• Kristen Miller

Diffusing Tension

As we begin the end of summer break and head back into the school year, there is a lot of tension and anxiety floating in the air. COVID-19 has turned the world upside down and now in the fall, all schools in our area are shifting to complete online/distance learning for the foreseeable future. Both as a teacher and parent, this is an incredibly challenging time, and a lot of angst has been stirred up as a result. I was a guest on a podcast this week discussing my book, and the host mentioned COVID-19 being a traumatic experience. I completely agreed with her, and we went through a brief discussion about Trauma-Informed Practices and how to get students (and adults) back into their prefrontal cortex (cognitive, high-level, rational-thinking brain) and out of their amygdala (fight-flight-freeze part of their brain) in an effort to calm themselves down and diffuse tension. There are a variety of proactive ways to keep tension at bay, like exercise, deep breathing, stretching, mindfulness, meditation, etc., but in this blog, we are going to focus on a topic I get asked about all the time: diffusing tension during highly-charged, emotional and escalating conflicts in the classroom.

In the classroom, teachers experience conflicts between students, between themselves and students, with administrators and other adults on campus. As parents, conflict runs rampant in homes all over the place and especially now that parents across the country are faced with being their child's teacher for the foreseeable future. So the question remains: how do we diffuse tension in the moment when students/children attempt to avoid doing their schoolwork/homework, get frustrated with schoolwork, and/or get frustrated with you as their teacher for making them focus on their work? Let's break this down step-by-step.

  • Step 1: Do not react emotionally. When kids see that they affect you and can elicit highly charged emotions from you, it becomes a game to them. They continue "poking the bear" to see how upset they can make you, which ultimately gives them what they want: TO NOT DO THEIR WORK. The more intense your reaction is, the more they will keep attempting to get that reaction out of you. DON'T DO IT. Even if your blood is boiling inside, keep your exterior calm and composed. Take a few deep breaths to help maintain your composure.

  • Step 2: Use a diffuser (aka "strip phrase"). There are a variety of training programs and books that teach this concept (one of which is the book Verbal Judo by George Thompson and Jerry B. Jenkins), but the idea here is to respond to the frustration with a very flat tone (no emotion, no anger, no frustration), using a phrase that strips the conflict of its power (aka "strip phrase"). Examples of "strip phrases" include:

"I hear ya"

"I understand"


"I get it"

"No problem"

  • Step 3: Continue on, matter of fact. No tone. Carry on with whatever you were attempting to get them to do before they got upset.

  • Step 4: Employ positive reinforcement as your student/child gets back on task. There's an old saying: "Negative attention is better than no attention." They want and need your attention, guidance, support, and love. Once you get them going on their work, praise them when they finish and for their sustained effort. You can even make it a game/challenge: "Today you did great but tomorrow let's see if you can do your work all by yourself."

  • Step 5: If they're still upset and frustrated, they may genuinely need help with their work, at which point you, as the responsible adult, should sit down and try to help them as much as possible. Even saying something like, "Let's figure this out together" can work wonders

Okay, so how does this actually look when all put together? I'll give you two examples to get you started:

  • Example 1: In a classroom with many students -- I was teaching a subject that all students are enthralled with, solving linear equations for x. I was going through an example problem and solution on the board, guiding my students as they diligently took notes. Then Johnny shouted out, "This is so stupid. I'm NEVER going to use this. Why do I have to know this?" I responded, "I hear ya. Okay, let's keep going." I continued on with the lesson as if he didn't shout out. He was irritated, but the mere fact that I acknowledged his words and frustration helped. Now, don't get me wrong -- this doesn't always go down so smoothly. I've been in many situations where things just keep getting worse and more hectic even after I go through this process, but that's a topic for a different blog. I outline many strategies for dealing with continued escalation in my book (free download available here).

  • Example 2: At home, homeschooling my daughter -- After her morning Zoom meeting ended, it was time to jump into the actual work. She was not happy about it. She had several activities outlined so we went through the list and tackled each one-by-one. When we got to math (it's always the math - I don't know why kids have such an aversion to math), there was so much complaining and frustration. In fact, I remember a lot of tears and throwing herself on the bean bag saying, "I don't want to do this." My response was, "I hear ya. I know you're frustrated. Come on, let's keep going." She was genuinely struggling with the math concepts she was learning so I proceeded to help her until she had a better understanding. But she did end up finishing and felt very proud of herself for doing so. I encouraged her with a lot of positive reinforcement, "See, you DO know how to do this," etc. The next day, math was a little bit less of a struggle, and now she actually looks forward to math.

The thing to remember is kids want to succeed. They want to do well, they want to learn and they want to be recognized by you for their effort. Oftentimes the main thing standing in the way of a peaceful classroom or home is a lack of positivity and positive reinforcement.

Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional. Don't fall into the combat trap when your student/child gets frustrated with school. Maintaining your composure, not reacting emotionally, using flat/emotionless tone in conjunction with a diffuser or "strip phrase" and positive reinforcement/encouragement will help make your home or classroom more peaceful during these trying times.

Yes, this is hard, but we are in this together. We got this.

Did you try the steps? I want to hear from you!

Leave a comment or send me a note at kristenmiller@withheartproject.com.

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Sacramento, California, USA

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