How to Avoid Student Meltdowns in the Classroom

Student meltdowns in the classroom are a big challenge for teachers. If you're in the middle of a lesson, and a child becomes frustrated, you might just have to resolve a problem. Because we work with so many different personalities, one size teaching doesn't work. This post offers helpful tips to help new and experienced teachers.

Student meltdowns in the classroom are a big challenge for teachers. If you’re in the middle of a lesson, and a child becomes frustrated, you might just have to resolve a problem. Children are all different. Some struggle more with emotional regulation than others. It’s tough to know how to diffuse situations before problems happen, but perhaps a few of these suggestions will be options you can try as part of your classroom behavior management. These suggestions come from personal experience. Because we work with so many different personalities, one size teaching doesn’t work. As with other teaching routines, a deep toolbox of teaching options helps you find what works.

What Triggers Student Meltdowns

The first step to avoiding meltdowns is knowing what triggers them. You may or may not recognize the triggers, but through processing situations with the student, you will probably learn what they are. It could be frustration with work, not getting enough sleep, feeling rushed, or embarrassment. As teachers, we need to reflect on what we do that might lead to issues too as well as how other students impact the child’s mood and behavior. This process requires input from multiple parties (parents, student, teacher, and school guidance counselor).

Factors to Consider with Classroom Management

The next piece of information to gather is prior history. Is this a new problem or something that’s been going on for a while? Behaviors that have been in place for a while will not change overnight, and prior history will also impact future plans. If there have been bad experiences prior, the parents and child may feel like it’s Groundhog Day and that bad experiences are just going to keep on happening. You also need to know if the child’s been in counseling, has a diagnosis, and what’s worked in the past.

Developing a Classroom Management Plan

Once you’ve determined the triggers (and/or lack of them) and what’s worked/not worked in the past, you’re ready to map out your classroom management plan. This can be an official behavior plan or a plan that you come up with as a way to address student meltdowns prior to making things official. After all, this is what we do for academic needs, right? Behavior issues should be viewed as equally important. We also need to view the situation without bias. The child is displaying behaviors because he/she needs help learning new ways to navigate situations.

What can the teacher do?

As you’re thinking through your situation, begin by making a list of what’s currently in place. Think about your classroom layout. Have you separated kids who may be triggers? Do you have enough space for movement? Is the room active or controlled? Is the routine loud or quiet? Does the current classroom climate match the learning preferences of the child? Consider anything that may be leading to student meltdowns including how you may be handling them.

Student meltdowns in the classroom are a big challenge for teachers. If you're in the middle of a lesson, and a child becomes frustrated, you might just have to resolve a problem. Because we work with so many different personalities, one size teaching doesn't work. This post offers helpful tips to help new and experienced teachers.

Other Ideas to Consider

  • Add a quiet corner that includes a beanbag chair, stuffed animals, a basket of books, and headphones/cd player for music. These soothing items can quickly calm if you catch the child before the student meltdowns occur.
  • Use a visual schedule so the child knows what to expect prior to it happening. You can put this on the child’s desk or post it in a prominent location.
  • Pair the child with a younger child for mentoring. If you turn the negative into a positive leadership role, it may replace the negative. For young children, the older child can encourage positive behavior.
  • Use heavy work. If you notice the child on edge, have a backpack filled with books that the child can take to the librarian. Heavy work helps the child get online so to speak. You may have to send a buddy with the child if trust is an issue or call the librarian ahead to let them know he/she is coming.
  • Give the child a fiddle stick (anything that can keep the hands busy). Sometimes, chewing on a straw or having a piece of mint gum can help too.
  • If able, do not post the child’s behavior publicly. I am not a believer in clip charts (this child will always be moving their clip down and Class Dojo can be public too, and over time, the child will see him/herself negatively and always getting in trouble). Public humiliation can trigger more behavior. Keep in mind that behaviors stemming from emotional struggles are not really choices. Instead, use private conversation. You may need to document, but why does that need to be shared with the rest of the class?  For the child I know, that public behavior display was a trigger for her. She was embarrassed that the rest of the class knew her private business. It did not help her to change the behavior because she wasn’t choosing the behavior to begin with. (adhd was part of the issue)
  • Give the child a cuing system. You can give the child a red, yellow, and green card that the child can privately flash to the teacher to silently communicate the child’s emotional state. Teachers can also do thumbs up, sideways, and down for signals and let the child shake his/her head to verify.
  • Set up a quiet place outside of the classroom where the child can go and stay safe. This is probably in the guidance counselor’s office. Sometimes, the classroom environment can overwhelm the child, and they just need quiet to get back online. Planning this out ahead of time with the child, counselor, and parents can make a huge difference in instructional time lost. Suspensions are not helpful, so this alternative can provide a chance for the child to redirect before losing it.
  • Use personal words of encouragement frequently. Kids with these issues struggle with self esteem, so personal words of encouragement and acknowledgement of effort are HUGE. Leaving sticky notes, postcards sent to the parent, phone calls home, and such make a big difference in motivation.
  • Use books to help work through challenges. I highly suggest you visit Julia Cook’s site for wonderful books on challenges kids face.

There are certainly other strategies that can be added to this list, but these are a few that helped my child.

I’ve tried these ideas, now what?

Teachers don’t have all the answers. We can give our best, but it may not eliminate the behaviors. We can’t give up on the child though. If you aren’t able to make things work, do not be afraid to say so. Your teaching team, the guidance counselor, school psychologist, and your administrator can help you begin discussions for the next step. Avoid sending the child to another program or teacher. The answer may require us to bend a little, read a little, or go for training. Don’t be afraid to ask for help of the parents, resources in the community such as the FAPT team (Family Assessment and Planning Team…which may be called something different in your locality), or a referral to child study, but there is an answer out there

Anger outbursts are bound to happen with a child in your classroom at some point. I hope these ideas provide you with a little food for thought. If not, I know there are other blog posts and articles that will. Now, go and have a restful weekend, and until next time…happy reading.

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