These are frustrating and bewildering times for many students. Family routines and living conditions may have changed. Many students have experienced the loss of loved ones. Some students may be the victims of the emotional outbursts and abuse of others in their lives.
Schools can also be places where pressures mount and frustrations build. Not being successful, feeling isolated, and having to comply with expectations are just some of the potential sources of emotional stress students experience.
It is not surprising that the confusion and frustrations students feel sometimes build and may come out in emotional eruptions. Once emotions boil over, controlling them can be difficult, especially for young people who see few options to change and make their lives better. Our challenge is to respond with sensitivity and skill while keeping everyone safe. Here are six keys to navigating these occasions with empathy and professionalism.
First, intervene early. Students often show signs that they are becoming upset and may be moving in the direction of an emotional eruption well before they lose control. We might choose to ignore the student and hope that they are able to manage their emotions. This approach might work with some students under some conditions. However, when emotions continue to escalate, the level of disruption, emotional costs, and time required to respond usually make early intervention the better choice. When students show signs of growing agitation, often a quick check-in to see how the student is doing or offering a short break for self-calming can be enough to deescalate emotions and maintain control. Showing care before the situation escalates can often be enough to avoid a full-blown meltdown.
Second, keep everyone safe. Guiding the student to a space away from other students can minimize the risk that anyone might be physically harmed if the student strikes out in frustration. If the student refuses to move, or moving the student is not practical, we can move other students a safe distance away. However, if it appears that anyone might be in physical danger, including us, we need to reach out for support from another adult resource. Waiting until someone is harmed is too late.
Third, assume a calm and patient stance. If students who are out of emotional control sense that we are panicking, becoming angry, or are impatient, their reaction is often to escalate the outburst. When our emotions are focused on ourselves, we cannot establish an emotional connection with the student. Listening, comforting, and understanding can be our best tools.
Fourth, avoid making threats. When students are in a state of high agitation, processing information is difficult, if not impossible. Threatening actions can make the situation worse. Verbal threats will not likely lead to emotional calm and control, if they are heeded at all. Don’t be surprised if students later do not recall what we said to them during the time their emotions were out of control.
Fifth, delay discussion of consequences and next steps. Once the emotional crisis has passed and the student is calm and can engage, there will be time to discuss what happened and what, if any, disciplinary consequences are appropriate. This discussion needs to be in the context of understanding and finding solutions and strategies to avoid future episodes. Students need to be responsible for their behavior, but they often need us to teach and coach them in how to recognize and manage escalating emotions.
Sixth, tend to the emotions of the class. Emotional outbursts by classmates can be traumatizing experiences. Some students may be frightened. Others may respond by becoming upset and losing control of their emotions. Still others may be angry and resentful in response to the situation. Spending a few minutes processing what happened can help students to make sense of the experience and give us clues regarding who in the class may need more attention and follow-up.
As much as we might wish we could, we cannot protect our students from many of the challenges and frustrations they face in life. We also cannot always anticipate and prevent emotional eruptions. However, we can be there to provide support, guidance, and insight to help students through these difficult experiences. Often it is enough just to be someone our students can trust and count on when they need us.