How to Manage Challenging Behavior in Your Training Environment

January 10, 2023
Younger hand holding an older person hand

Conducting any portion of a CPI training program is a fascinating and energizing activity for Certified Instructors. Participants most often share the energy and excitement involved in gaining additional knowledge, acquiring new skills, and adding to their professional repertoire. This is especially true if we have announced this opportunity in an energetic, creative, and inviting manner, always communicating the guiding philosophy of Care, Welfare, Safety, and SecuritySM.

Certified Instructors are keenly aware of the fact that from time to time we encounter participants who do not share our energy and excitement. This sometimes manifests itself through apathy, resistance, passive resistance, and other equally frustrating behaviors. Occasionally, it exhibits itself in negative, angry, or verbally hostile behavior. We typically think of this as challenging behavior.

Challenging behavior in the training environment is an opportunity. It provides Certified Instructors a perfect platform to model and teach the philosophies, knowledge, and methods unique to a CPI training program.

Care, Welfare, Safety, and SecuritySM is the consistent message we wish to send to everyone in our organization. We need to send this message even when it becomes difficult to send.

The most effective strategy is to prevent challenging behavior in the first place. This begins with an effective training announcement. It continues with being prepared and ready when participants arrive for training. It means immediately establishing a training environment that communicates and models respect, service, and safety in the classroom environment. Due Care guidelines further support a strong and consistent message, especially when Instructors are the first to model them. Keep in mind that an Integrated Experience takes place between the Instructors and the participants; how you behave and what you say will influence your participants’ behavior and attitude.

Despite our best efforts, challenging behavior may surface. Even in the classroom, CPI training skills help us to effectively manage such behavior. This is best accomplished by organizing our thinking when faced with challenging behavior of any kind. The Crisis Development ModelSM assists in this process. We are supportive with someone exhibiting anxious behavior, directive when faced with defensive behavior, and would certainly implement violence response procedures if someone presents a danger to self or others.

Some challenging behavior in the classroom presents as anxious behavior. This might include obvious changes in a participant’s paraverbals or changes in facial expression. It could also include a puzzled look on someone’s face or an audible sigh. It can involve the verbal expression of frustration and angry outbursts.

We can best respond by being supportive. Examples might include:

  • Asking if there is anything you can do to help
  • Checking if there is a point that can be clarified
  • Conducting a relevant exercise
  • Calling for a break

The challenging behaviors with which we seem to struggle most are those that fall into the Defensive level. These behaviors may present a challenge to our expertise or authority. They may also disrupt other participants and the classroom environment.

The Verbal Escalation ContinuumSM provides effective strategies for responding to defensive behavior. This continuum helps us to organize our thinking and maintain our professionalism rather than run the risk of losing our composure.

In managing challenging behavior in the classroom environment, Certified Instructors are reminded to:

  • Remain calm and have a plan
  • Respect personal space
  • Be aware of your body language
  • Pay attention to your own paraverbals
  • Recognize that your effective response can influence a positive outcome

While not an all-encompassing list, some specific strategies for challenging behaviors in the classroom that consider applying both the Crisis Development ModelSM and the Verbal Escalation ContinuumSM include:

Challenging Behavior Example Strategy Suggestions
Validation questions can be statements phrased as questions. Often, a scenario is described and the person may want validation for how she responded to the situation. “So would it make sense to ask an irrational person who is breathing heavily to calm down?” Validate the proposed response if it meets the objective of promoting respect, service, and safety. Reinforce the participant’s response. Most of the time, this type of questioning
doesn’t appear as challenging at all. It’s usually easy to stay calm and model good problem-solving behavior yourself.
Choice questions are asked by a participant who has several answers, but is unsure which is the correct response. In most cases, the participant has a good idea which response is best. “Would I provide direction first and then call for help, or should I call for help first, provide direction, and then do the best I can until someone else can help me?” Turn the question back to the participant, as this often enables her to answer her own question. The Certified Instructor (or even other participants) may be able to offer insights into the pros and cons of each option presented. It is important in this serious subject matter to build participants’ skill in critical thinking and sound decision making. This situation can result in examination of decision-making options for all.
Challenging Question “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. The Crisis Development ModelSM will never work! So then what am I supposed to do when somebody gets in my face?” Redirect the question back to the participant in a way that will help him apply concepts you are teaching. Avoid power struggles. We need to refrain from accepting any invitations to fight. Sometimes, challenging questions may be rooted in someone's anxiety about responding to a past or future situation. Sometimes asking additional questions to flush out the elements of the question is helpful.
Sometimes, you will have participants in your group who are not paying attention as you present information. This can be a problem if their behavior becomes distracting to others. Participant repeatedly starts a discussion with other participants sitting next to her whenever the Instructor moves to the other side of the room. It is obvious that her comments are negative and disruptive to the Instructor and the lecture. Utilize friendly eye contact. Use proximity control. Involve the person in an active way. Speak privately with the person at break. Privately offer the person a choice to stop the disruption and remain in the training, or leave if she is unable to pay attention.   On rare occasions, you may have a participant who continues to present noncompliant or disruptive behavior. Do not try to force a person to participate. If the behavior continues to disrupt the training for others, you may need to privately and discreetly point out that the behavior is contrary to the philosophy being promoted in the course. These occurrences should be documented. Action taken should be within the policies and procedures of your organization.
Refusal “I’m not doing this exercise and I’ll do as I please!” Respectfully encourage participation. Don’t force participation. Set limits that are simple and clear, reasonable and enforceable. Just as we teach in the course, refusal often prompts the beginning of a power struggle. Don’t engage in that struggle. Simply set limits as you would with anyone else in this situation.
Release Yelling loudly: “This class stinks and I am so sick and tired of my boss making us do these things." “You managers think you know everything!” Remain calm and professional. Allow venting. Remind participant of Due Care guidelines. This behavior is extremely disruptive and it’s vital that you, as the Instructor, are able to rationally detach, remain calm and in control of your own behavior.
Intimidation “Maybe I should punch you in the face and then you can try and be supportive!” Call for a break. Ask for additional assistance. Take all threats seriously. Discuss the comments privately. If safe, respectfully direct the participant to leave. Intimidation is dangerous. Again, stay as calm and in control of yourself as you can. It’s much easier to make sound, rational decisions when you are under control. Make sure you, and the rest of the class, are safe.


Responding disrespectfully or inappropriately to challenging behavior from participants in the training environment may succeed in making things worse. Such responses erode our credibility, since we are saying one thing and doing another.

Effectively cascading a CPI training program into a workplace culture begins with each Certified Instructor’s commitment to Care, Welfare, Safety, and SecuritySM.

This commitment needs to be evident even when behavior becomes challenging within the training environment.

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Originally published April 06, 2011.