Understanding the 7 Phases of the Escalation Cycle

James Hourihan, Author

The escalation cycle is a widely-used model that provides caregivers – from healthcare staff to social workers and teachers – with a toolkit of non-restrictive intervention strategies to effectively manage challenging behaviour. 

It is important to be aware of the seven phases of the escalation cycle so that you can identify them quickly and respond with the most effective course of action when needed. In this blog, we will discuss each phase in detail and provide various positive behaviour management strategies based on our SPACED model to support individuals in crisis. 


This is when a person is not showing any signs of aggression or distress. During this phase it is important to create a quiet space, listen actively and empathise with the person. This will show them that you are trying to understand their perspective so that it can be addressed in an appropriate manner.

You can also use open-ended questions (eg: How did this happen?) or verbal prompts to guide the conversation and explore potential solutions together. It is also a good time to gather information about the person’s preferences and likes.


The second phase of the escalation cycle occurs when an internal or external factor has triggered a person’s emotional response, causing them to feel overwhelming sadness, anxiety, or distress. Common behaviour triggers include overstimulation (bright lights, loud noises, etc.), transitions and unfamiliar tasks, people or places. 

Once you identify the trigger, remain calm and if possible, try to move away from provocative situations or environments that can lead to further agitation and create opportunities for success with lots of positive reinforcement.


During the escalation phase, people often become more vocal about their emotions and start making threats towards others or themselves, be socially withdrawn and refuse to comply with requests. 

Speak calmly in order to de-escalate the situation. Use interventions gathered from their baseline such as redirecting attention away from the trigger with an activity like taking a walk outside or listening to music. It’s also important to offer choices to help them regain a sense of control eg: Would you like to work by yourself or with a partner? 

Higher Escalation

When an individual has reached a high level of emotional arousal and begins displaying more intense behaviours such as shouting, hitting or destroying property, this is the fourth phase of the escalation cycle. 

At this point, it becomes hard to de-escalate them as their fight-or-flight response kicks in. Therefore, it’s important to remain neutral and controlled, giving the person or child enough time and space to process their behaviour, while providing reassurance in order to help reduce tension levels.


The crisis phase is when an individual’s behaviour has escalated out of control and poses a danger to themselves or those around them. We recommend that a risk assessment and individual response plan is developed for emergency situations which is explored in our Positive Behaviour Management Training course. 

It is essential that staff members maintain a safe environment by removing the individual in crisis from others and any potential hazards from the area. Often, the best route is to disengage as they will not be receptive to any questions or demands. Always ask for assistance / witnesses if needed and use relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises to contain the situation until it can be resolved.


As people begin to come down from the peak of their disruption, they will enter into a de-escalation phase where they may become less hostile but still need support in processing their feelings afterwards. 

Here, it is vital to not only focus on defusing any immediate danger but also rebuild trust with those involved. Avoid blaming or punishing as this is an opportunity to create a healthy, open environment where they can talk about their experience without fear of repercussion or judgement.


The seventh and final phase of the escalation cycle is recovery. Once in a calm state, allow the individual to return to a familiar task and acknowledge displays of appropriate behaviour to show your support. This is the best time for parties involved to debrief and document what happened, review procedures taken and determine the most effective solutions to avoid similar scenarios in future interactions. 

Train with the experts

No matter how difficult disruptive behaviour can be at times, understanding what happens throughout each phase of the escalation cycle, along with effective intervention strategies can prevent further harm and better equip health, social and educational professionals with the skills and knowledge to manage challenging behaviours going forward. 

If you would like to find out more about our positive behaviour management training, call 0800 987 4075. We tailor all our courses to meet the needs of your organisation, using examples which are relevant to you, your team and the people you support.

James Hourihan MSc Econ | FRSA | MIOD


Timian Learning and Development

Email: James@timian.co.uk 

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