behavior (one or two behaviors).
- Identify the times when the negative or disruptive behavior occurs in the classroom.
- Identify fixed time intervals through the course of the day in which you will assess to see if your student is engaging in negative behavior.
- If, at those fixed intervals, the student is not engaged in the negative behavior, praise them or reward them.
- If, at those fixed intervals, the student is engaged in the negative behaviors, ignore the behavior (if at all possible).
- Direct your attention to those students who are acting appropriately and give them praise/rewards.
8. Model prosocial skills
Prosocial skills are those behaviors that we engage in that benefit others. These behaviors include cooperation, sharing work, sharing toys, and emotionally supporting others who are in distress.
Students who have behavior disorders often have not developed strong prosocial skills. You can support prosocial skill development by:
- Being a positive role model. The more that students see positive adult interactions, the more likely they are to engage in such activities themselves.
- Talking through common social situations and providing feedback about appropriate social interaction.
- Role-playing. Have students act out social situations and appropriate responses.
- Encouraging structured social play between peers. Play is one of the best ways to encourage sharing, cooperation, and helping.
9. Offer choices instead of giving orders
Offering students choices instead of giving an order elicits their cooperation. Choices communicate that their EA/paraprofessional respects them and their opinions. It provides an opportunity for students to build responsibility and be empowered.
Use these guidelines when offering choice to your student:
- Provide two positive options.
- Be clear and specific.
- Make sure that both choices are acceptable and feasible.
When your students are comfortable making choices, modify this choice by using the “First/Then.”
You can use First/Then in this way:
- Present the student with a work task that needs to be accomplished.
- Give the student a choice of two options that they would like to engage in after the work task is completed. It could include:
- Computer time
- Time in the playground
- When the student has completed the work task, allow them to engage in the second “reward” task.
Using First/Then promotes delayed gratification. It enforces the idea that first work has to occur before they are rewarded with a choice task.
10. Alter the volume and cadence of your voice
Often we overlook how we can affect the emotional state of our students. Emotions can be infectious. When we are angry, aggravated, excited, anxious, or nervous, these emotional states can impact the state of escalation of our students.
If you notice that your student is escalating and becoming visibly agitated, try these techniques to control your own emotions:
- Lower the volume of your voice and speak more quietly. As you speak more quietly, your student will have to become quieter to hear you.
- Alter the cadence of your voice and speak more slowly.
- Modulate your tone of voice and be calm and supportive.
- Simplify your vocabulary.
Remember that as your student starts to escalate, they’re starting to lose rationality. Speaking loudly and quickly will increase their agitation.
We’ve offered some skills to develop in order to help you respond to escalating behavior. When you’re in the presence of an escalated student, the first thing to realize is that you are actively managing the crisis situation. You are controlling your own behavior. You are making decisions that will impact how the situation unfolds.
Remember, the outcome of the situation will be impacted by the strategies that you use to de-escalate the agitated student.
Take a deep breath and calm yourself. Don’t react to the situation. Use the strategies described above to respond to it. Use your tool kit to help support your student.
Jennifer Taylor is a long-time behavior learning assistance teacher. Michael Edward and Abu Jabbie are both experienced Educational Assistants. They work in a specialized program that’s designed to meet the needs of students who have severe behavior disorders.
Jennifer has extensive experience teaching students with special needs and First Nations students. She has a master’s in Education with a focus on School Improvement and Leadership, specifically looking at interventions that improve the school experience for at-risk youth. Jen has been a CPI Certified Instructor since 2007.
Michael has a nursing background and has worked extensively with individuals with mental health disorders. Michael has a bachelor’s degree in Health Education from the University of Benin in Nigeria. He has worked in school, institutional, and group home settings. He has been a CPI Certified Instructor since 2015.
Abu Jabbie is a long-time EA who has worked in school, institutional, and group home settings. Abu immigrated as a refugee from Sierra Leone in 2004. He attended the University of Winnipeg and studied Economics. He is trained as a Child and Youth Worker.
Both Michael and Abu are skilled EAs who have the ability to connect with students to build therapeutic relationships.