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Helping a Student Having a Meltdown at School

According to the Child Mind Institute, a meltdown is defined as an extreme reaction to overwhelming or intense stimuli. It may be characterized by uncontrollable crying, frustration, anger, or tantrums. If you’re an educator, you know that meltdowns can happen anytime without warning. It’s essential to be prepared to deal with them calmly and constructively. Here are some tips:

Get Educated on the Matter

Before you can adequately deal with someone having a meltdown, it’s important to understand what a meltdown is. Licensed mental health first aid courses are a great way to learn more about mental health disorders and how to deal with them. This will give you the knowledge and skills you need to effectively help someone in a crisis.

For example, you’ll learn how to recognize the signs and symptoms of a meltdown, how to provide support, and when to seek professional help. This will give you the confidence you need to deal with a situation effectively.

In addition, it’s important to understand that meltdowns are not the same as tantrums. Tantrums are often attention-seeking behavior, while meltdowns are an uncontrolled response to overwhelming stimuli.

Recognize the Signs of an Impending Meltdown

Meltdowns can be triggered by many things, such as loud noises, bright lights, being touched, hunger, thirst, changes in routine, or feeling tired. Children with autism or other sensory processing disorders are more likely to be triggered by sensory overload. In essence, meltdowns are more likely to occur in places and situations where the child does not feel safe or cannot escape.

There are often warning signs that a child is about to have a meltdown. These may include:

  • becoming agitated or easily annoyed
  • withdrawing from interaction with others
  • fixating on one thing or becoming hyper-focused
  • having trouble communicating wants or needs
  • appearing lost in thought or spacey
  • beginning to stim or engage in repetitive behaviors

If you see any of these signs in a student, try to redirect their attention or remove them from the trigger situation. For example, offer them another toy to play with if they are fixated on a toy. If they are stemming, try to engage them in a calm activity such as reading or coloring.

If the child is having trouble communicating, try to use simple words and short phrases. If they are nonverbal, try to use gestures or sign language.

Try to Reduce Sensory Overload

Reducing sensory overload may help prevent a meltdown from occurring in the first place. If you know that your student is sensitive to certain stimuli, do your best to avoid those triggers. For example, if loud noises tend to trigger a meltdown, try to provide earplugs or noise-canceling headphones.

On the other hand, if bright lights are an issue, try closing blinds or turning off overhead lights. If possible, allow the student to take breaks in a quiet room away from the stimulus that is causing them distress.

It’s also essential to create a sensory-friendly environment in the classroom. This may include soft lighting, comfortable seating, noise-canceling headphones, fidget toys, and bean bag chairs. Making small adjustments can create a calm and supportive environment for all students.

a little girl smiling with paint in her hands

Create a Safe Space for Students to De-Stress

Having a safe space for students to go to when they feel overwhelmed can help prevent meltdowns. This could be an empty classroom, office, nurse’s office, library media center, etc. The space should be calming and free from any triggers that may cause distress.

It should also be stocked with supplies that may help soothe the student, such as fidget toys, stress balls, soft blankets, etc. Let the student know that this space is available whenever they need it and encourage them to use it before they reach the point of melting down.

In addition, it’s crucial to have a plan in place for when a student does have a meltdown. This plan should be created in collaboration with the student, their parents, and any other relevant school staff. The plan should detail the steps to de-escalate the situation and provide support.

Teach Coping Strategies and Deep Breathing Exercises

Teaching coping strategies and deep breathing exercises can help students learn how to deal with stress healthily and prevent meltdowns from happening. Some coping strategies that may help include:

  • listening to calm music
  • writing or drawing in a journal
  • stretching
  • squeezing stress balls
  • playing with putty
  • snuggling with stuffed animals
  • walking around the room
  • doing something funny

Encourage students to use these coping strategies when they start feeling overwhelmed. Modeling deep breathing exercises can also be helpful. Try leading the class in some deep breathing exercises before tests or big projects are due to help everyone relax.

Meltdowns can be incredibly difficult for both students and educators alike, but some things can be done to prevent them from happening, and steps can be taken to de-escalate them once they do occur. By being aware of potential triggers and developing coping mechanisms ahead of time, meltdowns can often effectively be prevented in classrooms and schools.