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.
A Peach for the Teach