What do Emotional Outbursts Look Like?

One of the greatest things about being a teacher is that you never have two days that are the same. Our students’ behaviors can at times be far from predictable – but we can’t ignore possible warning signs, triggers, or any type of pattern behaviors when a student is struggling within our classroom. This won’t happen overnight, but maybe through close observation and analyses, the behaviors will in fact become predictable and eventually preventable.

At any given time, regardless of how much experience a teacher may or may not have, no matter how strong they are with behavior management that is established in their class, outbursts may happen within the regular education or special education classroom. As educators we must be observant of identifying anything that may be causing the behavioral outburst.

Typically, students show warning signs before an outburst occurs. As educators, we must be in tune to our students to be able to identify these signs. Students may signal that they are on the verge of an outburst by refusing to follow directions, clenching their fists, removing themselves from an activity or distancing themselves from peers, facial expressions and body language, or sometimes it could be something as simple as “freezing” and not moving forward with the rest of the class. These may be possible indicators that a student is dealing with several emotions and beginning to melt down. At the same time while trying to identify triggers and look for signals, it is important to always keep in mind that there are never any two students that are the same, and warning signs may not be easy to identify.

Outbursts within a classroom could look several different ways and reach several different levels of severity depending on the student and their past experiences with trauma or behavioral issues. An outburst could consist of a student pushing themselves away from their desk and stomping their feet, a student shutting down or yelling and crying, or it could be to the extreme of a violent outburst that causes the entire class to exit the area and de-escalation strategies must be applied. Often our responses to the student’s behavior can indicate what the outcome will be.

How to De-escalate the Situation

It is extremely important that throughout an outburst observations are occurring. Naturally, we must observe all surroundings and be sure that the student(s) are safe at all times. It also should be noted that it is never ok to discipline a student during the middle of an outburst. The student who is struggling to keep their emotions in check is not in the correct state of mind to be able to process anything rational during an outburst. Allowing the outburst to work its course while taking into consideration all safety measures and trying specific de-escalation techniques will determine the outcome of the outburst.

De-escalation techniques are a huge component of outbursts ending sooner as opposed to later. Knowing your students, identifying triggers, and never allowing your own frustration to set in are all valuable suggestions when deescalating a behavior.

If a student is beginning to show signs of a possible outburst, verbal de-escalation is a possible solution. Changing the subject, showing empathy without lowering expectations, and providing a choice with a desirable outcome for both the teachers and the students are also strategies that may work.

If verbal de-escalation tips are not something that tends to work for a particular student, sometimes closer proximity to them may help. Sending a student on an errand or giving them a “job” to do may be enough of a cool down break for the student to help them shift their mindset from the verge of a possible meltdown to getting back on track with the rest of the class.

After the student does settle and gets back on track, it is extremely important that at some time throughout the day, the adult that was present during the outburst touch base with the student and talk about the situation in a calming approach. Processing the student’s behaviors and identifying what resources that student has as well as coping skills will be something that the student remembers to use the next time they are in a similar situation.

Providing our students with a “toolbox” of skills and strategies to cope through a situation may be the key the student needs to help them be successful in the classroom. Looking ahead and discussing the “next time” that the student is feeling all of the same emotions and what they could do differently will give the student a clear picture of expectations and how they can cope. This also gives the teacher an idea if the student is able to comprehend these strategies, as well as an understanding of if the student knows how to apply them.

Things to Avoid

As educators we must never take things personal that our students say or do during an outburst. This can at times be much easier said than done. We also must not fall short and let our emotions and frustrations kick in. Our job is not to judge a student but in fact help them though difficult times and teach them how to grow so that the same type of situation does not occur again.

It is always best to get a head start! We know within the first few days of school which students are actively seeking out attention. Often what educators see in their classrooms is that students are acting out to gain a reaction from their teachers or peers. In their minds, “negative attention” is better than nothing.

This is when educators must dig deep into their bag of tricks and start off with showering this student with praise for everything positive that they do. Going overboard so that the student doesn’t even have the opportunity to act out is a strategy that can be applied. This will be something completely new for the student and throw them for a loop. Think of what is going through their mind! “Does this teacher really like me? Am I able to really do this? Did I just do a good job and he/she noticed?”

Not one negative thought comes about when praise is given and positive attention is obvious. We don’t want our positive attention to take a back seat to negative attention. Being dramatic, and efficient, with positive recognition is a great tool to stop attention-seeking negative behaviors within your classroom.