A Trauma-Informed Approach to De-escalation

October 2, 2023

Trauma-informed care provides educators with a framework to help them understand and appropriately respond to the various ways in which trauma can impact a student’s behavior. By understanding what trauma-induced behavior is communicating, educators can support students and address challenging situations in positive ways and keep situations from escalating.

These skills are especially important for educators as Dr. Kevin Mabie, Ed.D., points out, “The horrible truth is that once students get to middle school and high school, and of course as adults, we get really good at hiding what is going on under the surface. We hide our day-to-day anxieties, and we keep our past trauma hidden.”

CPI training stresses that all behavior is a form of communication. And while students might be good at hiding their trauma, their behavior is one way they may be subconsciously asking for help.

Today we’ll explore three reasons why your school or district should adopt a trauma-informed approach to de-escalation because it can help staff:

  • Remain in the moment and not take words or actions personally
  • Keep from re-traumatizing students
  • Decrease the likelihood of a crisis escalating or even happening in the first place

A Trauma-Informed Approach to De-escalation Helps You Stay in the Moment

When a crisis or challenging situation happens in the classroom, it’s easy for the emotional brain to take over control. But a trauma-informed mindset can help educators mentally take a step back and focus on what is happening.

Dr. Kevin Mabie explains that, “As an educator, it becomes even more important to be trauma informed and trauma sensitive, and to be looking at the reason behind the behavior. That mindset allows me to approach challenging behaviors a whole lot differently than if I decide to just deal with it at face value.”

CPI’s Crisis Development ModelSM is one tool that can help educators decode what a student’s behavior is communicating and how to best respond. “That piece alone enables educators to look at behavior and know that there is a positive staff response that I can utilize,” shared Dr. Kevin Mabie. “It’s a mental model that keeps people in their prefrontal cortex.”

By remaining in the prefrontal cortex, or the logical part of the brain, educators can think through what kind of support is needed. For example, the Crisis Development ModelSM gives educators the tools to see that:

  • If a student is anxious, educators can offer to talk with a student to see how they can help.
  • If a student is being defensive, educators can offer choices to help the student be part of the solution.
  • If a student is displaying risk behavior, educators can take appropriate safety interventions like asking for help from colleagues or remove bystanders.
  • And if a student has reached tension reduction, educators can offer to talk through what happened or give the student space.

These simple tips can help educators stay in the moment and avoid increasing the risk of crisis escalation.

A Trauma-Informed Approach to De-escalation Reduces Risk of Retraumatization

Retraumatization is reliving the stress reactions experienced because of the initial traumatic event. However, many students may not actively realize that their response to a current stress event could be linked to a previous trauma. For this reason, adopting a trauma-informed approach to de-escalation can help put educators in the shoes of their students to offer empathetic support during challenging situations.

For example, let’s say a student in your classroom argues with you about the deadline of a particular project. What you might not know is that this student is already feeling stressed because other classes have big projects due around the same time. And the student is feeling stressed at home because they have important deadlines to manage as they take care of their younger siblings.

If you were to argue back, insisting that the student meet the deadline, it could retraumatize that student by recalling fears they had when they couldn’t meet deadlines to help support their younger siblings. From there, the conversation could escalate, turning to defensive or risk behavior.

But a trauma-informed approach can offer you the wisdom to approach the student with empathy, even if you don’t know all the background information.

“[CPI training] helps me recognize how I think and where my behaviors are rooted so that I can walk into a classroom and be my best self,” Dr. Kevin Mabie said. “With the curriculum I can now recognize behavior and know how to respond to it.”

Trauma-Informed Care for Educators

This educator-specific trauma-informed care guide will give you a deeper awareness of trauma’s effects on behaviour, tips for how to prevent vicarious trauma, de-escalation preferences form to use with students and colleagues, and more.


A Trauma-informed Approach to De-escalation Decreases Likelihood of Crisis

As educators, you can apply your understanding of trauma to the design and setup of your classroom. You can help create a classroom culture that is welcoming, understanding, and empathetic. And as more staff gain trauma-informed skills, you can positively shape the culture of your school or district.

“I think that when teachers or educators can come together and be open minded to wanting to be the most trauma-sensitive people possible, they can have some amazing conversations that truly make things better,” shared Dr. Kevin Mabie.

While you can’t fully remove stress and anxiety from your student’s lives, you can create trauma-informed environments that proactively reduce stressors and promote student well-being. Because when students know they are supported socially and emotionally it reduces the likelihood of crisis and can even boost academic scores. And if tensions do arise, you can use your trauma-informed skills to quickly help a student by giving them the support they need to succeed.

The following resources and guides can help you create a positive school culture and build your trauma-informed de-escalation skills:

You can also bring CPI’s trauma-informed de-escalation training to your school or district. Start the conversation today below.

Kevin Mabie, Ed.D. is a Global Professional Instructor at Crisis Prevention Institute, and an educator with over 20 years of experience as a high school teacher and administrator.

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