It may often seem that children’s tantrums, hitting, fighting, or other challenging behaviors come out of nowhere. In actuality, there is a cycle that children go through when they act out and this can be predictable. Sometimes, it just happens so quickly it may be hard to recognize. Understanding this cycle helps us to know how to intervene and when.
I highly recommend the IRIS Center for Training Enhancements that has a detailed training module for teachers on the acting out cycle. Today, I will highlight some of the major points that can help teachers of young children.
Here’s a diagram that the IRIS Center uses to describe the acting out cycle:
From this diagram, you can see that children start out at a Calm Phase. Typically something happens in the child’s environment that acts as a trigger that begins the acting out cycle. This trigger could be something at school like being told it’s clean up time, transitioning to a math lesson, coming back from lunch, another child coming too close, etc. Other triggers can come from outside of school: being hungry, tired, having a chaotic morning at home, an argument on the bus, and so on.
So the first strategy a teacher can use is to help the child avoid or manage his triggers. For example, if you know that Kevin tends to get angry and hit children when the class is coming in from recess, you can use some prevention strategies such as asking Kevin to come in for a special job ahead of the rest of the class. Or you can walk next to Kevin, engaging him in conversation as you enter the classroom. If you know that Jenny begins to have tantrums at the beginning of clean-up time, you can give her early notice that center time is ending, or get her to stop ahead of the other children and then give her a job to do – like watering the plants - that is away from all the movement during clean up time.
Next in the acting out cycle is the Agitation Phase. In my view this is the critical phase. At this point, children’s emotions and behaviors begin to gain energy. If you are attuned to this phase, you may notice nail biting, hair twirling, tapping, wiggling, inability to sit still, a lack of focus, or daydreaming. Some children will clench their fists, or their jaw, making a grimace or showing frustration on their face. It is at this point when intervention by the teacher is most effective and most necessary. Your goal in the agitation phase is to restore calm, otherwise the child will move into the acceleration phase and can become out of control. It’s especially important NOT to yell at the child or add to their growing tension with lecturing or reprimands.
Calming a child in the agitation phase can be as simple as moving your body close by, giving some focused attention on the child, or redirecting the child toward a different activity. Here are some examples:
- 4-year old Carmen is playing in the housekeeping area and two other girls move close to her to play with the kitchen items. Carmen makes an angry face and starts to push their things off the table. You quickly walk over and engage Carmen in a conversation about her play. She starts to relax and smile so you make suggestions about playing together with the other girls.
- Let’s imagine a 2nd grade classroom. You’ve just finished guided reading and the children are going back to their desks to start journal writing. Michael, who is typically overwhelmed by writing, begins with a few words but gets frustrated, tears out the page and crumples it up. You walk over quickly and calmly and talk to him about his writing ideas. He chooses an idea and you suggest he just write a couple of words and then you’ll come back over and check in with him. Michael begins writing again and is able to complete a full sentence.
- Tyler, a kindergartener, has been engaged and sitting quietly throughout the shared reading time. Toward the end of the book, he begins to fidget on the carpet and starts rocking his body side to side. You notice this and call on Tyler to come up and point to one of the words in the Big Book that starts with the same letter as his name. He quickly gets up and bounces to the front of the carpet.
The most important thing to keep in mind is reducing the energy and restoring calm. If at this phase, for example, the teacher reprimanded Michael for tearing up the paper, or yelled at Tyler to sit still, it could easily have pushed the child into the acceleration phase rather than restoring calm. This is the critical time to be careful and thoughtful with your approach, especially with children who are prone to acting out.
In summary, the most helpful way to deal with challenging behavior is to prevent it, of course. Paying attention to children’s triggers and their agitation phase can reduce a great deal of problems. In the next posting, I’ll share some ideas about what to do if the child moves beyond agitation into acceleration and peak phases.
[Adapted from Addressing Disruptive and Non-compliant Behaviors (Part 1): Understanding the Acting-out Cycle. IRIS Center]