Escalation Cycle

Behavior Escalation Cycle: Personalized De-escalation Strategizing for Students with High Intensity Behavior

What is the Behavior Escalation Cycle?

The behavior escalation cycle seeks to explain how student behavior escalates and operates from beginning to end. Understanding the behavior escalation cycle assists educators to employ techniques for use at each stage for students with histories of dangerous, destructive, potentially harmful behaviors toward self and/or others.

Some students have difficulty recognizing the events that trigger their challenging behavior and therefore have a limited ability to prevent their behavior from escalating. Others may be able to recognize the escalation cycle but still choose to engage in challenging behavior.

How educators intervene is different at each of these phases and school staff need to understand the behavior escalation cycle and develop skills for dealing with volatile situations proactively.

Additionally, students do not always progress through the phases “cleanly”, meaning students may de-escalate then, re-escalate to a higher intensity phase if the situation was not handled appropriately. Below is the behavior escalation diagram depicting where each phase is depicted in relation to time of the crisis and intensity of behavior.

Behavior escalation diagram depicting where each phase is depicted in relation to time of the crisis and intensity of behavior.

1. Calm Phase:

Every student with a history of dangerous and/or severe, high intensity behavior goes from calm to not calm. The calm phase is characterized by appropriate, cooperative behavior and responsiveness to staff directions. Maintaining this phase for students with this behavioral profile is a high priority and it provides an opportunity for teaching strategies that will promote and maintain desired student behavior and a longer calm phase.

During this stage there are several practices that can be implemented to prevent the occurrence of an episode that could result in a crisis incident at school. The aim is to teach, pre-correct, motivate, and enhance self-regulation. During this phase, adult behaviors may include:

  • Teaching replacement behaviors and emotion regulation skills (relaxation, distraction, positive self-talk, mindfulness, and self-soothing).
  • Precorrection (i.e., errorless learning) to remind the student of potential triggers, replacement behaviors, and emotional regulation skills that can be used. There are several commercially developed emotion regulation programs, such as the “Zones of Regulation” and “The Incredible 5-point Scale” that can be used as a precorrection tool for emotion regulation.
  • Sampling the reinforcer: this involves energizing the student’s motivation to manage themselves in the face of triggers to gain later reinforcement. Sampling the reinforcer has been shown to increase self-regulation and increase the probability the student will not become agitated in the face of the trigger(s).
  • Relationship strategies that focus on establishing, maintaining, or restoring relationships .
  • Identify with the student what situations they find stressful and use that information to assess when the student may be able to confront the trigger and when it may be unsuccessful or unsuccessful without supports.
  • Within the PROMPT Strategy, use PROXIMITY Control-Move around the room but be sure to spend a few seconds in a friendly manner near the student.

2. Trigger Phase:

Triggers are antecedent events representing certain situations, people, interactions, and/or directives/requests that provoke the agitation and potentially lead to more high intensity behavior if certain practices are not implemented.

Some common triggers students experience at school include difficult/non-preferred task, confusion about class assignment, negative interaction with teacher/adult, argument with peer, or a change in routine or schedule. Pathway charting is particularly useful to inform the strategies at this phase and identify replacement behaviors to teach in the previous phase and prompt in this phase. During this phase, adult behaviors may include:
  • Remove or reduce contact with triggers.
  • Prompt student to implement coping strategy, self-soothe or avoid contact with the trigger.
  • Prompt the student to use the replacement behaviors that have been taught, modeled, and rehearsed during the calm stage.
  • Reinforce the student for exhibiting the replacement behaviors.

3. Agitation:

The agitation phase is characterized by a series of behaviors that indicate the student has disengaged from instruction. Some students demonstrate agitation by increasing behaviors such as darting their eyes or tapping their hands, moving in and out of groups, and starting and stopping activities. In contrast, other students decrease movement by disengaging from groups, staring off into space, or lowering their involvement in instructional activities. The agitation stage marks the point at which the student has escalated, and the previous strategies are insufficient to avoid potential further escalation. The aim here is not to set firm limits and enforce them as the student will likely escalate to a point that is highly disruptive, dangerous, and/or destructive.

During this phase, adult behaviors may include:
  • Stimulus Change: Briefly removing the student from the source may help maintain compliance and avoid further escalation. This can be accomplished by changing the adult working with them, their location, or the instructional activity.
  • For students with more developed reasoning abilities, adults may work early in the agitation phase with the student to collaboratively identify the source of the problem and generate mutually agreed upon solutions so the student does not feel the need to escalate.
  • Note: Any attempt to problem solve with the student during the agitation phase should be made at the beginning of this phase. Otherwise, these strategies might actually cause the behaviors to escalate toward the acceleration phase.

4. Acceleration:

Students in this phase continue to escalate their behavior and are unwilling/unable to communicate with the adult who may be attempting to support. They question, argue, and engage in confrontational interactions; they are defiant of teacher communication. The aim here is to set-up places where the student can go in order to engage in calming activities and potentially use emotion regulation strategies.

During this phase, adult behaviors may include:
  • Use non-verbal empathy messages, and do not engage in verbal explanations (i.e., reasoning), cajoling, or other interactions that will further escalate.
  • Avoid power struggles. Provide choices in which complying with directions is more advantageous than not.
  • Wait. Step away. Do not do or say something that may make the situation even worse by explaining, demanding, warning, and other corrective procedures.
  • Consider gesturing student toward a personalized spot in the room to calm down in an inviting, non-demanding manner.

5. Peak

At this point, the student has reached full escalation and there is potential for highly disruptive, dangerous, or destructive behavior. Students may physically assault others, hurt themselves, cry hysterically, or destroy property-any of which poses great risk to safety of the student, staff, and others if the situation is not addressed appropriately. It is imperative that staff have a protocol like the Personalized Prevention & De-escalation Planning (DOCX) document in place.

During this phase, adult behaviors may include:

  • It is imperative that the adults regulate their own behavior by using calm voice tone, decreasing the amount of words spoken, leaving spaces between words, and decreasing voice volume. Making sure the student does not feel they are being overwhelmed by the adults and forced to do something.  Focus on controlling staff behavior, demonstrating compassion and tolerance to the student.
  • When necessary, intrusive short-term interventions, such as removing either the student who is acting out or the other students from the classroom; crisis intervention and prevention techniques, calling the student’s parents, contacting the school crisis and security team, etc., may occur. 
  • Remember that restraint can only be used in emergency situations when the behavior poses a clear and present danger of serious physical harm to the pupil or others that cannot be immediately prevented by a response that is less restrictive, and if other specified conditions are met. Please see Restraint and Seclusion for further guidance.

6. De-escalation:

Following the peak phase, students in the de-escalation phase demonstrate a decrease in frequency and intensity of behaviors displayed in the peak phase. They may appear confused, disoriented, and far less agitated. Once the behavior has left the Peak stage and calm is gradually returning to the student, use of techniques to restore relationships and assure the student that escalation is nearing an end can be used.

During this phase, adult behaviors may include:
  • In general, do not add too much conversation yet. "Pretty soon you will be calm again and we can fix the problem Kai. Can I get you a drink of water?” “Would you like to cool down further in our Coping Corner for a few minutes, etc.?”
  • Maintain brief interactions with the student.
  • Avoid talking about the challenging behavior.
  • Adult may model coping/relaxation strategies to assist student in de-escalation into next phase.

7. Recovery:

At the recovery stage, the student is often more compliant than in the initial calm stage. Here is where restoring relationship is critical, and debriefing strategies and problem-solving dialogues may be helpful for both staff and student to understand why the explosion continued.

During this phase, adult behaviors may include:
  • Debriefing: Forms such as “Thinking About My Inappropriate Behavior” (DOCX) can be used to debrief and restore relationships prior to reentry into tasks and performance requirements. Additionally, social narratives and social autopsies are evidence-based interventions that also provide opportunities for the student to debrief with the adult and identify errors in social situations and facilitate a problem-solving dialogue.
  • This is staff’s opportunity to remind student of classroom expectations and rules. It is also a time to review what strategies can be utilized when the student encounters similar situations in the future.
  • For students with limited language, and/or reasoning skills, staff may model, practice, rehearse, or role play coping strategies, and or replacement behaviors and skills.

Resources and References:

Personalized Prevention & De-escalation Planning (DOCX)

Content on Behavior Escalation Cycle was originally presented by Clayton R. Cook and Diana Browning Wright, and has been summarized here to ensure accessibility.