Dealing with misbehavior in the classroom can be daunting. Handling all-out tantrums (e.g., screaming, meltdowns, throwing oneself on the floor) is complicated, and unfortunately kids in special education classes may be more prone to these outbursts. This is often the case when the special education placement is due to emotional reasons.
Whatever the reason, when a young child has a tantrum, the teacher is in a quandary of sorts, as she or he must decide how to handle the child who is having the tantrum, as well as how to keep the rest of the class on task and moving along with whatever they are doing. No easy task.
In the Moment
Ross Greene and Stuart Ablon have a wonderful book about tantrums called “Treating Explosive Kids: the Collaborative Problem-Solving Approach.” The authors say that even kids who are “doing the best they can” can have explosive behavior, and it’s often the result of deficits like difficulty processing language, cognitive inflexibility and a host of other skills deficits. (See also “The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children” by Ross Green.)
One salient component of their approach that I really like (and will paraphrase loosely) is that you can’t have an in-depth conversation with a child in the midst of an explosion. None of us, adults included, are rational when we are having a meltdown. So asking a child, “Why are you doing this?” or, “Is something bothering you about math?” while he or she is in the middle of a tantrum won’t likely produce good results. In fact, it may result in more whining, crying or yelling. The goal during a meltdown should be to get out of the situation without making it worse.
When a is child in the midst of a meltdown, keeping your voice calm and limiting conversation can be helpful. You as the teacher may need to delegate managing the rest of the class to a teacher’s assistant or a paraprofessional educator (if you have one). Removing the child from the immediate situation (e.g., to a different area of the room or out of the room completely) can be helpful. On the other hand, if the child is having a meltdown but is not really disrupting the class, it may make more sense to ignore the child until he or she is calm. This may feel backward at first, but giving attention to unwanted behavior can be very reinforcing to kids.
Also, try to set expectations that are realistic. A 5-year-old is likely not able to sit in time out for 20 minutes—asking him to do this is unrealistic and, frankly, setting him up to fail. Keep the removal from the situation brief and reintroduce the child to the class when he or she has calmed down.
After the Tantrum
Once the child is calm, it’s important to have an “out of the moment” conversation about what happened. This is the time to find out if the child understands or knows any reason why the tantrum occurred and talk about how things could go differently. This conversation can be really helpful, especially if meltdowns aren’t a one-time occurrence or if they seem to be triggered by certain situations or variables. For instance, “Jake, I notice that silent reading gets really tough for you. What’s up?” can be a great way to start a conversation. Getting more information about situations or variables that lead to meltdowns can often open up avenues for solutions.
In general, the younger the child, the less they will be able to discuss and reflect upon their behavior. The techniques I use when my 3 ½-year-old is having a meltdown about television are ALL behavioral and involve a combination of active ignoring and verbally praising when I see behaviors that are compliant (e.g., “Great job walking upstairs for bath time”). If you see patterns to the meltdowns, analyze what variables might be triggering them and try to problem solve.