I am currently tutoring at a local community center in the Chapel Hill area, and I have gained so much valuable experience by working with these children. One lesson I learned this week was how to better deal with emotional breakdowns and behavioral issues within the classroom. I am currently working with a group of second graders, and one of my second graders has been exhibiting a lot of behavioral issues lately. (For confidentiality reasons, I will use a fake name, so I will refer to him as Johnny.) For the past few weeks, Johnny has been having a lot of trouble focusing, experiencing a lot of frustration with his schoolwork, and acting out in the classroom. Usually, we take him outside to calm down, and then he will come in and put his head down for the rest of the evening and the teachers will leave him alone. This week, however, I decided to go talk to Johnny to see what was going on.
When I went over to Johnny, his head was on his desk and he was refusing to eat his snack. I asked him “Johnny, can you please look up?” When he looked up I said, “If you want to be alone, I understand, but can we maybe talk about what’s upsetting you today?” Immediately, he looked at me, with tears in his eyes and said, “Let’s talk.” I found out that, this week, Johnny was upset with his teacher because she took his toy away during reading time. I asked him, “Do you think that your toy was distracting you, and maybe that is why she took it?” and Johnny replied, “No, it really helps me pay attention.” I then asked him, “Have you told your teacher this? and he replied, “No, if I try to talk about it with her, she just interrupts.” After talking it through with him, and finally asking him to either talk to his parents or talk to his teacher about his frustrations, I came to a realization: A lot of kids could be struggling in their classrooms and breaking out in rage and frustration because we, as teachers, aren’t trying to figure out what is really going on with them. Instead of ignoring their bad behaviors and labeling them as “bad kids” we need to help these children figure out what is going on, in order to help them better regulate their emotions. Therefore, I came to the conclusion that there are two things we must do in order to truly help these children: (1) Listen and (2) Cope.
The first part, about listening, is very important. I feel that if Johnny’s teacher had taken the time to listen to why he was playing with the toy, or asked him later after class, she would have realized that he could have some attention issues. In this case, it would be better to just let him keep the toy, in order to help him pay attention while he was reading, as long as it didn’t become too much of a distraction. It is very possible that Johnny is suffering from some form of ADHD or attention-related disability and truly needs something to help him focus, which brings me to the next phase: coping.
There are two main ways we can attack coping with emotional outbreaks: (1) Quick fixes and (2) Long-term strategies. One of my colleagues wrote a post related to these “quick fixes,” as I call them, (found here) where she discussed the benefit of fidgeting. Allowing students, who have trouble maintaining attention, to stand, move around, or play with some type of toy is really beneficial for them and is actually more helpful than distracting. One new invention, which she touched on in her article, is the “fidget cube” (picture below) where students can roll, push, twist, or flip certain buttons to keep focused in class.
Aside from these short term fixes, there are long-term strategies teachers can use to help these students succeed in the classroom. Dr. Lori Desautels actually wrote a post related to this entitled, “Emotional Regulation for Kids With ADHD” (found here) where she discussed six strategies to help these students handle their frustration in the classroom. There were two that were particularly interesting to me: (1) whole class discussions, and (2) chunking. The first is just having an open class discussion about how all of us are different and come with our own set of difficulties in the classroom. This is important because it teaches children not only to be more understanding when some children get frustrated more often, but also to understand that they may get to do things a little differently than other students. The second strategy I really liked was chunking, which is essentially breaking larger assignments into pairs of smaller assignments. Once the student completes one pair of assignments, they get a short brain break (such as free reading or drawing) and then they move on to the next pair of assignments. Something I found so inspiring about Dr. Desautels’ post is that she was actually working with a second-grade ADHD student, with behaviors similar to Johnny, and she found these strategies very useful.
Overall, I think it is very important for teachers to be attentive when children are discussing their frustrations, and try to have an open discussion about how they could work together to cope with future frustrations. Some of the strategies above are great for helping students with ADHD or attention issues, however, there are so many other disabilities that children are dealing with in any given classroom. That is why it is so important for teachers to research how to best help all of these students through all of their frustrations and setbacks. A lot of research is out there folks, we just have to look for it.