Staying Calm in the Face of Challenging Behaviors

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Parents of children who exhibit challenging behaviors are at times exhausted, overwhelmed, and unsure of the tactics they are using to eliminate these behaviors. Teachers sometimes feel this way, too. Regardless of the strategy that works for a child, the most important skill a parent or educator can bring to the table is the ability to stay calm. Every parenting and educational expert will echo this sentiment, and tell you that your reactions can ultimately determine the outcome of a sticky situation with a child. Few will tell you how to do so. I've found when training parents or educators, spending time on techniques for staying calm in the face of challenging behaviors is time well spent.

In the world of behavior modification, where I spend my work days, we believe that our behaviors shape the behaviors of those around us. We must remain calm and in control so children who are exhibiting disruptive behaviors can follow our lead and get back in control. Imagine you are in a theater and the fire alarm goes off. If everyone is filing out of the building quickly and quietly, this pattern will likely continue. If one person screams and begins to push, the panic can spread. The same is true for your home or the classroom. If you panic, those around you will panic.

The next time you are working with a child who is exhibiting a challenging behavior, use these strategies for staying calm.

Stop, breathe, and count Think before you act and look before you leap are more common usages of this technique. I have found that before I answer a child who is exhibiting a disruptive or challenging behavior, I stop, take one deep breath, and count down from three. I may continue my motions in the classroom but my mind is focusing on my next step to help this child get back in control.

Two things happen when you react immediately. First, you are reacting based on your emotions, which is often not a level-headed way to respond. Challenging behaviors in children often produce anxiety, frustration, or sadness in the adults caring for them. When you respond to the child based on those emotions you are likely not acting in the child's best interest. You may be acting to fulfill your own needs or to express your own frustration.

Second, if you immediately react without having a plan, both you and the child are now at a loss for control. When children are exhibiting challenging behaviors, they need an adult to be in control and work them through a difficult situation. Taking a deep breath and counting gives you a chance to get your thoughts together.

Separate the behavior from the child Remember, behaviors always have a function and that function isn't necessarily to disrupt your day. The behavior may be attention-seeking in nature but this doesn't mean it is a personal attack on you and your best-laid plans. Children exhibit behaviors for a variety of reasons, so identifying the reason for the child you are working with is crucial for you to keep focus during a difficult time. Looking at the behavior without emotion attached will help you stay calm and create a plan for resolving the behavior in a positive manner.

Be preparedYou know your child or student well and you know his triggers. Being prepared with a timer to give that child a break, a quiet space for him to collect his thoughts, or paper and crayons for him to "draw it out" may help him de-escalate and gives you more time to prepare yourself for your next step. I often set a timer and tell a student, "In one minute, we are going to talk." This gives the student a minute to get calm, and gives me a minute to collect my thoughts and any materials I may need to help us work through this moment.

Also, think about the behavior when you are away from the child and think through possible scenarios. For example, "If I say this, I think the child will answer that." Think about places you commonly travel, and think of how you will exit that place if your child begins to exhibit a behavior and you need to leave quickly. The situation may not always play out as planned, but you at least have some options in your back pocket. Consider this having alternate routes mapped out in case of a detour. Being prepared makes you feel more confident, so when a child exhibits a behavior, you are naturally going to exude calmness.

In addition to these in-the-moment tips, do not underestimate the value of taking care of yourself. You must find some healthy outlet for your stress, whether it's a yoga class, reading a good book, or simply saying, "I'm having a hard time with (child)" to your spouse or colleague. You are not expected to be a robot; you are allowed to feel stress when dealing with challenging behaviors. Relieving your stress at an appropriate place and time will ultimately enable you to stay calm in the moment.

Jennifer Cerbasi teaches at a public school for children on the autism spectrum in New Jersey. As a coordinator of Applied Behavioral Analysis programs in the home, she works with parents to create and implement behavioral plans for their children in an environment that fosters both academic and social growth. In addition to her work both in the classroom and at home, she is also a member of the National Association of Special Education Teachers and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.