Monday, October 14, 2013

How to Handle Meltdowns, Storms, Rages, or Tantrums

Imagine you get a phone call from your best friend saying she needs you to pick her up at work right away. She is working on a high-stress legal case. She had an impossible day at work and simply cannot focus anymore. She is choosing to leave a half hour early and come in early to finish her work the next day when she is better able to focus. She just needs to go home and relax tonight. Would you lecture her about her responsibilities, threaten her with punishment, force her to go back into work this instant, or remind her about how she was having such a great week until this? Or would you take her home? Needless to say, we would pick her up and try to make her feel better on the drive home.

But what if you have a student in a difficult reading class who is working on a high-stress assignment? He had an impossible day at school and simply cannot focus anymore. He is choosing to leave the classroom and make up the work tomorrow during homeroom, when he is better able to focus. He just wants to go to the resource room and relax. Would you allow him to do that?

"All the other children don't get to leave the classroom when they get frustrated."

We hear that all the time. But the truth is that all the other kids don't need to leave the classroom. You can either let him leave the room in a rehearsed and controlled manner-- or he will plead, refuse, or engage in a rage or attack and be escorted out of the classroom. Either way he is going to escape the situation. Why not let him save face, learn that using his words will better gain his access to wants/needs than tantruming, and finish it tomorrow?

Isn't the point of assessments and assignments to teach and assess what students have learned? The child isn't going to show an accurate picture of what he knows in this moment, and he certainly isn't going to learn anything. I can't even begin to tell you how many Monday spelling tests had scribbles, Xs, or rips, but received 100% scores when retested on Tuesday-- when the child was no longer escalated and was better able to focus.

The argument, "All the other kids in here don't get to..." is a bit flawed. All the other kids in the class also don't get wheelchairs or glasses just because one student does. Why not provide the needed accommodations/modifications for children with more "invisible disabilities," such as Tourette Syndrome, Autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, mood disorders, oppositional defiant disorder, etc.?


Ask yourself: Is My Approach Working?


When analyzing the antecedent events and function of student behavior, we need to consider what causes the child's meltdowns. Then, we need to adjust the environment. Too often, teachers try to change the students. While we want to shape behavior, we simply need to ask ourselves, "Is what we have been trying working?" Teachers can say until they're blue in the face that he needs more discipline and consequences-- but has been giving him discipline and consequences (and treating him like all the other kids) been working? It may be time to try a different approach.

Rick Lavoie explains that consequences and punishments typically only work when the fear of consequences and punishment exist. They don't allow for generalization across contexts. For example, drivers slow down near the spots where they see police cars but speed back up when they've passed. Students act differently in different classes. It's all the same, really. We can spend all our time teaching students what not to do-- in a way that will guarantee a storm, meltdown, or rage. Instead, we should teach them what to do in a way that promotes problem-solving and avoiding rages.

If the ultimate goal is to teach the child not to have a rage, then our practices should shift toward teaching problem solving in a way that doesn't cause rages.

Teach, Rehearse, Practice, and Praise


We need to teach escape procedures and protocol, and we need to involve the child in the process. Help him identify known triggers and plans for action. Develop an escape plan that will only be used when he really needs it. Some students may overuse the escape plan, so set realistic limits. Explain why these limits must be set.

Directly teach the student appropriate ways to exit situations. Teach him how to identify that feeling he gets when he escalates. Teach him when he needs to escape, the person he needs to signal, and where he needs to go. Rehearse this plan-- mentally and physically-- and practice it repeatedly when the child is calm.

Establish a safe spot in the school. Discuss favored coping skills to use in that safe spot. Teach the student how to identify what calm feels like, looks like, and sounds like-- and how to recognize when he calm enough to return to the original task.

Think of the escape rehearsals like a fire drill. We practice those at least once a month, right? We know that in a fire, students would know exactly how to respond, where to go, and what to do to stay safe. We need this type of repeated practice and rehearsal while modifying behavior and easing anxiety.


What to Do During a Meltdown, Rage, or Storm


First, abandon whatever was frustrating the student, and focus solely on de-escalation. For example, if a writing assignment was frustrating the student, worry about the writing assignment later-- after the student is fully de-escalated.

I like to think of escalation like a bell curve. When a child is escalating up the curve, it is easier to bring the child back down to calmness. If the child gets to the peak of full escalation, it's going to need to be ridden out, and the child is going to slide down the right side of the curve-- shut down, crying, sleeping, etc.

Try using humor and distraction. These can really go a long way, and they can get the brain to produce "happy" endorphins. Sensory and physical activities can help students to channel their feelings or aggression appropriately. Art, music, or expressive activities may help other students. Some students benefit from simple quiet-- which is challenging for many teachers, who want to talk students through meltdowns. Breathing, yoga, or meditation help some students. When coping skills are taught ahead of time, teachers know how to intervene for specific students.

Get the student involved in self-monitoring his progress. Be ready to coach the student through some rages. Have a procedure in place in your classroom for other students to do in this event (e.g., "When the teacher is busy helping someone, take out a good choice. A good choice is a book, independent work journal, practice book, etc.")

Even with repeated practice, the student may have a tough time escaping appropriately when escalated. The thinking becomes clouded, unclear, and sometimes irrational during escalation. Keep that in mind. Also consider how many times you fell off your bike before you were able to ride without training wheels.

As with anything else in school, this is a learning process for some of our students with invisible disabilities, and even for some who simply never learned this in their home environments.

In a power struggle with a child, neither the teacher nor the child wins. When we get on the same page and on the same team, we can experience lessened anxiety and more peace.

For more information, check out Treatment of Rage Attacks by Leslie E. Packer, Ph.D.

Happy de-escalating,

A Peach for the Teach


  1. As a mother of a child with ASD, let me say that I love your post! Excellent advice! We use a lot of these same principles at home with our son and they do work! As for those who say "Why does he get to leave the classroom", one of my favorite sayings is: Fair is not everyone getting the same thing. Fair is everyone getting what they need to succeed!

    1. That means so much to me! Thank you! Love your lesson in fairness!

  2. I wish more teachers understood that students with "invisible disabilities" need to be treated with accommodations. I love having those students in my homeroom classroom. I feel that I teach them the strategies they need to be successful. My problem is when they go to the next grade and then I see them escalating because the accommodations are not being given. It breaks my heart to see all the work that student put in to understand his or her frustration level and learned strategies to deal with the frustration, not allowed because it doesn't fit into the next teachers expectations for her class.

    1. I know exactly what you mean and wish there were more teachers who understood it. I'm so glad you're out there, though! We need more teachers like you. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I have to tell you how much I love this post and the way you explained everything. After over 1 year of speaking to my son's Middle School I have finally gotten them to understand that continuing to engage him and making him stay in class when he's reached his breaking point is detrimental to both him and the class in general. He now has a protocol to leave the situation and a pre-determined place to go until he can regroup and is able to rejoin the learning activity. It isn't a perfect system yet but the change for him is huge. So many people see these kids a purposefully trying to be defiant when it is truly just a symptom of how their brain processes things and them not feeling they have any other choices.

    1. Thank you! I'm sad to hear that it took a year but am happy that he's finally getting what he needs. I love that you mentioned the difference between a symptom of processing and purposeful defiance. It's tough to see the difference. Thanks so much for your comment. I'd love to hear more about your experiences!

  4. I want to thank you for writing this post! I am about to start my student teaching this semester, and I will have my first teaching job in August of 2015. I have been a substitute many times and I often find myself trying to "talk" the tantrum down. Your explanation was very easy to follow and understand. It honestly makes me excited to try out these tactics. Thanks again for the post!

  5. I needed to read this so very much. After switching from school to school to school, we finally found a teacher that understands. And I mean, really understands. ASD *needs* accommodations.Thank you so much very a wonderful post.

  6. Thank You! I loved this post.
    Glad to have found your blog.
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    And I would love to be able to read your blog again!
    Thanks and good work, :)

  7. I really love this post! Students need to learn to be aware of their own emotions and know how to handle themselves properly even when they do get upset. This will be such a valuable tool for them as they o into the real world after school. Thanks for the great ideas!

  8. I agree and I always give my students coping strategies. I have come to the point with several students that I am constantly trying to deescalate their behavior, so they don't self harm or hurt others that I cannot teach. I feel like they are taking valuable instruction time away from the class. Many interventions have been put in place over the past couple months and some success. The one student isn't self harming as much as before, but in order to get him to that point a lot of my time is spent on him. Any suggestions?

  9. Thank you. Recently my 6 year old seems to melt down all the time and I am in tears most of the time trying to manage her tantrums and aggression. I am definitely going to try these strategies to help my beautiful girl get through her emotions in a positive way. This will be a wonderful tool.

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  11. One of my students everyday has a melt down and sometimes we don't know what to do because be gets mad each time we try to calm him down thanks to your post I'll try and help my student be more calm, I think it will help me more.

  12. I'm reading your post at 3:30 in the morning, but I can't keep myself from commenting. This post sums up my current school year. I have a student that has changed my perspective of "breaks" due to invisible disabilities. I love the example that you use in the beginning of your post and how fitting it is to these situations. Thank you so much for this great post and your willingness to expose other educators and families to the importance of true differentiated instruction.

  13. I am wondering if anyone has any advice to lend me on a wonderful student in my classroom who has ASD and when he has what seem to be unpredictable meltdowns he refuses to leave the room. We have accommodations for him in place and desperately want to use them...and I am stumped as to how to get him to agree to leave the classroom when this happens. Of course I am trialing strategies to prevent these episodes, but he is a kindergartner and we are all just starting to get to know him in a school environment, so learning how to manage his behaviors is really important for the success of the whole classroom, as well. Any advice you have to lend would be so helpful right now!

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