Quick-Fire Strategies: Meltdowns Or Tantrums? What's Really Happening

Quick-Fire Strategies: Meltdowns Or Tantrums? What's Really Happening

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Are you working with children who experience meltdowns or tantrums, and are unsure how to support them?

Join me as I explore the key differences between meltdowns and tantrums, so that you can use the right response at the right time and put in strategies to prevent them in the first place.

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Show notes / transcription

Simon Currigan  0:00  

So if you're working with children who have meltdowns in the classroom and you're not sure how to handle it, then this episode is for you. We're going to unpick the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown. So you pick the right response at the right time, and then give you loads of strategies not to help your students manage meltdowns, but to significantly reduce them in the first place. Better for their emotional well being and better for yours too.

Hi there, Simon Currigan here hope you're well and welcome to this quick fire episode for you to enjoy. While most schools in England are off for the half term holiday. In these bite sized quickfire episodes of school behaviour secrets, I like to share one idea or insight or strategy that can have an impact for the children that you work with all wrapped up. In an episode that lasts 10 minutes or less, well, usually 10 minutes or less. Next week, we'll be returning to our normal format for school behaviour secrets as children and teachers head back to the classroom. And in this episode, I want to talk about the difference between tantrums and meltdowns. Because from the outside these two behaviours can look very similar, but they actually have very different root causes. And it's important to manage them differently. So at the end of the podcast, if you're working with children who frequently exhibit tantrums or meltdowns in the classroom, then you'll walk away with strategies that you can start using with the children that you work with immediately. 

So let's start with the easy one of those two options. The tantrum. A tantrum, which I'm sure you'll be familiar with, if you're a parent is a very controlled behaviour by a child who is unhappy about not getting their own way. tantrums become common in children, just as they're getting some independence in the world. You hear people talking about the terrible twos, and they're born from the sensation of being denied or not getting your own way or saw putting curbs on your actions of being thwarted to use a brilliant 1930's word. For most kids, tantrums die out by about the age of four. And if a child continues to have frequent tantrums much beyond that, it can signify that there's maybe something else driving their behaviour. However, it is still perfectly normal for many kids to engage in occasional tantrum like behaviour as they continue to grow. The key thing about a tantrum, especially in older children exhibiting tantrum like behaviour is that it's a chosen behaviour. And yes, there is such a thing as chosen behaviour because human beings are human beings, you can tell a tantrum is a chosen behaviour because with this type of behaviour, you'll notice that every now and then the child will stop and look at you to see what your reaction is, there's an element of control to their outburst, an element of choice, it is not driven purely by emotion. Now, sometimes what will start as chosen behaviour can well up and escalate into truly emotionally driven behaviour. But I'm just going to put that issue to one side for a moment. And what is the correct way to deal with a tantrum that is chosen behaviour Well, reminders of expectations, boundaries, talking through the consequences of continuing with the behaviour, consistency in expectation. In short, we do not negotiate with terrorists, the child has to learn to deal with boundaries and disappointment. Life's full of them. So let's roll up our sleeves and start learning how to deal with that today. 

Meltdowns, on the other hand, are something else entirely. The National Autistic Society define a meltdown as an intense response to an overwhelming situation to the extent the child loses control of their behaviour. And as a result, you're going to see behaviours like screaming or yelling, or crying, punching, shoving, kicking, running away, behaviours that to some extent from the outside could be confused with a tantrum. But here's the thing the fuel that powers a meltdown isn't frustration and not having your own way. It's anxiety, crushing unescapable suffocating anxiety. It's a sort of anxiety that completely overwhelms the child's brain and pushes them towards fight, flight or freeze. We've touched on this in the podcast before. But for those of you that are new to it, here's a quick rundown when we think about human behaviour, and this is a big simplification, we have three basic forms of thinking and behaviour. The first lives in our prefrontal cortex, the part that deals with language, and logic and planning and thinking ahead in our brain. Now thinking using your prefrontal cortex is slow and expensive. It burns a lot of calories, but it's perfect. If you want to write a story, draw up an architectural plan for a building, or complete a mathematical equation. It's the part of our brain that separates us from all of the other animals and gets us to the moon. And while we're calm in our everyday life, it's also to some extent the part of our brain that deals with self control. The second form I want to look at is automatic behaviour. These are the habits we picked up over the years, and we can engage in these behaviours on autopilot without thinking about executing them. I prefer the term automatic behaviour to the term habit, because these behaviours can be quite complex. Whereas we associate the word habit more with simple actions. An automatic behaviour, for example, could be as involved as driving a car or reading a sentence in a book. And the third form of thinking behaviour I want to consider is emotional behaviour. And this type of thinking lives in the amygdala. The amygdala doesn't use words, it thinks emotions, it's an ancient parts of our brain, the part of our brain we share with other mammals and animals, it's the way they negotiate the world and make decisions about how to behave and what to do. And here's the key thing, right? The amygdala is strong, it's powerful, it's insistent, and it drives many of our behaviours at a basic level. And when we put under too much stress or anxiety, and we feel like we can't cope in a certain situation, our brains make an interesting gearshift, they essentially turn off the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that deals with language and logic and self control, and it starts to have very little impact on our behaviour. And the closer we get to fight or flight or freeze, the more our behaviours become driven by those pure emotions, with some help from our automatic behaviours. Whereas our logic breaks down, our emotions, and our automatic behaviours get stronger and escalate before they hit, fight, flight, or freeze. And this is where meltdowns come in. It's the body's way of coping with this overwhelming situation. It's not about choice, it's not a prefrontal cortex decision, because that's been turned off. It's about emotion. It's about this more ancient part of the brain, the amygdala. So if we're supporting a student who's experiencing a meltdown, the approach we need to take is not one about imposing authority, talking about choices or raining down consequences, because that meltdown is fueled by anxiety and stress. And those actions from the adult actually increase the anxiety and stress on the child prolonging the meltdown. If the child was in a state where they could exercise self control, they would already be doing it. But in this intense emotional whirlwind, that's not an option. Instead, what's going to be more productive is using de escalation, reducing threats, co regulating the child connecting with them, helping them get on top of their anxieties in a calm, reassuring way, the pupils in a state where they can no longer manage their emotions and their thoughts. So we need to help them do it working together as a team. They're distressed. So our actions become focused on empathy and emotional support. Some people ask, so what's the best thing to do to help our students when they do melt down?

And my honest answer is, prevention is better than cure. Try not to be in the situation where your student is overwhelmed in the first place. That means thinking about what's fueling their anxiety. Here are three common causes. The first is the pupil sensory needs, which if they aren't addressed can quietly increase their anxiety throughout the day. Those unmet sensory needs are draining on the brain's ability to regulate. So if you're working with a student who experiences frequent meltdowns, it's usually best to assess their sensory needs. A few small changes using sensory aid can have a big impact on the child's anxiety in the classroom, less anxiety equals fewer meltdowns. The second is around transition for most people transition and change isn't much of an issue, and most kids are happy to go with the flow from lesson to lesson. But for many autistic pupils, any form of transition can stoke their anxiety. And transition can mean a number of things moving from activity to activity, from location to location, or from adult to adult. So if transition is an issue for your pupil, try using aids like visual timetables or now next boards are pre tutoring, so they know what to expect, and when to expect it. Implement these consistently. And there's the key word there consistently over time, and assess the results because reduced anxiety should result in fewer meltdowns. And the third is the social environment. A significant number of autistic students find busy social environments like score, incredibly anxiety provoking, they see the other children as unpredictable or hard to understand or find it hard to read social situations correctly. Or they worry about making social mistakes or miss queuing during conversations, all of which is threatening. So the longer they are in this busy social environment, the more their anxiety grows. If this applies to your student, experiment with times working socially in a group, then working by themselves, give them opportunities to work in quiet areas, mix up, whether they're working quietly in individually, alongside times whether working socially now, this is not an exclusion. It's responding to their needs and anxieties, helping provide a structured environment where they can succeed, the quiet time helps reduce their anxiety gets them regulated before they participate in some social learning again, which increases their anxiety. So we return them to individual working again, reducing their anxiety, and so on. It's another form of CO regulation. And by regulating that anxiety, we should see reduced meltdowns by putting in place structured programmes around sensory needs transition and social learning, we can help reduce the pupils anxiety in the classroom, and so reduce the likelihood that they will become overwhelmed and melt down. And it's important to say this as ever, every child is an individual, whether they have a diagnosis of autism or not. And what works for some students might not work for others. So don't make assumptions that every autistic pupil has transitioned needs, say, there might be other factors fueling their anxiety, and the meltdowns that you're seeing. 

And I've mentioned three key factors here. But that's because of time factors. There are other things that drive anxiety and meltdowns in school in the classroom. But the action we're taking here is pre emptive. We're taking planned action focused on the child's individual anxieties and emotions that we hope will reduce future meltdowns, which is a different approach to how we deal with tantrums, which is about the child making cool behaviour choices. And our response is more about being firm and consistent in our boundaries. So the child learns to adapt and contain their choices. supporting children with meltdowns, is about being pre emptive and proactive and adapting your teaching to meet the needs of the child. 

And that's all I've got for you today. If you found this episode interesting or useful, I've got one quick favour to ask please could you spend 30 seconds giving us an honest rating and review on your podcast app, and that tells the algorithm to share school behaviour secrets with other teachers, school leaders and parents who would find this information useful. And while you've got that app open, please share the podcast with two or three friends using the share button. You would find today's episode useful. I'll be back with our usual programming next time. So until then, have a brilliant week.

(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)