Teaching When You’re Not a Teacher: Meltdowns

Teaching Special Needs Meltdowns

Does this post need more of a title?

Children can have irrational reactions to just about anything.

I think I’d be getting your hopes up if I said that I could teach you how to keep kids from having meltdowns.

I’m not some mystical child-whisperer. 

However, I can teach you some strategies for working through meltdowns when you a) don’t know the child super well, and/or b)you are in a small group setting and can’t devote 20 minutes to working through emotions.

Know the Child

This is where you have to do some leg work by talking to the child’s parents and, possibly, some trial-and-error.

  1. Does the child crave contact (cuddles, sitting on lap, etc.), or do they want to be left alone when they are upset?

It’s fascinating to me that children that have the same autism diagnosis can respond to touch in completely different ways. Some seek it, some abhore it, and others try to push you away but they actually do want physical contact.

*I think it goes without saying that if a particular child does respond well to physical contact, you need to talk to the parents and find out what they do and what they are comfortable with. *

2) Is the child able to be distracted from big feelings? If so, what does the trick?

This may be a phrase, it may be an activity (like coloring), or it may be something sensory like a squishy ball, a beloved stuffed animal, etc.

Just keep this info in your back pocket. You never know when you might need it.

3) Are there any triggers to avoid and/or things I need to know?

Some children may have fears or anxieties about everyday things and events we don’t even think about. Think bees (every time they are in grass), or electricity, or plumbing. Or there may be stressors at home such as divorce or a new sibling that can most definitely affect their behavior.

Taking a few minutes to talk to a child’s parents can make a world of difference and avoid unnecessary, unpleasant situations. Plus, it shows the parents that you care. 

Give Choices

When a child is melting down and you really don’t have the time or space to let them cry, or talk about it, etc., you can give a child choices.

I recommend only two choices, since his/her decision-making skills will undoubtedly diminish during these big feelings.

The choices need to encourage positive behavior without rewarding negative behavior.

Let me say that again: The choices need to encourage positive behavior without rewarding negative behavior. 

Rather than offer bribes of treats or special privileges if they calm down, offer them choices for how they calm down.

For the youngest kids, I use the “power of 5” strategies.

Yes, I made that up all by myself. So don’t google it, it’ll just lead you right back here. 

The “power of 5” strategies are:

  1. take 5 big breaths
  2. Take a 5-minute cool-off (basically a time-out but it’s not a punishment, it’s an opportunity)
  3. Count to 5 (or 10 or 15, depending on the child’s abilities)

Obviously, you can adjust these as necessary.

But the point is you are offering choices that allow them to calm down and re-enter the situation/group without rewarding the meltdown.

Be Gentle but Firm

It is completely acceptable to validate a child’s feelings, even mid-meltdown.

Technically, it goes beyond acceptable and I fully encourage it. 

I think it can even be harmful to dismiss a child’s emotions, however irrational they may appear to you.

When a child is having a meltdown, squat/sit down so you are eye-level with them, and say:

“I can tell you are mad (or sad, or frustrated, etc.). It is no fun to be mad. Let’s choose a way to feel happy again. You can choose _____ or _______.”

Personally, when in a small group situation, or one where time is limited, I do not acknowledge why they are feeling so upset. That often causes a resurgence of crying and sobbing- not exactly what you want. If you feel a discussion is in order, you can mention it to the parents or talk about it with the child at a later time (when they are calm).

Being gentle but firm is a good balance. You are not a pushover, but you also are not “laying down the law.” You show you understand why a child is upset, but offer healthy ways to deal with those emotions.

So there you have it! I hope this series has encouraged those of you who find yourselves teaching or interacting with children.

Final note: If you would like more posts about dealing with emotions, check them out here and here and here.

Do you have any questions or comments for dealing with meltdowns? I would love to hear them!



Teaching Special Needs Children (When You’re Not a Teacher)

Teaching Special Needs Part One

The national average incidence of autism is 1 in 68.

One in 691 babies born in the USA has Down Syndrome.

Now, I could just keep rattling off statistics, but here’s my point: whether it is babysitting, a church calling, or extended family members, chances are you will come into contact with a child with special needs.

In my life, I have seen several instances where an adult has the opportunity to interact with and teach a child, but they feel overwhelmed or don’t know how to effectively teach a child with special needs.

Because of this, I was inspired to write this series on teaching and working with special needs children when you are not trained to be a teacher.

I want this to be helpful to as many people as possible, so I am trying to offer basic principles that can be adapted for any age group or any needs that a child may have. If you have specific questions, please email me!

Set Clear, Simple Expectations

If it’s one thing I’ve learned as a speech therapist (and, let’s face it, more so as a mom) it is that I use too many words. I’ll completely botch a golden teaching moment by trying to explain it as an adult, rather than trying to explain it on a child’s level.

The best thing you can possibly do is set clear, simple expectations.

Notice I didn’t say rules. 

Rules sound so restrictive. Even though kids need (and secretly crave) rules, I think setting expectations puts it in a more positive light. As in this is what I expect and know you can do, versus you can’t do this or this or this.

Here are some examples:

Hands to self.

Raise your hand to speak. 

Eyes on teacher.  

Obviously, these are for little ones- probably ages 3-5.

You can adapt them as necessary.

Use Visuals

Pictures are great.

Pictures help enormously.

Pictures are even more helpful when your expectations are simple and direct.

It really is as easy as printing pictures off of the internet and gluing them onto construction paper.

Maybe cardstock if you wanna get fancy.

Children respond to visual input WAY better than auditory input. This is especially true for children with special needs. Pictures are tangible, and there’s no chance of the meaning getting lost in translation.

Use the Same Phrase

Children with special needs have brains that are wired differently. It’s not bad or wrong, it’s just different.

Whereas other children may have several synapses that can make connections, children with special needs tend to have “tunnel vision” when it comes to language comprehension and following directions.

What are you talking about woman?!

Basically, if you try to say the same thing fifty different ways in an attempt to help them understand, it will most likely not be beneficial because the child cannot comprehend what you are asking of them.

Buuuuuuuuutttt…….. if you have the same simple phrase that has meaning to a child, you are far more likely to get the response you want.

Can you tell what the word of the day is?

Remove the Unknown

Children with special needs often thrive on routine and “the known.” Some children have anxiety and/or will act out when they don’t know how long something is going to take, what is going to happen next, where mom/dad is, etc.

Luckily, you as the teacher can remove the unknown.

Depending on the anxieties of your child, you could use:

  1. a timer (for how long each task will take)
  2. a visual schedule or routine (ha! you’re in luck- I just did a post on this!)
  3. a whiteboard with the number of tasks (check them off as completed)
  4. a countdown timer with how many minutes are left in class (you could keep it on your phone so it’s not a distraction for other students).

I hope that this post has offered you some helpful ideas for working with students with special needs.

Stay tuned for my next post in this series- how to promote engagement with special needs children!