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As a high school counselor, there are often times when I work with teens who are out of control or having a meltdown. Incidents like fighting, receiving bad news, ending a relationship, receiving too much stimulation, or arguing with a staff member can cause students to lose their ability to think rationally and resort to using their reptilian brain. In addition, their nervous systems respond to trauma or crisis situations by going into hyper-alert. These responses may have worked well in earlier environments to minimize emotional damage, but this behavior does not work in the present school environment.  When a meltdown (loss of the capacity to function normally or act in a rational manner) occurs, students often do not have the ability to talk about their feelings or describe the incident that set them into orbit.  Add mental illness, extreme trauma, autism, or substance abuse to the equation and the situation escalates quickly. In fact, even though you may be there to help the student, he or she may be disconnected mentally and emotionally to this fact.

My Story

It is quiet in the office and bell is scheduled to ring within the hour for dismissal. I am typing an email and a scream disrupts the quiet office. Quickly, I jump up from my desk and run to our lobby area where I see a teacher following one of our special needs freshmen. Truly, she looks like a caged animal pacing back and forth with spectators watching her every move.  Suddenly, the assistant principal bursts into the room and begins to reprimand her loudly while the teacher tries to calm her. With all this attention, she runs behind the couch, backs up against the bookcase, and wildly tries to find a place to escape. Now, everyone moves toward her and she looks even more threatened. As she is screaming, I run between the student and the staff members.  “Hey, let’s move her into another room away from everyone so she can calm down.” The student’s eyes are wide and glassy as I walk her into a quiet room away from the others.  As the student sits in a chair, I hear her panting wildly for air. “Look at me sweetie…no one is going to bother you right now.”  “Now, watch me.”

At this point, I begin to show her how to take in deep breaths and blow them out of her mouth.  She seemed confused by my request so I asked her to pretend to blow out a candle.  Finally, she gets it!  “You are doing a great job!” “Just keep looking at me and concentrate on the candle.”  For five minutes, the student was able to calm herself and regulate her emotions without an incident. When she calmed down, the student was finally able to articulate what happened to make her so upset.

Deep Breathing Exercises for Teens

Professional School Counselors Must Be Ready!

Counselors Must Change Roles Quickly!

As a school counselor, you may, at any time, be called upon to “calm” a student who may be out of control in a classroom or sobbing in a restroom.  Unfortunately, when I started as a school counselor, I did not have a tool box of techniques to use with emotionally unstable students.  Over time, I have found there are some techniques that I can use to help regulate and calm students who are using aggression to feel in control in their world.  My goal is to teach them how to regulate their own emotions, but when I do not know the student or have very little contact with him or her, I must rely on these tools.

De-escalation Super Tools for School Counselors:

Counselor Super Powers!

1.  Remove the student from an audience.  Removing the student from others, prevents the desire for the student to “save face”and continue to act-out.

2.  Model Calm Behavior-if you become upset, the student’s extreme behaviors will only escalate.

3. Use eye contact and communicate with the student in a firm, but gentle voice.

4. Get the student to a safe space where he or she can have space to move about.

5. Talk to the student through deep breathing exercises (this really works!).  Ask the student to inhale through the nose for a count of four and exhale through the mouth for a count of eight.

6.  Allow the student to move.  Sometimes I take the student for a walk outside or allow the student to move around a room.

7.  Give the student a lolly pop to suck.  The sucking response is a natural way to promote calmness.

8. Prepare a calming place for students-this can include having lamps for dim lighting rather than harsh lights, big pillows, a rocking chair, blankets, stuffed animals, squishy balls, sand art, puzzles, play dough, and calming sounds (sounds for the ocean, forest sounds, etc).

9. Work on building a relationship with the student-one of the most powerful tools I have found as an educator is building meaningful relationships with students. Spending time getting to know the student and learning his or her patterns of behavior or emotional triggers can help you educate others about intervening early before the student goes into crisis.

Emotional Triggers

10. Use verbal de-escalation- give the person your undivided attention, be non-judgmental, focus on the student’s feelings (not just the facts), allow silence, and clarify feelings.

11. Help the student develop needed life skills to face adverse situations and to bounce back stronger.  This fulfills the old Chinese proverb that you have heard since you were a small child and I believe to be powerful when working with students. Give a man a fish and you will feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” 

When students lack adequate life skills, they often resort to the negative coping skills that have worked for them in the past.  Nan Henderson is a social worker who has worked with children, adolescents, and adults in the area of resiliency over the last twenty years. On her website, Ms. Anderson spoke about a time a teen ended up in an adolescent treatment center after being caught at school for using drugs. The teen shared that she felt lost in school, but found a group, behind the gym smoking weed, who accepted her. The student had instant acceptance and her problems magically went away for a little while. In the absence of relationships and problem solving skills, students often turn to the only options they know. Anderson believes that all humans need skills on how to successfully cope with challenges in each stage of their lives.

Check out Nan Anderson’s Resiliency Wheel for working with students in crisis situations.

12. Set limits and boundaries with students in crisis to protect the students, yourself, and others.

Protect yourself and others

Self Regulation Tips
Relaxation Tips for Students

Following a student’s emotional outburst, Dr.  Mitch Abblett suggests following up with the staff who work with the student after the episode.

Meet with your colleagues

1. As soon as possible, meet with the staff for about 15 minutes to debrief their reactions and conduct a chain analysis or timeline of the episode.  Dr. Abblett says that the debriefing is not a time to point fingers, but serves as a time to uncover the missed aspects around the crisis.

2. Include the student and the parents in the loop.  Following the event, school staff should not merely report facts, but connect the student with his or her family. Helping the family to feel like part of the solution is important.

3. Help the student to repair relationships with staff.  It is important to let the student know that he or she is important and so his or her relationships.

4. Talk about and acknowledge compassion fatigue when working with students who are consistently in trauma. It is important to identify burnout behaviors among staff members and know how to address these behaviors. Compassion fatigue is highly associated with helping professionals and can cause them to make poor decisions when working with students.

The Helping Professionals’ Kryptonite (Compassion Fatigue)

Compassion Fatigue

Some signs of compassion fatigue include:

Mental or physical fatigue
Free floating anger
Chronic tardiness

Here is an assessment staff members can take to assess the possibility of compassion fatigue.
Compassion Fatigue Self Assessment

If staff members recognize they may have CF, here are some self care strategies they can employ:

  • Eat well and exercise
  • Get adequate rest
  • Increase social or professional support
  • Focus on current tasks
  • Practice emotional distancing
  • Use cognitive self talk
From Dr. Rosine Doughterty, Associate Professor, Argosy University

I encourage you as a professional school counselor, to seek out additional training in this area because, in reality, we are not superheroes.  I would love to hear your experiences in working with emotional students!!

Compassion Fatigue Video Resources

Resources for Working with Students

Helping Developmentally Traumatized Children by Mitch Abblett
Kim’s Counselor Corner-Worksheets
Psychological First Aid Worksheets
Things I Need You To Know–A Poem

Interested in Training

Non-Violent Crisis Intervention Training
Psychological First Aid
Psychological First Aid for Schools
Traumatology Institute Trainings
The Upside Down Organization

Great Blogs

Traumatology Institute Blog
Resiliency Blog

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