Using de-escalation to prevent violence in aggressive people

Review questions

Do de-escalation techniques help to calm down adults who are being aggressive in care settings? Which techniques work best?


There are many reasons why people may be aggressive in care settings, including mental or physical illness. People can use a range of techniques to help someone who is behaving aggressively to calm down, including talking to the person and interpreting non-verbal gestures and body language. This approach is referred to as de-escalation. Although it is widely taught and used, we know very little about how effective de-escalation is, or which techniques work best.

Study characteristics

We looked for all available evidence on this topic, finding just two studies. One of these included 306 people with dementia and an average age of 86 years, living in 16 nursing homes in France. The second study is still in progress and did not provide results for the review.

Key results

The study did not assess areas important to us, such as the number of injuries sustained by staff or residents. It did, however, measure the impact of staff training on residents' level of aggression three months after the end of the training. Some measures of physical and verbal aggression showed reductions, but not all.

Quality of the evidence

The reliability of evidence available in the one included trial is very low and did not address important questions such as injury. Therefore, we cannot say whether de-escalation techniques are effective.

Currentness of evidence

The evidence is current to September 2017.

Authors' conclusions: 

The limited evidence means that uncertainty remains around the effectiveness of de-escalation and the relative efficacy of different techniques. High-quality research on the effectiveness of this intervention is therefore urgently needed.

Read the full abstract...

Aggression occurs frequently within health and social care settings. It can result in injury to patients and staff and can adversely affect staff performance and well-being. De-escalation is a widely used and recommended intervention for managing aggression, but the efficacy of the intervention as a whole and the specific techniques that comprise it are unclear.


To assess the effects of de-escalation techniques for managing non-psychosis-induced aggression in adults in care settings, in both staff and service users.

Search strategy: 

We searched CENTRAL, MEDLINE, Embase, PsycINFO, CINAHL and 14 other databases in September 2017, plus three trials registers in October 2017. We also checked references, and contacted study authors and authorities in the field to identify additional published and unpublished studies.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and quasi-RCTs comparing de-escalation techniques with standard practice or alternative techniques for managing aggressive behaviour in adult care settings. We excluded studies in which participants had psychosis.

Data collection and analysis: 

We used the standard methodological procedures expected by Cochrane.

Main results: 

This review includes just one cluster-randomised study of 306 older people with dementia and an average age of 86 years, conducted across 16 nursing homes in France. The study did not measure any of our primary or secondary outcomes but did measure behavioural change using three measurement scales: the Cohen-Mansfield Agitation Inventory (CMAI; 29-item scale), the Neuropsychiatric Inventory (NPI; 12-item scale), and the Observation Scale (OS; 25-item scale). For the CMAI, the study reports a Global score (29 items rated on a seven-point scale (1 = never occurs to 7 = occurs several times an hour) and summed to give a total score ranging from 29 to 203) and mean scores (evaluable items (rated on the same 7-point scale) divided by the theoretical total number of items) for the following four domains: Physically Non-Aggressive Behaviour, such as pacing (13 items); Verbally Non-Aggressive Behaviour, such as repetition (four items); Physically Aggressive Behaviour, such as hitting (nine items); and Verbally Aggressive Behaviour, such as swearing (three items). Four of the five CMAI scales improved in the intervention group (Global: change mean difference (MD) −5.69 points, 95% confidence interval (CI) −9.59 to −1.79; Physically Non-Aggressive: change MD −0.32 points, 95% CI −0.49 to −0.15; Verbally Non-Aggressive: change MD −0.44 points, 95% CI −0.69 to −0.19; and Verbally Aggressive: change MD −0.16 points, 95% CI −0.31 to −0.01). There was no difference in change scores on the Physically Aggressive scale (MD −0.08 points, 95% CI −0.37 to 0.21). Using GRADE guidelines, we rated the quality of this evidence as very low due to high risk of bias and indirectness of the outcome measures. There were no differences in NPI or OS change scores between groups by the end of the study.

We also identified one ongoing study.