Today’s post is from Dr. Méroudjie Denis, Licensed Psychologist and Director of Clinical Program Innovation here at Momentous Institute.
As a former early childhood educator, I know every teacher will likely encounter big behaviors from time to time. Yelling, name calling, refusing to work… these are all typical classroom experiences. And while each incident may be unique, there is a standard set of guidelines that can support you as you help manage big behavior.
Here is a step-by-step guide to respond to big behavior in the classroom:
1. Regulate yourself.
Acknowledge that when a child exhibits big behavior and becomes dysregulated, it is going to be dysregulating for the adult. For most of us, regardless of experience, a big behavior in the classroom is going to be dysregulating.
Once safety for yourself, the child and the other students is no longer a concern, before interacting with the child, take the ten seconds you need to regulate yourself as best as you can. You likely won’t get yourself back to baseline in a few seconds, but taking a short pause and taking slow, deliberate breaths will set you up for success on the next steps. The best way to do this is to take three deep breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.
2. Physically separate the child.
Physically separate the child from the rest of the students. This is for several reasons – one is to respect the child’s privacy and allow them space to work through their behavior separate from onlookers. Another reason to separate the children is that one child in the group may be triggering to the child in question (intentionally or not), and any efforts to remove triggers will support the ability to manage the behavior. Lastly, while the goal is de-escalation, sometimes behavior does escalate, and in this case, you want the child to be physically removed from other students to reduce the possibility of harm.
3. Get the other students engaged.
Ensure that the other students have a task they can easily engage in, so you’re not worried about the other 25 students who need your attention in that moment. The task should be something that is engaging and also at or below grade level for the students, so that they’re not asking you for help. It could be something like asking them to read a page from their book or run through a sheet of math facts. The goal here isn’t heavy academic content or to get them to learn something new – it’s simply to keep them occupied so you can attend to the child. Some teachers who have children with high-frequency disruptions prepare a folder of ready-to-go materials they can use when needed.
4. Depersonalize the behavior.
With these first three steps in place, you’re now ready to move to managing the behavior. The first step towards behavior management is also the hardest: depersonalize the behavior. This is not easy to do, but it is necessary to go towards the human and not the behavior. A child’s behavior is likely not towards you or about you. Let’s take an example. Let’s say you have a student who becomes dysregulated while trying to do a math problem. This is math they have done in the past and you know they are capable of doing. The child says it is too hard and becomes dysregualated. You attempt to help and the behavior escalates. The child calls you an unkind name. Most of us would automatically think that this was about us, our intervention, the way we handled it. But truly it is likely about the child feeling loss of control, an internal shame narrative or being triggered by something that didn’t even happen in the classroom at all. Depersonalizing the behavior puts you in a space where you can go towards another possibility beyond, “This child is being awful towards me.” This line of thinking will only lead towards power struggles, as an adult who feels disrespected often responds to that instead of the behavior itself. So say it with me, “It’s not about me.”
Next, I refer to Dr. Bruce Perry’s “Three R’s”: regulate, relate, reason.
5. Get the child back to a state of regulation.
As tempting as it is, this is not the time to rush into problem solving, asking the child why they did this, or asking them to take someone else’s perspective. When a child is in a state of dysregulation, they must first become regulated.
What does that look like? Helping a child regulate could mean sitting with the child and taking deep breaths while they slowly match your breathing or modeling the use of a tool in the calm down area. During regulation, you’re not using a lot of language. You’re simply trying to help their body return to a state of calm.
6. Relate or connect to the child.
Relating to the child does not mean that you are accepting or approving of the behavior, it simply means that you are noticing the child in their current emotional state. What does that look like? Examples of relating sentences might be:
It was really hard for you to hear me say no.
You weren’t ready to be done with this activity.
You were really hoping we would get to use our Chromebooks today.
Once you see, both through verbal and nonverbal cues, that the child is able to respond to you, you can move to the next step. (Non-verbal cues include more normal breathing, no longer kicking, hitting, screaming or whatever large behavior the child was exhibiting.)
7. Reason with the child.
The last “R” of Dr. Perry’s model is reason. With this step, you’re either helping the child figure out what to do next or how they are going to move on. Often this step involves helping a child figure out how to mend what has been hurt. If they’ve hurt something in the classroom or another child’s property, such as tearing something off the wall or destroying another child’s work, they would need to hang it back up, tape it back together, or find another way to repair it. Emotional damages are harder to repair. A child who has hurt another child’s feelings can be encouraged to think about what the other child may need. You may want to say something like, ‘I wonder how you would feel if this happened to you. I wonder what they need from you. I wonder if they need to hear you say that you’re sorry, or if they need you to help them.” Adults often jump to asking children to say sorry, as a response to an emotional “hurt.” I find that asking the child to think about how they would feel, followed by what they think the other person needs for them, helps build empathy and accountability beyond just saying sorry.
As you can see, responding to big behavior isn’t the quickest or easiest process. But following these steps will ensure that you are intentional about your response and allow the greatest chance for a child to feel safe and secure even when they make a mistake. This will only make the classroom environment stronger and improve behavior as a result.