Ten Strategies to Support Classes Impacted by Extreme Behaviors
When a child has extreme behaviors a lot of time, energy, and staff support goes towards intervening in crises, identifying needs, evaluating precipitating factors, considering the functions of the behaviors, and securing needed supports for THAT STUDENT. But what about the rest of the children? It tugs at the heartstrings to see the school experiences of the other students negatively impacted by aggressive and disruptive behaviors. It interrupts their learning. It disrupts their sense of safety. It exposes them to intense displays of emotion and stirs up intense emotions within themselves and their teachers. While there is no doubt that we have critical work to do with those exhibiting significant behaviors and students impacted by trauma in their lives, it is also really important to support the rest of the class.
1. Teach all students how to calm down
2. Teach expectations for safe and respectful behaviors
3. Teach safety lessons that emphasize accessing adult support
4. Create a plan for keeping the students safe
5. Provide lessons on identifying feelings in others
6. Teach empathy
7. Create calming routines and transitions
8. Offer extra support for targeted or anxious students
9. Support each other
10. Practice healthy self-care
Teach all students how to calm down. All students need to learn how to manage emotions in healthy ways. It is an especially important time to provide this instruction when students may be upset by having witnessed displays of out of control emotions. Include practice with deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and using positive self-talk. Teach the calming lessons from your Social Emotional Learning curriculum and hang up posters in the classroom in highly visible places and refer to them frequently. Supplement formal lessons with books that teach strategies for emotional regulation. After an emotional incident that may have frightened or raised the arousal level of the class, do a whole class calm down session together modeling the steps of calming down (this might help you too!)
Teach expectations for safe and respectful behaviors. Within your school’s identified rules, teach all children what is expected. It is important to establish that the undesired behavior is not okay. Young students can be very concrete in their thinking so it is helpful for them to hear that the adults are not okay with the behaviors they see in a classmate, especially if they have been hurt or scared. Teaching the expectations separately from an incident allows the opportunity for a reminder of the rules rather than negatively labeling the child in violation. Emphasize rules such as, “Keep your hands, feet, and objects to yourself.” Be consistent with re-teaching this expectation for all students even for less harmful physical behaviors.
Teach safety lessons that emphasize accessing adult support. Promote safety by teaching refusal skills and encouraging students to access adult help for any unsafe action or situation. Emphasize that safety rules are more important than other rules, like staying in line or being quiet. If someone is hurting you, get away and tell an adult. Frequently remind students that ALL of the adults at the school are there to help them be safe. Name them by name or role for each area of the school day. In addition to the teacher, include lunch room and playground supervisors, PE and music teachers, bus drivers, the school counselor, and principal.
Create a plan for keeping the students safe. Just like for a fire drill, it is essential to make a plan with your school support team in the event of a student crisis. Since removal of a student in melt down is difficult and often unsafe, a plan may include evacuating the rest of the class. Knowing and practicing ahead of time how to quickly line up and follow instructions will lessen the impact on other students during a highly disruptive incident. Knowing who will intervene with the child in crisis, who will stay with the class, where the class will go, and what the class will do while out of the classroom will help students and staff stay calm. Ideas might include identifying a buddy classroom or the library where students can do a calm activity such as a read aloud book or reading independently or together with an older student buddy. School counselors may work with the whole class or offer support to some of the more upset students.
Provide lessons on identifying feelings in others. Learning to identify what feelings look and feel like is a foundational skill for managing emotions, successful social interactions, and it can also help students stay safe. Teach students that they should step away rather than interact with someone that it really angry. That child needs grown up help. Teach social emotional lessons that help children identify what it looks like when someone is sad, angry, or scared. Help children understand that when someone has a REALLY strong feeling, they need a quiet space to calm down.
Teach empathy. Teach safe and empathetic responses to strong feelings in others. It is common for children to label a student with behavioral difficulties as “bad.” Everybody is important. Everybody is learning and growing and people have different feelings and different needs. Read stories to help children understand differences and needs. Foster forgiveness and kindness with activities that identify the strengths of all students including those that have extreme behaviors at times.
Create calming routines and transitions. Plan calming activities during transitions such as coming into the classroom from recess that support the whole class in down regulating from the less structured setting and movement. These activities not only help the rest of the students in calming down but may provide an opportunity to give extra support for those children that need more direct assistance settling down. Consider videos, music, and online transition applications. Consider adjusting transition times for students that become overly agitated frequently.
Identify a calm down spot in the classroom. Choose a place in the classroom for students to self-regulate before they get highly upset. Include a basket of sensory tools such as stress balls, small stuffed animals, a pinwheel or Hoberman sphere, books about feelings, and visually calming tools such as a calm down glitter jar. Making this space available for anyone who needs to calm down can de-stigmatize a child needing it more frequently.
Offer extra support for targeted or anxious students. Children who have been targeted by an aggressive child or who are anxious because of the behaviors may need additional support. Short term individualized attention will often go a long way supporting a typically functioning student who is anxious due to another child’s behavior. Reinforce with the child the lessons about safety and calming down and give feedback that they have followed the plan by reporting it. Help students choose which calming and safety strategies will work best for them. Help them feel safe and that their needs are important. Include information in your newsletter for all parents about calming lessons so they can further support children at home. In addition to equipping at home, parent communication demonstrates the additional care and support you have provided to help the rest of the students while protecting the confidentiality of the child.
Support each other. Teachers of a student exhibiting significant behaviors need to know that they are not alone. It is not their fault. Their feelings for themselves and the other students are valid. Since the journey of identifying supports for students is often long and focused on things the teacher should do, this is an important time to reach out to each other and show support for one another in addition to discussing helpful strategies to mitigate the impact on the other students and restore balance to the classroom.
Practice healthy self-care. Finally, whether you are the classroom teacher, a paraeducator, the special education teacher, the school counselor, or other support staff, managing extreme student behaviors is really difficult and emotional work. It is essential during these times to be diligent with your own self-care. Go outside. Breathe. Eat lunch. Practice calm. Make a list of things you are grateful for. Try to include a few about your work. The bottom line is that you have to take care of yourself to stay in the game. This is important work and I am personally grateful for all you are doing on behalf of the rest of the children.
Rebecca Bowen, M.Ed. is a full-time school counselor in Washington state and the author of My Incredible Talking Body: Learning to Be Calm (Mascot Books, 2017), a picture book that teaches emotional regulation and provides parents and educators with strategies to support the children in their lives.
A few favorite resources include: Second Step: Skills for Social and Academic Success (2011) including the Bullying Prevention and Child Protection Units, GoNoodle, Breathe and Stretch on the Beach by Julie Frizzi, Looking after Louis by Leslie Ely, Howard B. Wigglebottom Learns it’s Okay to Back Away, by Howard Binkow, and Hands are Not for Hitting by Martine Agassi.