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10 Effective De-Escalation Techniques to Diffuse a Meltdown

Updated: Feb 9, 2023

Sometimes, things can get too overwhelming for students and they can enter a 'meltdown'. They lose control over their behaviours and these situations can be stressful for everyone involved, including teachers or teaching assistants. Learning how you can effectively de-escalate situations like this will not only make your job easier, but it will also help form relationships in the long term.

child having a meltdown

Anatomy of a Meltdown

Meltdowns are not fun for anyone, but it's important to remember that they are very different to 'temper tantrums'. Meltdowns may include aggressive behaviour, destructive behaviour, crying, shouting and a myriad of other things.

Great educators know that behaviour is communication, and that goes for meltdowns too! Although meltdowns may appear to come out of nowhere, when you examine the events or moments leading up to it, you will clearly be able to see that there were warning signs.

Children could go into a meltdown for a number of reasons, including;

  • Sensory overload

  • Too many demands being placed on them

  • Emotional turmoil

  • Pain

The Escalation of Behaviour Cycle

This is a great visual to understand how a child can go from being in a calm, relaxed state to one of meltdown and eventually recovery. Being able to identify where a child is on this escalation cycle will inform how you safely and effectively intervene. In my complete guide to de-escalating a meltdown, I go through strategies to deploy and avoid at each stage.

Preventing a Meltdown

Prevention is always better than cure! Learning how to prevent a meltdown with a specific child will take time as a lot of what you need to know will come from building a relationship with that child and understanding their behaviour patterns. To be successful at preventing a meltdown, you must be able to;

  • Identify early warning signs

  • Identify environmental triggers and how they can be manipulated or avoided

  • Teach the child how to communicate with you before they go into a meltdown

The best time for prevention is when a child is in the calm phase. This is the time where you can use positive reinforcement and provide opportunities for children to grow and be successful at developing skills. This is where you can also teach coping skills and behaviour strategies as the child is receptive when they are calm.

Emotional Regulation

During a meltdown, the brain enters survival mode and shuts down the pre-frontal cortex, the thinking and rational part of our brains. It is now running on primal instinct and fight or flight.

When a child enters a meltdown, it is because their brain has detected a threat and an alarm system is ringing. What they perceive to be a threat may be very different to what we consider a threat, and certainly for children who are autistic, they can be very sensitive to sensory input. The best thing you can do when a child's hindbrain (the primitive part) is in control is remain calm and ensure their safety until their forebrain is back up and running.

Top 10 De-Escalation Techniques

1. Don't try to reason.

During a meltdown, we know that a child's forebrain (the part where reasoning and rationality lives) is switched off during a meltdown. The brain has been flooded with cortisol and adrenaline to operate in fight or flight mode, meaning that they literally cannot access the part of their brain that is logical.

It's often tempting to try and reason with the child, but this will often make the situation worse. Whilst you may be saying things that make logical sense, to the child, that doesn't register. Instead, focus on reassuring the child that they are safe and provide them with their basic needs.

2. Remove existing demands and don't make additional ones.

You know that feeling where everything feels like it's piling up on top of you and you just can't catch a break? Children feel that too. When a child feels as though there are too many demands on them, they can go into a meltdown. When a child is feeling dysregulated, telling them to "stop" or to do something else is often going to make matters worse, no matter how nicely or assertively you ask. Place all of your expectations of this child on hold temporarily and focus on supporting them calm down.

3. Validate feelings but not actions

You never want to shame a child for feeling a certain way, even if you do not understand why their reaction to a certain thing or situation is what it is. Giving validation to their feelings shows that you accept their thoughts and that you are on their side. You could say things like "It makes sense that you're upset right now..." or "I would be [insert feeling] too if this happened to me." Include a 'because' when you validate - this is essential for emotional coaching. For example, "It makes sense you're upset because you really wanted the blue car, not the red car and it's hard to not get what you want sometimes."

teacher with pre school children after meltdown

4. Be aware of space, body language and facial expressions

When a child is in meltdown, the last thing you want to be perceived as is a threat and one of the best ways to mitigate this is being aware of their personal space, your body language and your facial expressions. Everyone has a personal space bubble, but when you are in a heightened emotional state, this bubble may get bigger and the child may need more space to feel safe. Do not try to hug, touch or pick them up (unless they are in danger obviously) as this could cause them to feel trapped or threatened.

Likewise, it is important to appear calm and approachable when faced with a child in meltdown. Keep your facial expression neutral and use open body language. Don't scowl, frown or clench your jaw and don't cross your arms or stand with your hands on your hips - these are all confrontational!

5. Never yell

Yelling at a child can instantly destroy any relationships or feelings of safety that a child may have had with you. Yelling makes you appear threatening and will likely escalate a meltdown rather than diffuse the situation. Even if the child is screaming or making a lot of noise, trying to raise your voice over them will not work. Wait until they have quietened down and then calmly and empathetically speak to them.

6. Get down to their level

Remember that this is potentially a small child you're working with. You already look intimidating because you are giant compared to them! Standing over them, looking down at them gives off a superiority vibe and could also feel threatening, which we know is the last feeling we want them to be feeling. If you can, sit with the child, or at least crouch/kneel down so that you are eye level with them when communicating. If they won't sit or stand still, even just sitting down near them makes you more approachable and less of a threat.

7. Use distractions

Wherever possible, use distractions as early as you can to de-escalate a situation. You could use an array of things to distract a child such as offering a favourite toy, taking them to a calm/sensory room, engaging in a calming activity. It may look like you are rewarding undesirable behaviour, but you're not. You are avoiding a far more dramatic and emotionally draining situation, and also whilst the child is calm, you will be able to reason with them.

8. Reflect on the child's needs and wants

Sometimes, it can be very challenging to fully understand why a child is in a meltdown. Demonstrating reflective listening is not only validating but it shows that you are genuinely listening to their concerns. When safe and appropriate to do so, ask questions such as "You are saying you're upset because you didn't want the pink cup?". Sometimes, if you're lucky, you'll get a positive response for the child which you can then address.

9. Be non-judgemental

This should be a given for anyone working with children, but avoid judging them for their reactions. Regardless of the situation and your thoughts on it, avoid acting judgemental as this will only make things worse. Don't use things like sarcasm, blaming the child for their feelings, or treating them like a baby. Don't lecture them either - no one likes that! This ties into the need for you to be non-threatening, approachable and demonstrate reflective listening.

10. Avoid saying 'no'

'No' is a trigger word for most people. Nobody likes to hear the word 'no' and when they're already in a heightened state of emotion, it can make the situation even more challenging. of course, this doesn't mean you should say yes to everything! You can instead offer more open ended answers like "We can plan a time to do that" or "we can talk about that when everyone is calm."

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