Resources and Research on Talking to Overwhelmed Kids
October 5, 2014 9:08 PM   Subscribe

As a teacher, I regularly have contact with kids who are feeling some very strong emotions. Many of these children are coming to terms with a separation or divorce in their families. So I’m hoping that the hivemind can help me find resources about how to talk to kids about their emotions, and especially what to do when they seem flooded.

I see the flooding a lot, especially with kids at the lower end of elementary (ages 5-10, primarily). They do something wrong, you speak to them about that thing, but suddenly a highly-verbal student who expresses themselves well retreats into a wall of whispered “I don’t know”s, and gets the deer in headlights look.

Clearly I don’t want to push these kids, but most of the time, the conversation about how to manage the feelings they are having is a precursor to discussing the actual behaviour that caused the problem in the first place. For example, if a student says something mean to another student, I can’t just ignore that and accept that they are feeling upset so they can say something mean. But when the conversation begins and the student is so flooded they shut down, I’m not sure how to deal with it.

There is a psychologist on staff, but they aren’t always available for situations like this. Please also assume I’ve read Gottman and lots of professional research aimed at teachers for helping students write about their emotions, but am looking for very specific research-based techniques for what to do when a student is so flooded they can’t process their answers or even the questions. Is it always best to stop, even when the student has done something wrong? Is it better to give them time to think before asking for a response? Is there any good research or online resources on this topic that could help me make the call?

Thanks everyone.
posted by guster4lovers to Human Relations (6 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Set a timer and explain that that is all the time that you will have to talk to them. Setting an end time on a conversation can relieve some pressure.

Start out with what the consequences are so that they aren't spending the entire time worrying about that. Keep the consequences consistent so that they can be mentally prepared for them.

Have the child write an apology note to the offended party and then give them 10 minutes of free write or drawing time before talking to them. These notes to not have to be given to anyone. It is a way for someone to express regret and feel compassion.

Humor helps.

Listen more than talk.
posted by myselfasme at 12:07 AM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is a tough one. I think what may be happening is you're focusing on their feelings that led to an incident, not the incident itself, and the kids are freezing because figuring out feelings is HARD.

I understand that you want to give them a chance to process their feelings and that's great; but in the context of the classroom you need to be thinking of actions and consequences.

And the thing of it is, what kids really need to learn is they can feel however they want, but there are consequences to their behavior.

So, say you have the aforementioned kid who did something inappropriate. I'd focus on this:

1. You are a really great kid. Remember how you helped Billy with his library books yesterday? (Start from reminding the kid they're a good person, be specific.)
2. I know you may be feeling unhappy, but when you call Dana a bad name, it makes her feel bad and it's not okay to do. (Acknowledge the kid may be feeling off, name the negative behavior, put them in a place of empathy, and remind them of class expectations.)
3. Sometimes I feel really mad and when I do, I go for a little walk. That can make me feel better. Do you want to try that now? (Offer the kid options.)
4. (While you're walking.) How do you think you should apologize to Dana? (Give them a chance to make it better.)
5. Next time you feel unhappy, can you ask to take a break?

This, in combination with a strong, pre-emptive behavioral model with clear rules and expectations and also PRAISING KIDS WHEN THEY'RE BEING GOOD could help.

Yes, they can feel sad but they can't take it out on other people is the message that you need to give them. Tell them their feelings are valid; give them choices for what to do next time, MODEL the behavior if possible, remind them of consequences.

And if you sense that they are making negative choices because of family things (or whatever), then you should be getting the psychologist in as well as a call to their families for more support.
posted by kinetic at 3:20 AM on October 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

You may find this blog interesting:
posted by dil.emma at 3:39 AM on October 6, 2014

Dan Siegel recommends "Time Ins." Basically, sitting with the flooded child, speaking calmly, breathing deeply and calmly, and modeling (and teaching) the child how to regulate his physical state to get back control of his emotional state. Then you can deal with the original problem, when both of you are calm and un-flooded.
posted by jaguar at 8:32 AM on October 6, 2014

He also wrote a book called No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind, which I haven't yet read but which I suspect will very much be helpful in these sorts of situations.
posted by jaguar at 8:34 AM on October 6, 2014

Does your school have a curriculum for emotions and relationships, like Second Step? It helps a lot to build a framework before things get difficult. I found Second Step useful because then I could use the same language as the kids to work out problems. And having the whole school use the same curriculum for that means the PE teacher can use it as well as the classroom. So if there isn't one in place already, that would be a great step for your school.
posted by Margalo Epps at 7:21 PM on October 6, 2014

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