Tips for Handling a Tearful Preschooler

Teachers of young children are faced with many challenges in the classroom. Getting a room full of young students to coexist in relative harmony, ensuring that students are on task, and making adequate academic progress are just a few of these challenges.

For most teachers, however, there is one challenge that rises above all others: handling a student “meltdown.” A meltdown is when a student becomes so overwhelmed they lose control: some students cry inconsolably, while others have tantrums, while still others withdraw and become non-responsive. Particularly when working with preschool children, meltdowns require making snap decisions to calm the student and get her or him on task. Consistently making the right decisions comes with experience and preparation. 

The preschool teacher should do as much as possible to prevent meltdowns in the first place. Prevention involves having a comprehensive management plan for minimizing disruptions and intervening quickly before small disruptions escalate into full-blown meltdowns. Fred Jones and Jim Fay have both helped numerous teachers create safe, happy, well-run classrooms.

Even with the best classroom management, preschoolers are bound to have meltdowns. So what to do? A teacher’s goal should be to make sure the student is safe, then calm the student and get him or her back on task. In that order. In dealing with management crises, it is always best to use the least amount of intervention necessary to get the job done. Below is a list of interventions small to large to calm a young student.

Stay calm
                                                                                                                                            While the student is crying and screaming, a teacher’s natural reaction will be to become anxious. Teachers may notice their heart rate rise, experience sweaty palms, and speak loudly. Teachers should avoid become anxious by looking away from the disruption for a moment or two and taking a few relaxing breaths before attempting to engage a teary, screaming preschooler. In doing so, the teacher forces himself to relax and is in the best possible position to think through the problem. The mere presence of a calm adult may also de-escalate a meltdown.

Try to engage the student
                                                                                                                                          Asking a young child mid-tantrum what is wrong probably won’t get the teacher anywhere, but redirecting the student might. A teacher may try directing the student to a quiet activity away from other students or give the student a “special” job to do.

Stay close
                                                                                                                                                 If the preschooler is unresponsive to suggestions to try a different activity, the teacher should stay close and wait for a few moments. This has two advantages: first, the student may just need a bit of time to wind down; and, second, the teacher is in a good position to intervene if the student’s behavior becomes threatening. Time being a precious commodity in the classroom, the amount of wait time the teacher can afford is an individual matter.                                                                        

Limited choices and time out

After trying to redirect the student a few times, and giving plenty of wait time, the next step up the management ladder is limited choices. Limited choices are just that:giving a student a few pre-selected actions to choose from. When interacting with a preschooler mid-meltdown, limited choices may sound something like: “You can either move to the puzzle center or go to time out.” If the student selects either, the problem is solved. If, after giving about thirty seconds of wait time, the student refuses the offered choices, the teacher should issue a time out. If the student is resistant to time out, it’s time for the final step: get help.

Get help
                                                                                                                                If making several attempts at redirection, offering limited choices, and issuing a time out are all to no avail, the teacher should get the help of an administrator. Most school districts spell out in detail their policies with non-compliant students. It is time for an administrator to enforce them. If, at any time, the student becomes a potential danger to himself or others, the teacher should remove the other students from the room while waiting for help to arrive.

The preceding steps outline a strategy for dealing with a student meltdown in a young child’s classroom. Like most management skills, handling a meltdown requires experience and preparation. The most important step is for the teacher to project calm and confidence. By beginning with a plan, the teacher’s experiences should be more positive; the more effective the teacher in implementing a managemey system, the more successful the small interventions will be.