Manage Energy, Not Behavior

By Dr. Will Henson

The term behavior management is ubiquitous in education. However, great behavior managers don’t manage behavior – they manage energy. When they are working with a behavior that is unwanted, they don’t focus on changing that behavior right then and there. Instead, they direct their energy to the tone and mood of the situation.

Since most challenging behavior is intense, rapid, reflexive, and survival oriented, most responses need to be regulatory instead of confrontational. If you’re having trouble with challenging behavior in your classroom try this:

Present a calm and focused energy yourself. Keep the tone and mood of the classroom positive and feeling safe.  If you start with that foundation, you can move on to academics and changing students’ behavior much more easily.

What are some other ways you have found successful in managing energy, not behavior?

Comments (3)

I am by nature a calm per son but what do I do if a 5th grader tells me I’m not doing the lesson like her teacher does (I’m a substitute teacher). Then I talked calmly about the lesson and polled students if they understand that all teachers don’t teach the same way. They were fine and I continued. One girl came up and screamed in my ear, “You can’t do it like the teacher. I’m taking the book!” before she took it I walked back to the door and kept on reading. She continued screaming.


This can certainly be a frustrating situation to deal with but (unfortunately) all too common in today’s schools. Its really hard to give a “what to do” regarding the situation because so many different things could be going on with the student. The teacher and or administrator for the building should have briefed you on how to handle this was behavior you were likely to see from the student. Certainly, at that point, the school administration should be informed. As a substitute you may not know the child, or have a relationship with the child and so your main responsibility as a substitute will be to get some assistance from the people in the building. In general when a student wants to have a battle we advise people to (a) Stay calm and don’t escalate the situation (b) Don’t get baited into acting in predictable ways by behavior (c) Try to figure out what the student wants and how you can be on their side rather than against them. That’s not to say there are not consequences for this student and that there are no expectations. However, if a student is extremely escalated they will need to de-escalate first before they are going to be responsive to talking or accept any redirection.

I have taught for the majority of my career in what would be considered low income, high risk populations. Early in my career I noticed that I had more than my share of students with ADD,ADHD, Autism, behavior disorders etc. When I stopped to ask the counselor if this was normal she said she hand selects the students that have the most issues and puts them in my class because “I am good with them” I then began to ask myself and my students what makes the difference. Ages 2nd grade to high school seniors have the same response. You talk to us, you hold yourself accountable and us accountable. That is the message I received. When a student is in crisis in the classroom I let the student unfold, express whatever the frustration is. I make eye contact with the other students and let them know that we build a shield of protection around this student and that they, the other students are safe and that the student in crisis is safe. When the student calms down we talk. During the crisis or outburst I do not let other students pick sides. We are all in this together and we are there to support each other. This philosophy I started as a 4th grade teacher when I was 22 years old and it has served me with young children and high school children.

Leave a comment