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Dear Teachers, Here's How You Can Help My Kid Avoid or Cope With Meltdowns

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I don’t know about you, but there have been times when my kids work so hard at “keeping it together” at school, that by the time they come home they are not feeling regulated.

Also, home is safe, and home is where you can finally show what you are feeling inside.

A loud noise can tip off the scale. A snack might have the “wrong” texture for an already tired body.

For my daughter with Down syndrome, we were fortunate to work with educators who were willing to listen to her sensory needs. My daughter had a card with the word “break” spelled on it. If she needed a break, she would hand the card to her teacher, who would then take her to a different room where she could get regulated. Sometimes she used a therapy swing. Sometimes she chose to wear a pair of noise-canceling headphones. Sometimes she just walked the hallways for a little while.

I believe most teachers want to help our children be successful at school, and success means helping our children feel regulated.

We reached out to our Mighty parenting community and asked, “What can teachers do to help your child and prevent a meltdown?” We also asked our autistic community, “How can/did your teachers help you handle sensory overload and/or meltdowns?”

If you’re an educator, we hope these answers help you further support your kids. If you’re a parent or a student struggling with teachers understanding sensory needs, maybe they’ll be receptive to these ideas.

Here’s our community: 

“The best thing a teacher can do for my autistic child is to be patient, understanding and observant. Be on the lookout for clues that my son is becoming overwhelmed before he actually gets there. This will usually present itself in the form of increased or more intense stimming. Once you recognize he is feeling uneasy, do something to help. Offer him a break to move around or to go to a quiet place.” — Sarah B.

“Explain fire drills before they happen and have headphones (if appropriate) in an easy to access location near the exit. Many teachers enjoy decorating classrooms with bright colors and posters. This can be overwhelming to students in a new environment. Choosing neutral colors and slowly adding to the classroom environment can prove beneficial to those who experience visual sensory overload. Provide movement breaks in the beginning — sitting for long periods of time can be tough for kids at any time, let alone in the beginning of the year. Most important, invest time in the beginning of the year by truly getting to know your students — know their interests, their fears. This will help in more ways than could ever be listed. Many issues can be solved before they occur by knowing your students and building on their interests and strengths.” — Megan G.

“Get to know each of your students on an individual basis, and communication with the parent is vital to maintain an environment that each student can thrive in. Watch for key signs of over-stimulation before a meltdown and have a plan to redirect to a quite place or have items ready for relaxing and de-stemming. Have a visual schedule and keep a very structured classroom. Don’t keep changing things. Keep the room walls simple with lots of visual prompts. Most important: read and re-read the IEP and stay on the same page with open communication with all the teacher aids in your classroom. Make a structured schedule for each student based off their IEP. Lastly, have a questionnaire for your parents, send an email or meet with parents before school starts to find out more about your student. Also, find out the expectations of your parents for their child to help the school year go smoother for everyone.” — Danielle W.


“Most of the time my son’s meltdowns are triggered by conflict with other students or noisy, chaotic environments. He can misinterpret tone of voice, social cues, body language, intent. The best thing a teacher can do is to closely supervise and monitor, not only the classroom, but unstructured or transitional times as well.” — Mary M

“It’s important for teachers to remember that school is a new environment and new experience altogether, and coping strategies the child uses at home might fly out the window at school. It will take some time to adjust, and get to know the child’s personality, before you will get a sense of triggers and warning signs. Meeting with the parents beforehand is one of the best things you can do. They can give you a basic set of warning signs. Unfortunately you might have to learn the hard way, meltdowns will inevitably happen early in the year. My best advice for preventing or dealing with a meltdown is to scale back. Whatever the situation, scale back and remove the pressure. We are selective about what classroom rules to enforce at the beginning. For example, he doesn’t have to stay in his seat if that’s the current problem, but he does have to stay in the room, that’s nonnegotiable. Give them some agency, some sense they get to make their own choices, and within a few weeks they will adapt. This opens the door to better learning opportunities as they begin to focus on the schoolwork and move past adjusting to the new room. But it takes some time, and patience, especially in the early years of school.” — Jessica W.

“Last year the classroom teacher met with us before school, before back-to-school night. She answered all of my child’s questions — one hour worth of questions. I could see the anxiety and fear leaving her body. It was the best start we have had in four years.” — Jessica M.

“My 11-year-old says, ‘watch, listen and understand.’ Watch for bullies, environments getting too noisy and lots of fidgeting. Understand that some days will be better than others and that the teachers can help make things easier by being calm, offering quiet space and setting the tone for no tolerance of bullying.” — Dee N.

“Read the IEP or 504. I know teachers have many, many students and many, many things to do and keep track of but when accommodations are there, it is for a reason. That reason is to hopefully help everyone have a successful year, student and teacher. If the child hates being touched and hates having attention centered on him, please please please don’t touch him and constantly call out his name in front of the class.” — Melissa B.

“When I was in school the best thing teachers have done for me is notice when I might be feeling overwhelmed and ask if I need some time to myself.” — Jessica C.

“Have a box with different items such as stress balls, sensory balls, emotion cards and other things that can help autistic children calm down.” — Hannah H.

“Let him know being overwhelmed or frustrated is OK.” — Sarah C.

What would you add? Let us know in the comments.

Thinkstock image by Wavebreakmedia

Originally published: July 26, 2017
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