I’ve learned a few tricks over many years of working with emotionally reactive students—kids who feel emotions intensely and have difficulty managing them. Each time I acquire a new skill, I put it in my toolkit, my figurative database of different techniques to try in situations when students are in crisis. These students do not yet possess self-regulation strategies to help themselves, so my job is helping them out of the immediate moment. One technique does not work for every student, so I take the pragmatic approach and just keep rolling through my toolkit of tricks until I find one that’s effective.
Students often act out because they’re not feeling seen or heard, so if I give them my complete focus, they’re having that need met. I get a student’s attention first by using his or her name, which communicates that I’m there to help. Eye contact is my first tool. I know this sounds basic, but it’s essential. I’ve found that if I focus all of my attention on the student with my eyes and convey a real sense of empathy, it begins to build a bridge of understanding. After saying their name and catching their eye, I engage them in some dialogue.
The first strands of conversation are not particularly of consequence as I am merely trying to get their mind off being flooded with negative emotions. Sometimes I ask a genuine question like, “What is the matter?” and other times I try to distract with a completely unrelated comment like, “Whoa! Is that the Millennium Falcon outside?” I have also been known to tell a silly joke as a means of shaking a student out of a frustrated mindset.
Saying something that has absolutely nothing to do with the present moment may also be enough to snap them out of their troubled state. I’ve used distraction in many ways to get a student’s attention off of whatever or whoever made them furious and bring them back to a state of rational thinking. Once, I walked into a room where a student was holding a cadre of teachers at bay at the side of the room by brandishing a shelf from a bookcase. After quickly surveying the scene, I just said, “Hey what is that?” while pointing away from me. That second of distraction was enough for the student to forget what he was doing, see my friendly face, and give me his would-be weapon, and the crisis was resolved peacefully.
Rapport is the best remedy for any crisis situation. For this reason, I make a point of getting to know the students with histories of being highly reactive. I like to think of this as building equity in case a need arises. One day I was walking out to the recess field with my football and passed the PE teacher. She politely asked what I was doing, and I replied, “I’m going to have some positive experiences with kids.” She appreciated this response and understood immediately that my laying the groundwork with positive interactions could pay off exponentially later on. And playing with the kids is just fun, for them and me!
Use a Tactile Approach
A tactile approach can also be extremely useful. For a specific young autistic student, I bring a small squishy soccer ball to any situation because simply handing him that ball is enough to quell his anger. With another student I use hand squeezes that count down from five: I hold his hand in mine as he holds my thumbs, then count five hand squeezes, and next he squeezes my thumb five times. Then we do four squeezes each, working our way down to one in 30 seconds or less, and the frustration abates. These tactile techniques can give students a safe and positive way to let out their negative energy.
My favorite technique from my toolkit involves only breathing. Teaching a student how to breath intentionally as a means of controlling emotions is one of the gifts I impart. I ask them to focus on my eyes, and I teach hand signals to reduce verbalization and focus first on the act of breathing. The hand signals are as follows: palms up to breathe in, palms out to hold the breath, palms down to breathe out. We do no more than five total breaths, and the entire process takes about 40 seconds.
I like teaching this technique because it can help promote emotional self-regulation and clear thinking in any situation. Intentional breathing can be used to alleviate test-taking anxieties, to center oneself before giving a presentation, to find a moment of peace before moving from one thing to the next, or just to mindfully be present in the moment.
Emergency situations can be impactful for everyone involved: the student acting out, the staff trying to help, and any student who witnesses the action. I arrive in these instances ready to use my toolkit to help resolve problems as quickly as possible.
Our purpose is to help our students however they need, and guiding them to get their emotions under control can be one of the most essential lessons we teach.