By Joshua J. Soto
Most parents drop off their child at school with the hope that they are being left in a safe place to learn, and trust that educators will nurture their child’s ability to learn. It’s unsettling that a video surfaced showing an 8-year-old boy third grader with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder being handcuffed by a police officer, has sparked a much needed conversation about how children with ADHD/ADD behaviors are handled in classrooms.
The incident started when the 8 year old child experienced problems in the classroom that were related to his diagnoses for ADHD and PTSD. The problems experienced in the classroom could have possibly included behaviors such as the boy showing distress by acting out aggressively, which resulted in him being taken to the vice-principal’s office where the situation escalated with the boy’s arms being handcuffed. The police officer told the boy: “You don’t get to swing at me like that… Now sit down in the chair like I’ve asked you to.” As the boy’s arms were shackled in handcuffs in what would become 15 minutes of restraint, he cried out: “My arm! Oh God. Ow, that hurts,” Both this incident and a separate incident involving a nine-year-old girl in the same school district, is the subject of a federal lawsuit issued on Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Children’s Law Center.
A child acting out in school or in public can leave a parent or educator feeling powerless, frustrated, and unsure of what to do next. An ADHD child in the middle of a meltdown may be in tears and screaming with their arms flailing. In that moment it is easy for parents and care givers to feel like failures with the belief that we SHOULD be able to control a child’s behavior. Don’t fall into the SHOULD trap and recognize that children with ADHD can act out impulsively and can’t control their behavior. A child having a meltdown doesn’t reflect a parent’s ability to parent or a teacher’s ability to teach. It simply reflects the true nature of ADHD, which requires patience, understanding, and above all else… compassion. While this incident clearly demonstrates how NOT to handle a child’s ADHD/ADD behavior, the question people may be asking themselves is “How do you handle difficult behavior or a meltdown?”
If you are the parent or care giver of a child with ADHD or PTSD, or an educator then knowing how to manage meltdowns can make a big difference for both the child and yourself in keeping calm. Realize that a person can only be upset or have a meltdown for so long before they exhaust themselves from crying or screaming, which requires the patience of a parent or educator to keep themselves calm through a meltdown. Here are 6 strategies for dealing with a meltdown:
Strategy 1: Know what soothes them
Before going out to a store or dropping them off at school, find out if there is anything that helps soothe or calm down your child if they get upset by asking them. If they have a meltdown, then knowing this can be a part of a plan to handle it. Their identifying what helps calm down is also their indicating what they are responsive to and can be most effective in you enforcing it. As a parent communicate and share this with their teacher or care provider. A child may identify an object or inform you about what is triggering their outbursts.
Strategy 2: Acknowledge the feeling and encourage communication
Let your child know that you understand what they are feeling. Using a calm voice, communicate and repeat, “I know you’re feeling _____” or “I know you’re upset because __________.” If the child is calm enough to answer, then encourage them to talk about it. This gives them an opportunity for them to communicate and express what they’re feeling without it escalating into a fit. It can also give you an idea of how severe the problem is without having to remove them from the store or classroom. Avoid repeating what you say if the child is too unresponsive or upset to respond. Once they are calm, teach ways to handle situations that may lead them to having a meltdown.
Strategy 3: Set limits
Communicate to them that even though they’re upset, they need to calm down, so you can continue shopping or teaching the class, and get on with what needs to be done in the day. Communicate that they have a period of time to calm down before needing to continue. If they can’t calm down in five or ten minutes, then proceed with the next step.
Strategy 4: Give them time and space to have a melt-down.
A child having a tantrum or a meltdown can only go for so long before they exhaust themselves from crying or screaming. It is the time it takes for them to get it all out that can wear out a parent on the go or teacher trying to teach a classroom full of children. If you’re at home during a meltdown, then inform your child that they need a time out in their room to calm down, which isn’t a punishment, but rather setting a boundary for them being upset and allowing them to express it. If needed then allow them to squeeze a ball, rip up paper, or punch a pillow or any other soft object that will not break. If at school, see if there is a quiet room in the school for the child to go if they’re being too disruptive in class. If you’re out in public or on a field trip then escort the child back to the car or school bus to wait until they can calm down and talk about what their meltdown was about.
Strategy 5: Teach them how to handle the emotion
Encourage your child to use a calming strategy by walking them through it. One example is asking them to take 3 deep breathes as if they were blowing air into a balloon. Deep breathing can help calm children who are upset. Tip: Keep a balloon or two around and ask them to blow all of their anger and frustration into the balloon. You can make it a game by saying, “Let’s see how fast you can calm yourself down. Once enough air is blown into the balloon, release the air and make light of the noise that the air makes. You can also use blowing bubbles as a way of teaching deep breathing. While teaching calming strategies separate the behavior from who the child is as a person, and let them know that you care about them: “While I don’t like you screaming at me and hitting me, I love you.” Don’t forget to acknowledge and positively reinforce when they are able to calm themselves down on their own.
Strategy 6: Don’t do it alone, ask for help!
If you are a teacher or care provider, then work as a team with parents, a teacher’s aide, and principal for how to handle melt-downs. If your child often has meltdowns that aren’t responsive to any strategies or interventions, then get outside assistance. Find a therapist or ADHD professional to identify the challenges of melt down behaviors, and find effective approaches to manage ADHD behaviors.
As a result of the incident of a child with ADHD and PTSD being handcuffed, the board of education of the school where this incident occurred introduced new rules that restrict the use of handcuffs only to situations where there is behavior that poses an imminent danger of physical harm to self or others for students. Incidents like this are a wake-up call for parents and educators to communicate with one another about the needs of children with ADHD and impulsive or challenging behaviors. Children look to adults for safety and acceptance. As a parent, caregiver, or educator you are an important person in the life of a child. Having patience, understanding, and compassion are not only things needed in dealing with a melt-down, but are also things children need to learn as they grow.
Joshua Soto, MA is a Marriage and Family Therapist Registered Intern (639) in private practice in Irvine, CA. Josh specializes in working with pre-teens, teens, and young adults. Josh also facilitates counseling groups to assist young people to learn mindfulness, social skills, and healthy coping skills to manage stress at home and at school. He is employed and supervised by Dr. Renee Miller, LMFT (43207) Josh is accepting new clients and can be reached at (714) 422-0396 or by email at Joshsoto@Journeyccs.com.