I’ll say up front that I cringe when I hear a young child having a tantrum and a parent trying to reason with him/her. For the little ones, the function of bad behavior mostly comes down to task avoidance (“I don’t want to do that!”), wanting a preferred item (“Give me that!”) or attention seeking (“pay attention to me!”). I won’t talk too much about dealing with the child’s behavior as I will about the adult’s behavior. So many of the things you read suggest that calmly talking, explaining, negotiating with an upset child can be effective. The problem is that when a child is upset, the language part of the brain does not function optimally. So it doesn’t even matter if you’re talking calmly.
Breathe and wait. Give your child/student time to express themselves in their regressed state. The next step in development is for them to be able to express their emotions verbally. But you can’t teach them that in the heat of the moment. Wait until the storm is over. Allow recovery time. Then you can get back to language. I’ve used this successfully with kids of all ages and abilities. It’s not magic. It just makes sense.
Here’s my adult example….you get stopped by a police officer for talking on your cell phone. As he gets out his ticket pad, you start breathing faster. He tells you that you will probably get 3 points on your license and have to pay a fine, and as a result, will probably have higher insurance premiums. Now you’re crying. He tells you how poor of a choice you made by talking on your cell phone. You’re crying and raise your voice as you start trying to explain why you were on your phone. He tells you to CALM DOWN, which has the opposite effect. He starts telling you how inappropriate your response is because this is the natural consequence of your behavior. Now you’re wailing! He tells you that yelling isn’t going to solve anything and that he hopes you’ve learned a lesson from all of this. You start hitting the steering wheel with your fists and he tells you to look around…are other drivers acting like that? He wants you to tell him what you could have done differently to avoid this situation. Have you calmed down yet?
The more upset we get, the less able we are to process the language of other people. This is even more pronounced for children. Words often only make things worse at those times. Try something different. Stay calm and be quiet. And even if you can’t stay calm, still, BE QUIET.
Oh, and just to clarify, the picture above is a little misleading. I’m not suggesting you give the “shhh…” signal to a tantruming child. I’m giving that signal to the adults 🙂