When Children Get Rattled

Photograph by Jeff Woodward.Remember that children develop new skills over time and at different rates. As they develop greater coping skills, they’ll make mistakes. The calmer you are when they fail to shake off a little setback as practiced, the easier it will be for them to bounce back.

Keep your cool

We may get annoyed if students get quickly frustrated or seek our help for what we consider minor problems. But when we show our frustration, the child may become more upset, furthering diminishing his sense of competence. If you feel frustrated, take some deep breaths or, if possible, a short break before talking with him about the behavior.

Comfort a child who’s deeply upset

When you believe a child is in true distress—even if unsure why—give her comfort and support. Whether rational or not, a child who’s distraught needs care (a pat on the shoulder or kind words, such as “It’s going to be OK”) and some time to calm down. While some teachers worry that offering comfort can diminish a child’s ability to handle disappointments, not doing so may make a situation worse and damage your relationship with her.

Remind and redirect in a calm voice

If you believe the child is not overly distressed, use a calm voice to remind him of the expectations or to redirect him. Try to offer such reminders or redirection privately to minimize embarrassment.

Don’t minimize or reason away the upset

The moment a child is distressed is not the time to try to shift her perspective. In the heat of the moment, most children won’t be able to reason with you about what they’re upset about or why. Instead, use neutral teacher language and logical consequences to help them change direction and restore their emotional balance.

Avoid suggesting that what happened was not worth getting upset about or was insignificant. If you appear to lack empathy, the child may experience the hurt more strongly or for a longer time. After he’s calmed down, you may want to revisit the incident to help him gain a different perspective.

Reminding and Redirecting Language in Action

If a situation like this happens: Lydia interrupts your work with a small group during math time to say that she “can’t remember” how to complete her assignment.
Try this: “Ask a friend for help the way we practiced. Sam looks ready to help. Give me a thumbs-up when you find out what you need.” Then, observe and reinforce Lydia’s efforts at solving the problem for herself.

If a situation like this happens: Evie asks if she can be the line leader. When you say, “No, that job belongs to Bella today,” she gets visibly upset and replies, “I have never even been the line leader before!”
Try this: “Evie, stop. Take a deep breath . . . and another. Show me how we practiced responding when you’re disappointed.” Then, if Evie does so, reinforce with a quick, “That’s it!”

If a situation like this happens: At an assembly, the speaker asks for volunteers. T.J. raises his hand, but when he’s not picked, he turns around so that his back is to the speaker.
Try this: Move closer to T.J. and say, “T.J., turn your body back. Put your eyes on the speaker and show the respectful listening we practiced.”

Calmly guide the child toward a solution

Instead of trying to convince the child not to be upset or negotiating with her, use neutral language to lay out the options. Then, step back and let the child make the choice. Or, use open-ended questions to help the child figure out what she needs in that moment.

Teacher Language in Action: Guiding Children to Solve Problems Independently

Situation: Devon refuses to participate in a class game unless he can be “It.”
Instead of this: “Come on, Devon, if you participate this round, you can be ‘It’ next round.”
Try this: “It’s up to you whether to participate. We’d like to have you join us, but if you don’t want to, you need to follow our rules for ‘passing.'”

Situation: Emma complains that she needs you to sit with her to do her math.
Instead of this: “I know you can do it. Remember last week when you did problems just like this? You know how good you are at math.”
Try this: “Tell me more about what you think the problem is.” Or, “What kind of help do you think you need?”

Situation: You call on someone other than Ani to act out a scene from the read-aloud. She puts her head down and says, “I never get to be the actress.”
Instead of this: “That’s not true. Remember last week? You acted out the part of Gooney Bird Greene in our social studies dramatization.”
Try this: “I know you’re disappointed. Show me one strategy we practiced for overcoming your disappointment.”

Respond with logical consequences, if needed

When a child is so upset that teacher language is not effective, you may need to use a logical consequence to help her regroup and preserve her relationships with classmates (who may feel dismayed by how she’s acting). Use a calm, matter-of-fact voice when giving a consequence to keep from further upsetting the child. See the examples that follow.

Logical Consequences in Action

If a situation like this happens: Marcus is working on a project with three other classmates. He wants to make a poster as the final product, but the other three agree to make a brochure. He starts drumming on the tabletop and refuses to talk when they ask for his help getting started.
Try this: Loss of privilege: “Marcus, stay here. Eric, Cindy, and Evan, take your materials to the rug area and work there.”

Give Marcus a few minutes to collect himself. When he’s ready, say, “Your group is going to work without you today. We’ll talk later about how to get back on track with them. For now, complete this part of the project.”

If a situation like this happens: Chloe is working on a writing assignment. She asks Felix to help her spell a word, but he suggests she look for it on the word wall instead. Chloe gets angry and rips her paper.
Try this: Time-out, followed by “you break it, you fix it”: “Chloe, take a break.” When she appears calm, say, “There’s tape at the writing center. Fix your paper and get back to writing.”

If a situation like this happens: Khalil drops his lunch tray near his classmate, Chandra, and milk splatters on her legs. Khalil immediately apologizes, but Chandra yells at him, “You idiot, what’s wrong with you?”
Try this: Time-out: “Chandra, take a break. That’s not a respectful way to talk to a classmate.”

Later, check in with Chandra and practice other strategies she could have used to calm down or other words she could have spoken.

You may also want to ask about any reparation she might offer to Khalil.

After you take care of a situation, continue to assess what’s going on with a particular child or the whole class. Based on that assessment, return to the proactive strategies outlined earlier in this chapter, and reteach or adjust them as needed.

Tags: Challenging Behaviors, Misbehavior

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