Reverse escalations

Behaviour Management

Reverse escalations

a guide for classroom teachers and teacher aides

Education worker helping small group of 3 students.

When a technique is employed and fails, the teacher is usually advised to escalate. This is the prevailing wisdom used by schools and teachers around the world and is a central tenet of the ‘bumps’ method proposed by Bennett and Smilanich (1994). However, the bumps method has a fundamental, logical and practical flaw: it doesn’t comply with the concept of minimal necessary force or proportionate responses. The logic is best explained by looking at a typical behaviour issue in sequence:

Step 1: the student chooses an undesirable behaviour

Step 2: the teacher applies a response that matches the behaviour

Step 3: the student refuses to comply

Step 4: the teacher escalates and returns to step 1 with greater force.

In this traditional view of the escalation process, it is assumed that the student purposefully chose to defy the teacher. However, this is almost never the case. Students rarely choose to defy their teachers. What they are choosing to do is socialise, avoid failure and so forth. From the student’s perspective, defying instruction is a side-effect of their preferred behavioural choice – not the intended outcome. Also, some students ‘just don’t think’ and quickly forget their teacher’s instructions. They might get on with their work only to have a light-bulb moment a few minutes later that must be shared with their friends. In other words, teachers interpret repeated incidents of undesirable behaviour as being a challenge to their authority. This is extremely rare – the student simply has different priorities to the teacher. It is actually the teacher who is responsible for (and who chooses) the escalation in step 4 due to misinterpreting the root cause of the behaviour.

One critical aspect that the various tiered systems overlook is whether the second or repeat offence should be considered in isolation to the first. If the student forgot about the first interaction, should the teacher forget about it as well? Even if the second incident was 2 minutes later, can the teacher assume the student went through the mental decision-making process of considering the consequences of the second action in light of the response to the first? Often the student sees both incidents as separate actions regardless of whether the time difference was 2 minutes or 2 hours. However, the teacher considers the 2 actions to be conscious decisions whether they are 30 minutes or sometimes even 2-3 days apart.

One critical aspect that the various tiered systems overlook is whether the second or repeat offence should be considered in isolation to the first.

Even if we don’t look at the second issue in isolation, the need for an escalation is not warranted in any automatic sense. There is a whole raft of other ways the teacher could manage the issue without an escalation. He or she could repeat the initial behaviour management technique, use an equal but different technique, drop the level and apply a lower response or even ignore the second behaviour altogether. Other techniques may also be used in conjunction with a response such as moving the lesson to the next stage and speeding up the pace of delivery. Based on the concept of minimal necessary force, step 4 responses do not need to be an escalation – the teacher can even use a reverse escalation. A reverse escalation is any follow-up response that is equal to or less than the initial response – that is, the opposite of an escalation. A follow-up enforcer is a common type of reverse escalation.

There is another reason for why automatic escalations are not necessary. Teachers often forget to consider the relationship between behaviour and learning through the lens of the hyper socially-aware student (Brophy, 1988; Woolfolk et al., 2006). Students may see the initial teacher response as more of a recommendation than a command. Despite the teacher’s clear intent, the student comes to think that it doesn’t apply to him or her (known as optimistic bias) as demonstrated below:

The teacher means: “Cease all communication immediately, do not speak again, do your work.”

The teacher says: “Miley, that is enough, get on with your work please.”

The student hears: “Miley, you can keep talking but not as much and try whispering.” or

“Finish your really important conversation, then stop talking.”

As you can see in the example above, what the teacher intends and what the teacher says are 2 different things. The teacher’s poorly worded instruction led to a breakdown in communication and Miley was able to apply her own interpretation to the ambiguous command. In this case, an equal or lower level response from the teacher is all that is needed to reinforce the initial command. This second but lesser response (a follow-up enforcer) sends the message that the instruction was not a recommendation nor a suggestion – it must be complied with now.

Teachers often forget to consider the relationship between behaviour and learning through the lens of the hyper socially-aware student (Brophy, 1988; Woolfolk et al., 2006).

Hint: Research suggests that the most common cause of low-level disruptive behaviour is disengagement. Disengagement is attributable as much to teachers lacking instructional skills as it is students choosing to act in this manner (Sullivan et al., 2014). Maguire et al., (2010) pointed out that escalations are ways of controlling discipline and more proactive, preventative measures should take precedence. In other words, teachers should avoid escalations where other options are available.


Bennett, B., & Smilanich, P. (1994). Classroom management: A thinking & caring approach. Bookation.

Brophy, J. (1988). Educating teachers about managing classrooms and students. Teaching and Teacher Education, 4, 1-18

Woolfolk Hoy, A., & Weinstein, C. S. (2006). Student and teacher perspectives on classroom management. In C. M. Evertson & C. S. Weinstein (Eds.), Handbook of classroom management: Research, practice, and contemporary issues (pp. 181-219). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Sullivan, A. M., Johnson, B., Owens, L., & Conway, R. (2014). Punish them or engage them? Teachers' views of unproductive student behaviours in the classroom. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 39(6), 43-56.

Maguire, M., Ball, S., & Braun, A. (2010). Behaviour, classroom management and student control: enacting policy in the English secondary school. International Studies in Sociology of Education, 20(2), 153 - 170.

About the author

Image of the managing director of ITAC.


Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and a #1 best selling author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of ITAC, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.

Source: Behaviour Management Skills and Strategies for the Modern Classroom: 100+ research-based strategies for both novice and experienced practitioners.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.


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