What is De-Escalation and why is it important for positive behaviour support?

Published On: 20 February 2023

De-escalation is an important part of positive behaviour management, but what does it actually mean and how can we do it effectively?

Effective de-escalation means spotting the often subtle signs that an individual is feeling distressed and taking action to prevent them from spiralling into a potential crisis. It’s not about simply stopping behaviour, but about using appropriate intervention strategies to calm and reconnect the feelings driving the behaviour.

There are many de-escalation techniques, some verbal and some non-verbal, depending on the needs of the individual. One size certainly doesn’t fit all. The most successful techniques are those that are personalised to the needs of the individual in your care. It can take time to unpick and understand where the behaviour is coming from and what function it serves. Working together with colleagues and involving those in your care, you can learn how to understand behaviours and reduce the need for further intervention.

Why is De-escalation so important?

No one wants to see an individual in our care escalate towards crisis. What’s needed is a plan and toolkit of de-escalation strategies to call upon when we recognise the individual is spiralling. These tools can help regulate the emotions driving the behaviours, reduce risk, and ensure they feel supported.

An individual can show heightened levels of arousal and signs of anxiety. They may have their hands over ears, be hiding or withdrawing, rocking or tapping, or perhaps refusing to do what they have asked. Some individuals will have much more subtle signs that they are beginning to feel agitated. We can play detective to spot these signs and recognise patterns in their behaviour to better understand why they feel distressed and how we can best support them. Often these behaviours are “low level”, however, if we do not respond to them, they may develop into crisis.

4 key de-escalation strategies

As a professional, you’ll have developed the skills to recognise when you’re angry or upset. You know your own triggers and what can really push your buttons. Over time, you’ve probably built up a bank of strategies to help calm and reconnect with the feelings driving your behaviours. Breathing techniques, practicing mindfulness, or simply sitting down with a hot drink are all ways to self-regulate.

Sometimes we need the help of colleagues or loved ones to recognise our emotions and help direct us to the tools we need to refocus. This is exactly what we need to do for the individuals in our care; guide them towards the right de-escalation strategies to manage challenging situations.

These four de-escalation strategies are an important part of your toolkit:

1: Redirecting to a safe space

When an individual is showing signs of escalating stress and anxiety, they need to feel supported and reassured that it’s ok to feel the way they do. We’re not dismissing the emotions but encouraging alternative ways to communicate their feelings. It may be appropriate to guide them to a quieter space.

In this safe space, it’s a good idea to have something to hand that feels familiar and calming to the individual. This could be a favourite toy, cushion, or sensory activity. This way, you’re redirecting their emotions and focusing on something recognisably comforting. Similarly, be mindful of whether the environment meets the needs of the individual. Consider lighting and sound and how they might make the individual feel. For somebody who struggles with bright lights, a room with harsh lighting or lots of windows could further escalate the situation.

2: Facilitating talk

Actively listening means you’re validating the individual’s emotions and showing genuine empathy. This could be a simple, “I can see something’s wrong; I’m here. I’m listening.” Consider the preferred methods of communication for this individual so they can communicate with you.

Make sure your body language reflects active listening. For example, position yourself to the side of the individual, maybe angle your head to the side or lean slightly forwards. Simple responsive utterances show empathy and can help you stop jumping in and interrupting. To put the individual at ease, consider the tone and quality of your voice; slower, lower, and more quietly helps to calm situations.

3: Mirroring

Modelling calm behaviours can encourage the individual to ‘mirror’ what they see. The way you present yourself through your body language, posture, and verbal communication can deescalate a situation with very little effort.

For somebody experiencing heightened stress and anxiety, instructions and demands are hard to process. It’s far easier in challenging situations to be influenced by others. Therefore, modelling the behaviour you want to see is a great tool for de-escalation.

4: Choices

Sometimes feelings of stress and anxiety are increasing because the individual is overwhelmed. Too many choices can make a person feel confused and unable to process information. To de-escalate the situation, you can offer only two simple choices, making sure you’re happy with either one being chosen. This way, the individual can still feel in control, and you have made it manageable and less daunting for them.

Individual needs and consistency

De-escalation strategies work best if you know the child, young person, or adult you’re supporting. What works for one individual might cause increased anxiety for another. We need to read the signs and understand the most appropriate means to divert, support, and reassure.

These strategies should be reflected in individual support plans to make sure everyone involved in their care knows what works for them. It ensures a shared approach and reduces the likelihood of situations repeating in the future.


Effective de-escalation can stop an individual in your care spiralling into crisis. The more you understand about the feelings that are driving their behaviours and what is being communicated to you, the more you can support them.