12 Ways to Help Students Overcome Challenging Behaviour

Students at school experience all kinds of stresses each day. When it all gets too much the student's behaviour can become challenging. Here are 12 practical and easy-to-use strategies for de-escalating challenging behaviour in the classroom.

children throwing paper aeroplanes in the classroom - a situation that could easily escalate into challenging behaviour
This blog explores techniques and ideas that come from the Positive Behaviour Support Framework which you can read more about here

A typical school day is filled with a range of stressors for our students from academic to social, emotional to physical and more.  When any of these stressors outweigh the student's skills to cope, the student can exhibit challenging behaviours (also known as behaviours of concern). 

Challenging behaviour can be internalised (for example being withdrawn, non-compliant or inhibited) and/or externalised (for example aggressive, destructive or anti-social).  Any behaviour that is perceived to be socially or culturally undesirable in a specific context by the person and/or the environment, and is of such an intensity, frequency or duration that it is detrimental, stressful or harmful for the person and/or the social environment is considered to be challenging behaviour. (Wolkorte, van Houwelingen & Kroezen, 2019).

When one or more students begin to persistently exhibit challenging behaviours, the climate can change dramatically. Not only does it disrupt the learning focus but also impacts the physical, emotional and psychological security of everyone present. This results in a considerable amount of time and energy can be spent on managing the student/s challenging behaviours.

As educators we need to know how to effectively respond to challenging behaviours to safely defuse, redirect, and de-escalate the situation in the least disruptive manner.

In the A-Z Challenging Behaviour Book Series the strategies to respond to a challenging situation are summarised by the 12 letter acronym DE-ESCALATION:

  • Display calm demeanour
  • Engage attention
  • Encourage cooperation
  • Space to calm
  • Comfort, support and reassure
  • Ask what happened
  • Listen actively and attentively
  • Acknowledge and validate
  • Talk about positive attitudes, choices and behaviours
  • Identify appropriate alternate behaviour
  • Offer help
  • Note positives


12 De-escalation Strategies For Challenging Behaviours

1. Display a calm demeanour

Staying calm allows one to think clearly and make better decisions and responses. A calm composure also helps to transfer a sense of calm onto the student and conveys the message that you are approaching them to support them and not to attack them. 

2. Engage attention

Pay attention to the effect the environment has on a situation.  Isolating the student before any interaction takes place is highly recommended when dealing with a student who is emotionally aroused and unable to focus in the presence of others or an active audience.  At this stage, the simplest and least invasive course of action is to clear the area of all others. Adopting a neutral physical stance can provide the student space and alleviate the situation's strain and pressure while providing some mental clarity for focus.

3. Encourage cooperation

Get close to the student while maintaining a safe distance so that they can see and hear you. Do not force eye contact.  Communicate using short, simple and clear speech in a respectful, non-threatening and assertive manner to gain their cooperation.  Calm silence can also be effective during this time, especially if emotional arousal level is still elevated.

4. Space to calm

To ensure the safety and well-being of the student and everyone around the student it is important to give everyone space. Allowing the student time to evaluate their demands will allow them to do so without feeling pressed to act quickly. Things may happen fast in these extremely stressful settings.  By providing space and slowing emotions it allows the student to recover, regain composure and regain control over their emotions and behaviour.

5. Comfort, support and reassurance

The best way to support students during their times of distress is by allowing them to express their feelings. By being present the adult can gently guide the student to work through their emotions in healthy ways. Supporting the student in ways that is accepting of their experience and emotion will allow the student to trust, feel safe and strengthen the relationship. This will provide the platform for the student to pay attention to what the adult is saying and cooperate with their suggestions.

6. Ask what happened

To provide support that is sensitive and responsive to the student's needs it is important to tune into and view the situation from their perspective. Listening to the student attentively and fully is essential to relationship building.  Explore their point of view and help summarize the feelings and content.

7. Listen actively and attentively

Listening to the student attentively and fully is essential to relationship building.  Use open-ended questions to go deeper and learn more. Responding with reflections encourages students to share their thoughts and feelings. The student's point of view should feel supported and understood.

8. Acknowledge and validate

Acknowledging and validating the student's emotions and thoughts makes them feel visible, heard and that they are important.  Once we have the student's attention and he or she feels understood, we may attempt to make a request that will lessen the pressure in these events. The student is more likely to change his or her behaviour as a result.

9. Talk about positive attitudes, choices and behaviours

Help them to connect feelings to behaviour.  Students need to develop positive attitudes, choices and behaviours to cope with stress, frustration and overwhelming feelings caused by inconveniences, stressors and challenges that stand in the way of their goals. 

10. Identify appropriate alternative behaviour

It is important to help the student understand the impact of their behaviour on themselves and others. By problem-solving together, it makes the process of talking about the incident less threatening.  Discover ways that your student can still get his or her needs met without engaging in maladaptive behaviour.

11. Offer help

Practice and plan the solutions you have identified together.  Role-play and model the appropriate alternative behaviours to improve success in stressful situations.  Tell your student that you're proud of them for working through the challenging situation with you and praise them for being brave. Reinforce that they can come and talk to you anytime about anything. 

12. Note positives

Ending a challenging conversation by noting the positives. This helps the student acknowledge the positives, what we have learnt rather than the errors. 

Hopefully, this post has reinforced what you're already doing and given your ideas about how else you can de-escalate challenging situations. Now that you are able to provide emotional and environmental support to reduce stress and risk, your students will be better equipped to use their appropriate coping strategies.


Wolkorte, R., van Houwelingen, I. & Kroezen, M. (2019). Challenging behaviours: Views and preferences of people with intellectual disabilities. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities
: 32, 1421-1427.

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