In my article last month, I wrote about teaching to and viewing the child as a “whole person.” For the next two articles, I want to dig deeper into the philosophy of the whole person and how it relates to dealing with tantrums and meltdowns. In this article I will address five key tools to help handle meltdowns in the classroom from the perspective of the whole person. These tools can be used both as preventative measures and strategies for in-the-moment occurrences. Then, next month I will explore the cycle of a tantrum and when to incorporate these and other tools and when to avoid them.
Find the Reason
Every child has a reason for their behavior, even if they cannot verbalize it. Tiredness, anger, frustration, confusion, boredom, anxiety, and over and under-stimulation can all lead to meltdowns. Our response as adults should be to try to identify the underlying cause of the behavior and use that reason in how we approach and help them. For example, a child who becomes over-stimulated by noise would need different treatment than a child who is under-stimulated or a child who is frustrated by not being able to finish their puzzle. There is not a one-size fits all solution to every meltdown, even with the same child.
To find the reason for a child’s behavior, especially a meltdown, talking with the child should always be the first step. Ask the child to tell you how they are feeling and why. The child’s input is very important as it shows respect for the child and helps to validate their emotions in the moment. However, it should not be the only step. Seeking out clues from parents and the environment are also important.
After the reason has been identified, work to help the child verbalize and/or express how they are feeling in a healthy manner. This is called emotional literacy. Education behavioral specialist, Scott Sylvester (Tantrums, Meltdowns and Kids Acting Out: What to do?) says that children often act out when they don’t know how else to express themselves. They want to communicate, but do not know how. This relates to the big push that Raising Cain’s authors Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson make when they write that helping children, especially boys, gain emotional literacy is one of the most important things we can do to help our students succeed in life. When children can identify their emotions and others’ emotions, they can better regulate their behavior, form attachments, and gain resiliency.
Encouraging children to use their whole body to understand the situation causing their distress is a great way of processing and retaining information. Formal lecturing of a child who is escalating is rarely helpful to either the child or the teacher. However, allowing the child to role-play the situation (or a similar one) in a safe environment gives the child a chance to practice what they can do or say to help themselves. I often used role-play when I had a child that had trouble talking and asking for what they needed. After a couple of practice tries in private, the child was ready to ask a friend to use a toy or join in a game. Other options would be to let them turn their situation into a story. This approach is one that I first heard from Janet Allison of Boys Alive! For stories, I find using animals is a great way to capture attention and get the point across, but any character will work if the story is entertaining. My class loved Sammy the squirrel and all the situations he found himself in. As I told the story, I allowed students to offer suggestions about what should happen next or how Sammy could solve his problems. Afterwards, I offered opportunities for the child or class to use puppets or their bodies to act out the story. Other methods of incorporating action is to use physical activity to help de-stress and re-direct students. A good, quick walk or run, a game of hockey, a climb up and down the stairs, or even a dance can help get students out of the environment and mind-frame that caused the issue.
Reflection is a strategy that I began to incorporate on a daily basis last year for both individual students, the class as a group, and my staff. Each day, as my students sat in their circle, I was amazed by the activities they were able to recall, their analysis of the events, and the problems they focused on. Not only was it eye-opening for me, but I was continually encouraged by the way my students problem-solved.
Before we began our first class reflection we came up with a set of agreements for the group. One agreement was that we were allowed to share any problems that came up with other students, but names were not mentioned. That way, the class could work together to offer suggestions on problems without any child being shamed. The class also liked to reflect on bad dreams they had or other struggles that happened in class, like when blocks wouldn’t stay up, a child couldn’t find anyone to play with, or when another student would take a toy without asking,
We also tried to focus on as many positives as negatives, and in this, names were encouraged. As students began hearing their names connected to positive feelings and good deeds, they began to look for opportunities to help, work together, and problem-solve.
Additionally, as reflection became a part of our daily routine, it became part of students’ daily habits. Reflection combines verbalization of feelings, identifying underlying causes, and full-body reactions. Soon, many of my students were able to start thinking and analyzing problems and possible outcomes before they reacted, which helped cut back on the number of outbursts and distressed cries.
Water and Cortisol
I first heard about the water and cortisol connection while taking a class from Janet Allison. However, since then, I have read numerous articles that link stress levels and cortisol with water. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is activated in times of anxiety, anger, and stress. As it rises in children, their body goes in to “fight” mode, and it becomes harder for them to logically process their emotions and thoughts. However, water can dilute cortisol levels fairly quickly. This is why it is important for children to stay hydrated. When they have enough water circulating in their system, it is harder for cortisol levels to rise. It is also helpful to encourage children to drink water when they start showing signs of agitation. The act of drinking water provides a physical distraction while the water itself starts diluting the cortisol. This is not to say that water will keep children perfectly calm all the time, but it helps slow reactions and building points and can help decrease meltdowns a bit faster.
Dealing with a meltdown is never easy. But as teachers, we need to realize that it is not easy for the child either. They are constantly learning and processing everything around them. That is why helping children learn to reflect on and understand how they are feeling is important. It causes them to slow down, recognize, and analyze. While these calming tools can definitely help in stressful situations, they need to be practiced on a daily (and even hourly) basis to be truly effective in changing children’s initial reactions. When children learn to understand their emotions better, then their ability to manage them grows.
Allison, J. (2014). Boys Alive! helps parents and teachers raise better boys. Retrieved from http://boysalive.com/
Kindlon, D., Ph.D., & Thompson, M. (1999). Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. New York, NY: Random House.
Tantrums, Meltdowns and Kids Acting Out: What to do? (n.d.). Retrieved September 15, 2018, from https://www.bradleyhospital.org/tantrums-meltdowns-and-kids-acting-out-what-do