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Techniques for Handling Emotional Outbursts in The Classroom
in The Primary Years

Parents dread the call from the school that their son or daughter had an emotional meltdown that took a while to get under control. In therapy, parents who are seeking help will say, "My child's teacher is open to any suggestions you might have as to how to handle my child in those situations." The following are suggestions and tips for the teachers to use during those emotional episodes.

First of all, the teachers are dealing with a variety of children who approach school and stress in different ways. Parents who have a child with any type of special needs should communicate to the teacher the nature of the special needs and not assume that he/she knows and understands your child. Some common diagnoses include learning disabilities, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Asperger's Syndrome, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, to name a few. The classroom teacher deals with children who are anxious and are worriers, others who are obsessive about their work and become emotional when it is not perfect, others who get easily frustrated which quickly escalates to anger and others who interpret situations as a one-sided interaction.

The following are some techniques for dealing with anxiety/tempers in the classroom with primary/elementary school-age children as presented in the book, Asperger Syndrome: What Teachers Need to Know, written by Matt Winter, copyright 2003. These techniques are winners and can be used for all children but are especially effective for children with Asperger Syndrome. Because so many children get confused by the intensity of their emotions, the following tips are useful for teachers helping any child control ones emotions.

Manage your emotions-The adult's response will have a direct effect on the situation. If the teacher gets angry it is like throwing fuel on the fire. If you stay calm and speak in a calm soothing voice you will have a positive influence. Once both of you are calm then try to sort out the conflict, not while emotions are running high.

Stress ball---Some children feel better if they have something to do with their hands especially if they are feeling emotional. A "Koosh ball" or other soft ball that the child can repetitively squeeze can serve to calm the child down. Some children feel better having something to fiddle with in their hands when they are upset or nervous. Rather than thinking of it as a distraction, think of it as a self-soothing tool. Teach anger management---Talk through the physical and emotional cues that let us (as human beings) know that we are getting angry. This can be taught to individual students or to the class as a whole.

  1. Stop, Think, Do---Talk the child (or the whole class) through this technique to use when getting angry. Stop what you are doing, think about what you could do and what might happen, choose the option that will keep you safe and do it.
  2. Teach the child and/or class how to stop and slowly count to ten when getting angry.
  3. Teach deep breathing techniques.
  4. Give safe alternatives to hitting---if there is a need to destroy, make it productive. Pupils can crush cans for recycling, tear up cardboard boxes so they can be laid flat for the recycling bin, etc.

Safe place---Discuss with the child a safe place in the classroom or the school to go to if stressed. The place should be nearby and safe. If the child cannot leave the classroom, a reading corner or bean bag chair can serve the purpose (be creative). Establish some rules for the amount of time and number of times it can be used. If possible, the child should let you know that he/she is going there. In some cases, it may be useful to schedule a regular time for the child to visit this place to rest and recharge batteries. The author explains that the children with Asperger Syndrome need this time out from the stress of dealing with busy classrooms.

The list continues but for purposes of wrapping up this piece, I will mention them but not describe them. Additional strategies for de-escalating anxiety and temper tantrums include: Deep pressure therapy, Security item, Burning off anxiety, Divert attention, Notebook of things not understood, Regular check-ins, Relevant consequences, Pick your battle, and Reward systems.

Winter's 98 page paperback book I found to be a handy resource for teachers and parents who are experienced with children but need a resource to help them focus and get the creative juices flowing. For those who need more background and understanding of the treatment problems, Winter provides an excellent chapter on finding resources. Included are organizations, websites, further reading and resources which can be applied to children with Asperger Syndrome but do generalize to children with a variety of disorders.

When a child's tantrums become few and far between you know that internally something has changed for the positive and the child is gaining control over himself and the environment. If the emotions continue to escalate and the number of occurrences does not subside, it is time to discuss the problems with your team and/or seek professional help.

Janet Dix, Ph.D.

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