Tantrums & Meltdowns in the Classroom: Guidelines for Teachers of Aspergers and HFA Students

Every teacher of Aspergers and high functioning autistic (HFA) kids can expect to witness some meltdowns. At school, there are predictable situations that can be expected to trigger meltdowns, such as transitions between activities, on the school bus, getting ready to work, interactions with other kids, directives from the teacher, group activities, answering questions in class, individual seat work, and the playground.

Characteristics of Meltdowns in Aspergers and HFA Kids—

All young kids from time to time will whine, complain, resist, cling, argue, hit, shout, run, and defy their teachers. Meltdowns, although normal, can become upsetting to teachers because they are embarrassing, challenging, and difficult to manage. On the other hand, meltdowns can become special problems when they occur with greater frequency, intensity, and duration than is typical for the age of the youngster. 

There are nine different types of temperaments in these special needs young people:
  • Distractible temperament predisposes the youngster to pay more attention to his or her surroundings than to the teacher.
  • High intensity level temperament moves the youngster to yell, scream, or hit hard when feeling threatened.
  • Hyperactive temperament predisposes the youngster to respond with fine- or gross-motor activity.
  • Initial withdrawal temperament is found when kids get clingy, shy, and unresponsive in new situations and around unfamiliar people.
  • Irregular temperament moves the youngster to escape the source of stress by needing to eat, drink, sleep, or use the bathroom at irregular times when he or she does not really have the need.
  • Low sensory threshold temperament is evident when the youngster complains about tight clothes and people staring and refuses to be touched by others.
  • Negative mood temperament is found when kids appear lethargic, sad, and lack the energy to perform a task.
  • Negative persistent temperament is seen when the youngster seems stuck in his or her whining and complaining.
  • Poor adaptability temperament shows itself when kids resist, shut down, and become passive-aggressive when asked to change activities.

Prevention for Teachers of Students on the Autism Spectrum—

It is much easier to prevent meltdowns than it is to manage them once they have erupted. Here are some tips for preventing meltdowns in the classroom:
  • Avoid boredom. Say, “You have been working for a long time. Let’s take a break and do something fun.”
  • Change environments, thus removing the youngster from the source of the meltdown. Say, “Let’s read a book.”
  • Choose your battles. Teach kids how to make a request without a meltdown and then honor the request. Say, “Try asking for that pencil nicely and I’ll get it for you.”
  • Create a safe environment that kids can explore without getting into trouble. Childproof your classroom so kids can explore safely.
  • Distract kids by redirection to another activity when they tantrum over something they should not do or cannot have. Say, “Let’s read a book together.”
  • Do not ask kids to do something when they must do what you ask. Do not ask, “Would you like to study now?” Say, “It’s study time now.”
  • Establish routines and traditions that add structure. Start class with a sharing time and opportunity for interaction.
  • Give kids control over little things whenever possible by giving choices. A little bit of power given to the youngster can stave off the big power struggles later. “Which do you want to do first, work on reading or writing?”
  • Increase your tolerance level. Are you available to meet the youngster’s reasonable needs? Evaluate how many times you say, “No.” Avoid fighting over minor things.
  • Keep a sense of humor to divert the youngster’s attention and surprise the youngster out of the tantrum.
  • Keep off-limit objects out of sight and therefore out of mind. In an art activity keep the scissors out of reach if kids are not ready to use them safely.
  • Provide pre-academic, behavioral, and social challenges that are at the youngster’s developmental level so that the youngster does not become frustrated.
  • Reward kids for positive attention rather than negative attention. During situations when they are prone to meltdowns, catch them when they are being good and say such things as, “Nice job sharing with your friend.”
  • Signal kids before you reach the end of an activity so that they can get prepared for the transition. Say, “When the timer goes off 5 minutes from now it will be time to turn in your work.”
  • When visiting new places or unfamiliar people explain to the youngster beforehand what to expect. Say, “Stay with your assigned buddy in the museum.”

Intervention for Teachers of Aspergers and HFA Students—

There are a number of ways to handle a meltdown. Strategies include the following:

• Avoid shaming the youngster about being angry. Kids in healthy families are allowed to express all their feelings, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant. They are not criticized or punished for having and expressing feelings appropriately, including anger.

• If the youngster has escalated the tantrum to the point where you are not able to intervene in the ways described above, then you may need to direct the youngster to time-out. In school warn the youngster up to three times that it is necessary to calm down and give a reminder of the rule. If the youngster refuses to comply, then place him or her in time-out for no more than 1 minute for each year of age.

• Learn to deal with your own and others' anger. When teachers discipline out of anger or with expectations that are inappropriate for the age of their youngster, they often make mistakes in the way they react. The place to begin is with ourselves. When we feel calm, we can model effective anger and conflict management.

• Maintain open communication with your student. Consistently and firmly enforce rules and explain the reasons for the rules in words your student can understand. Still, you can listen well to his protests about having to take a test or measles shot.

• Notice, compliment and reward appropriate behavior. Teaching your student to do the right things is better (and easier) than constantly punishing bad behavior. Kids who get a steady diet of attention only for bad behavior tend to repeat those behaviors because they learn that is the best way to get our attention, especially if we tend to be overly authoritarian.

• Remain calm and do not argue with the youngster. Before you manage the youngster, you must manage your own behavior. Yelling at the youngster will make the tantrum worse.

• Talk with the youngster after the youngster has calmed down. When the youngster stops crying, talk about the frustration the youngster has experienced. Try to help solve the problem if possible. For the future, teach the youngster new skills to help avoid meltdowns such as how to ask appropriately for help and how to signal a teacher that the he or she knows they need to go to “time away” to “stop, think, and make a plan.” Teach the youngster how to try a more successful way of interacting with a peer, how to express his or her feelings with words and recognize the feelings of others without hitting and screaming.

• Teach kids about intensity levels of anger. By using different words to describe the intensity of angry feelings (e.g., annoyed, aggravated, irritated, frustrated, angry, furious, enraged), kids as young as 2 1/2 can learn to understand that anger is a complex emotion with different levels of energy.

• Teach understanding and empathy by calling your student's attention to the effects of his or her actions on others. Invite the youngster to see the situation from the other person's point of view. Healthy kids feel remorse when they do something that hurts another. Authoritative discipline helps them develop an internal sense of right and wrong. Remember, a little guilt goes a long way, especially with an Aspergers youngster.

• Think before you act. Count to 10 and then think about the source of the youngster’s frustration, this youngster’s characteristic temperamental response to stress (hyperactivity, distractibility, moodiness), and the predictable steps in the escalation of the meltdown.

• Try to discover the reason for your student's anger or meltdown. What does he or she want and is not getting? The reasons kids have meltdowns vary: to get attention, get someone to listen, protest not getting their way, get out of doing something they do not want to do, punish a teacher for going away, for power, for revenge, from fear of abandonment, etc. Let the youngster know the behavior is unacceptable. Talk calmly.

• Try to intervene before the youngster is out of control. Get down at the youngster’s eye level and say, “You are starting to get revved up, slow down.” Now you have several choices of intervention.

• You can ignore the tantrum if it is being thrown to get your attention. Once the youngster calms down, give the attention that is desired.

• You can place the youngster in time away. Time away is a quiet place where the youngster goes to calm down, think about what he or she needs to do, and, with your help, make a plan to change the behavior.

• You can positively distract the youngster by getting the youngster focused on something else that is an acceptable activity. For example, you might remove the unsafe item and replace with an age-appropriate toy.

Post-Tantrum Management—
  • Do not reward the youngster after a tantrum for calming down. Some kids will learn that a meltdown is a good way to get a treat later.
  • Explain to the youngster that there are better ways to get what he or she wants.
  • Never let the meltdown interfere with your otherwise positive relationship with the youngster.
  • Never, under any circumstances, give in to a tantrum. That response will only increase the number and frequency of the tantrums.
  • Teach the youngster that anger is a feeling that we all have and then teach her ways to express anger constructively.

Beyond the Tantrum Stage—

Most tantrums and angry outbursts come and go as Aspergers and HFA kids and youth grow in their ability to use language and learn to solve problems using words. But occasionally, fits of temper and violence persist into elementary school and may signal serious problems. Sometimes there are biological sources of anger that require diagnosis by a physician or psychologist.

If someone is getting hurt or if you use the suggestions listed in this fact sheet and nothing seems to work, it is time to get professional help. Ask a physician, school guidance counselor or psychologist for names of those skilled in working with autistic kids on anger issues. Or, check the yellow pages under counselors, for psychologists and marriage and family therapists who specialize in autism-related behavioral problems.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD

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