Exceptional Children: Navigating Learning Differences & Special Education

A Team Approach to Handling Meltdowns

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Meltdowns are frequently part of the landscape when you have a child with special needs in your classroom or home. Understanding that this behavior is almost certainly a result of a sensory or emotional overload, not deliberate or malicious sabotage, is the first step toward constructively handling a meltdown. Having a plan in place is essential to minimizing the impact of these events to both child and environment.

Reverend Robert Tywoniak was no stranger to dealing with crisis when Hurricane Andrew hit his Florida community in 1992. As CEO of Catholic Charities' Child Welfare Division, his agency was a frontline responder. They were able to save hundreds of lives per day, track all children in the devastated area, rebuild, and come back as a stronger agency than before the storm hit. Reverend Tywoniak later wrote that the key to their success was "good leadership, strategic planning, rehearsal, and doing it all together."

A child in the midst of a melt-down is a little hurricane unto himself. Reverend Tywoniak's article "Preparing for Natural Disaster," featured in a 2006 issue of Children's Voice, cited areas for pre-planning that seem, eerily, to parallel a child's meltdown. Look at the following and see if you don't agree. Reverend Tywoniak attributes his team's successful weathering of the storm to the fact that they already knew:

  • What a storm (meltdown) is and what it can do (what the child might do during a meltdown)
  • How to address a storm's (meltdown's) many challenges: how to detect its approach, how to prevent some of the damage, how to keep children and property safe, steps to recovery
  • That expectations may turn out wrong during the actual event (your Plan A handling of the meltdown is not effective)
  • How each person on the staff (not to mention the child) thinks and acts, especially under pressure
  • Who within and outside the agency (classroom, school, home) can be counted on
  • That leadership is a chain of command and that you might have to be in command if others are incapacitated (if Plan A doesn't work, you want to be able to move swiftly to Plan B, C, or D)

Having a plan in place to handle meltdowns is not a substitute for what should be the ongoing process of trying to identify the source of the meltdowns. Frequent triggers include sensory overload, inability to communicate needs, unarticulated physical pain, and inability to meet academic or social expectations. Being able to act calmly and compassionately to help a child when the storm strikes helps build the trust within both of you that will ultimately give him the tools to overcome such obstacles. A plan for meltdowns could include the following steps:

Heed possible warning signs of an impending meltdown. These could include inappropriate movement, such as the child getting out of his seat, moving around the room, or walking away when someone is talking to him; destructive behavior like tearing books or paper, breaking pencils or rulers, and kicking over chairs; abusive language or threats; physical signs of distress like crying, hyperventilating or holding breath, sweating, loss of balance, changes in skin color, or covering ears or eyes; or hurting self or others.

Designate one or more safe-haven recovery areas. These are areas where the student can go to regroup and calm himself, such as a corner of the classroom with pillows, a rocking chair, headphones, books, and fidget toys. Other possibilities might include a quiet office (of a principal, nurse, or counselor), a room in the house, an outside area (with adult supervision, and only if the child can be contained and kept safe), or another area of the school (a gym, cafeteria, or resource center).

Marshall the support team. Establish a chain of command and a de-escalation process so that the child is never being talked to by multiple adults at once. This makes it impossible for him to comply and may actually escalate rather than defuse the situation. All team members should be familiar with the de-escalation plan, as any member may be called upon to step in at any time. In the school setting, the chain of command for intervention might look like: paraprofessional, teacher, special educator, another teacher familiar to the student, counselor or school psychologist, and principal.

Once the team and the plan are in place, a periodic rehearsal will ensure your readiness on a moment's notice. We all remember what it's like to be shown how to change a tire in a driver's education class, only to encounter our first flat tire years later and find that the knowledge has lain dormant for so long it's effectively gone. Good planning must include regularly "hitting the refresh button."

Teach the child steps to rejoin the class or family. Engage the child in pre-taught stress reduction techniques. Never try to teach when a child is angry or otherwise distraught. When the meltdown subsides, let the child know he may rejoin the class or family when his voice is quiet like yours, his body is under control, and he is able to follow directions from the adult in charge. Check for comprehension of these conditions.

Help him make restitution. He can do this by restoring disrupted areas, repairing broken items, or apologizing if appropriate. Apologies don't have to be verbal--the child could also write a note or draw a picture.

Follow up. Once the child is calm (but not too long after the episode), review the incident in a supportive--not punitive--manner that ensures he understands what he did wrong, how he can handle it differently next time (present information visually if possible), and what he did right. Point out positive things by saying something like, "That was a nice note you gave to Teddy. He knows you didn't mean to hurt him and now he feels better." Talk about or create a short story with visuals to help the child identify and understand his own feelings, how his feelings affect his behavior, and how everyone experiences and copes with these feelings at times.

One of the basic tenets of social work is that you must take care of yourself if you are to be able to effectively care for others. Dealing with meltdowns is stressful. Team members' support of each other is important. After each meltdown:

  • Meet as a group and review what worked and what didn't. Brainstorm any new ideas that may have arisen as a result of the incident. When you handled it well, give yourself credit.
  • Air personal feelings. Adults and children both push each other's buttons without realizing it. Intern-alizing these feelings may be natural, but ultimately the team will be stronger if such feelings can be put on the table and acknowledged in a constructive manner.
  • Know when to ask for outside help. A fresh set of eyes or a different expert skill set may offer new perspectives. It sometimes is hard to see the forest for the trees.
  • Encourage each other to build self-care into your lives. Many teachers, caregivers, and social workers are parents too, and they go home to a second shift similar to what they have been doing during their workday--nurturing and teaching. And all parents are teachers and caregivers, too. It's important to take time to nurture yourself.

Ellen Notbohm is author of Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, Ten Things Your Student with Autism Wishes You Knew, and The Autism Trail Guide: Postcards from the Road Less Traveled, all ForeWord Book of the Year finalists. She is also co-author of the Independent Book Publishers' Silver Medal winner 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger's and a contributor to numerous publications and websites around the world. To contact Ellen or explore her work, visit www.ellennotbohm.com.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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