In a classroom full of boys there are bound to be times when things are somewhat hectic, chaotic and downright ugly. In my classroom, we label such times as Meltdown Level Events or MLEs. We take these events very seriously and even though these events sometimes happen rather unexpectedly, we are always on high alert and well prepared.
When I was first hired for my position last February, I took some time to do some observations. I really had no idea what the staff was talking about when they informed me that my student frequently engaged in rage-filled shouting episodes that would make Sam Kinison seem rather weak by comparison. Then I experienced a MLE. It is truly a sight to behold. I have heard this child scream himself hoarse. It is brutal for the child to experience; it is painful to witness and even worse when one of his meltdowns is aimed at you.
We needed a plan to help the young man and we needed a plan to help the adults deal properly with these events. What follows, then, are our basic rules for dealing with students who are having a MLE.*
1. KiSS: Keep Students Safe.
By this I mean all students: the one in episode and others in the classroom. One of our practices is to protect privacy (and prevent an audience) by evacuating the classroom of all students to a safe place—we are close to the library which usually works very well. You should have a safe room to which you can quickly and easily move your students.
2. DNA: Do Not Argue.
Students will frequently make every attempt to engage an adult or to draw others into an argument. We simply do not take the bait. I heard someone say at a conference that there is no such thing as planned ignoring. I respectfully disagree. We do not allow the student to provoke us into a reinforcing response or into an engagement with his or her meltdown.
3. GAR: Give choices. Acknowledge compliance. Reinforce immediately.
My goal with students is compliance. Since these meltdowns always serve some function (e.g., escape, avoidance), my goal is to get them directed back to what I want them to do. I am a strong believer in giving choices as an intervention. When students comply, acknowledge it. Acknowledge any movement in the direction you wish them to be moving no matter how small. Finally, reinforcement works best when it is immediate.
4. EO: Eschew Obfuscation.
Use clear, simple and few words. Students who are melting down are in a state of intense frustration. They do not need lectures, stories or dissertations. In fact, they need very few words. Avoid long or complicated explanations. Simple words are best.
5. CDS: Clearly Defined Space.
Your students need to know you are there for them, but it is important that they have plenty of space. Keep them safe, yes, but there is no reason to smother them. We stay seated as much as possible. This keeps the students calm and prevents them from feeling blocked or threatened.
6. CTV: Conversational Tone and Volume.
The way we speak to students is a lot more important than the way they speak to us. We have heard shouting and vulgarity that would rival George Carlin. Students should never hear that from us. It is important for adults to stay in control of their own emotions and voices. Speak softly, gently, lovingly. But never sarcastically or condescendingly or loudly.
7. CC: Consistently Consistent.
Do not change the rules. Be consistent every time, with every student.
8. FWUS: Finish What yoU Start.
Students must learn to respect every adult who gives instructions. So, if someone gives one of my students an instruction, the student is expected to comply. On the other hand, if someone gives my student an instruction, I am not going to intervene if the student refuses to comply. The person who gave the instruction is expected to finish it. Intervening in someone else’s efforts only serves to undermine the effort. Sometimes I have made other teachers angry by standing by and not intervening, but the student must respect every adult. If I bail him or her out, we have lost. And so, ultimately, has the student.
9. FA: Fewer Adults=less stress.
Seriously, I start with two adults. That’s it. The fewer adults in the room the better. More adults add unneeded stress to the child and prevent a quicker resolution and de-escalation.
10. BA: Be the Adult.
Remember: You are the adult. Act like it. Do not succumb to the temptation to play ‘mirror’ with the child.
11. LEGO: Let go of your ego.
This is a tough thing to do because we all want to be the one who helps the student calm down and resolve. I have a particularly tough student and during a recent MLE, we did a staff swap (due to the length of the MLE) and I did not want to leave the room. He’s my student! I should be there! And sure enough, when I went back later, he was at a table, calm and de-escalated with a colleague. Snap!
I am, however, proud of the staff because WE worked together and kept a student safe, got him through the episode and eventually got him back to my classroom where he spent the rest of the day doing his schoolwork. It was not about me. It was about him.
12. ARC: Always Remain Calm.
Yep. Children feed off our stress, our actions and our busy-ness. Again, I encourage our staff to sit at strategic places, but sit. We do not pace. We do not talk to one another. We do not freak out. We stay in control of ourselves. Our calmness is a sign to students that we are in control. They have nothing negative to feed off of from us. These are effectively emotionless periods for the adults involved.
13. Q-TIP: Quit Taking It Personally.
I heard this during crisis intervention program training. It’s valuable because students will say all sorts of things during a MLE that they cannot control. Do not take it personally, do not carry a grudge and do not react to it.
My job is to advocate for my students. To me this means that it is my goal to keep them in school each day, to prevent suspensions and to prevent disciplinary action at the administrative level. My job is to teach my students how to manage and self-monitor their behavior. Thus the end goal of everything I do is compliance. If I give my student a direction, the expectation is that he will comply immediately. If he goes into episode, we work through it together. But at the end of the episode, the original direction still exists and the student must comply. Furthermore, if the student makes a mess during the episode (shreds paper, throws stuff around, etc.) it is his responsibility at the end to clean it up. I have left messes overnight to make the point abundantly clear to the student.
You may need to go over some of this with your general education teachers since they often do not know what to do with students who go into MLE. These tips work well with all students in the school population.
What practices do you live by? How would adjust this list?
P.S. If there is an MLE, it is also important to provide a recovery period for the student, for other students and for yourself. Direct the student to a designated safe place or quiet space to allow for cool down and recovery. Later on, after the MLE and recovery period, you can debrief the student and look for the teachable moment.
* Information to create this has been compiled and adapted from Conduct and Behavior Problems: Intervention and Resources for School Aged Youth (UCLA Center for Mental Health in Schools 2008) (Available for reproduction). Also, the Pre-Referral Intervention Manual, 3rd Ed., 2006). And Research Based Educational Practices for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, (Ryan, Hughes, Katsiyannis, McDaniel, and Sprinkle) in Teaching Exceptional Children, 2011. And, finally, from http://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/resources.html (see in particular the modules under the Behavior and Classroom Management tab).