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Behavior is Communication: Understanding and Responding to Tantrums and Meltdowns

23 Nov 2021 by Megin Ruston

Meltdowns and tantrums in the classroom can be a frustrating experience for both the educator and child. It's important for teachers to support children through their development of essential social and emotional capabilities.

In this episode, Megin Ruston joins us. Megin has worn various hats in the ECE field, from student to professional to educator and advocate. She started her career as a teacher. During this time, she began working as a Home Visitor in a parenting program supporting families with children ages 5 and under. After that adventure, she provided social- emotional interventions for school-aged children identified as having increased risk factors. And now we’re very lucky to have her at Teachstone. Listen as Megin helps educators understand why tantrums and meltdowns happen and how to respond to them.

This episode focuses on Early Language Support, Behavior Guidance, and Teacher Sensitivity.

Actionable tips to try from this episode:

      • With infants and toddlers, meltdowns and the other behaviors like biting and spitting are developmentally appropriate behaviors for those age groups. Meltdowns are a common response to frustration, sadness, and… emerging independence! Children outgrow this! As they develop that self-control and self regulation, they DO outgrow these behaviors!
      • Control your own emotions.
      • Conventional wisdom to ignore a meltdown is actually not that effective and can be counterproductive, can prolong meltdowns, and doesn’t really teach what we think it’s teaching (This includes sending a child to a “quiet corner” by themselves to “calm down.”)

    •  


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Transcript 

Megin Ruston:
When we're talking about those toddler years, they are discovering that they are a completely separate entity from the adults in their lives, that they don't like the same things you like or that they do like things you don't like. And part of that emerging fierce independent can sometimes show up as a meltdown.

Mamie Morrow:
Hi everyone. So glad you're here. I'm your host, Mamie. Welcome to the Teaching With Class podcast, where we explore topics that help educators deepen their connections with children and enhance their social, emotional, and cognitive growth and development. Today, we're talking about understanding and responding to tantrums and meltdowns. Our guest, Megin Ruston shares her passion for supporting young children through these very difficult, yet incredibly important experiences in their development of essential social and emotional capabilities. Megin has worn various hats in the early childhood education field from student to professional to educator and advocate. She started her career as a teacher. During this time, she began working as a home visitor in a parenting program, supporting families with children ages five and under. After that adventure, she provided social emotional interventions for school age children identified as having increased risk factors. And now we're very lucky to have her at Teachstone. I hope you'll enjoy the conversation. Megin, thank you so much for joining us today.

Megin Ruston:
Thanks for having me.

Mamie Morrow:
Absolutely. And I'm really excited for all of the information you can share with us and help us better understand and unpack tantrums and meltdowns and biting behavior and what that is and why children have them. Can you just help us better understand that please?

Megin Ruston:
Yes, absolutely. So it is something that probably almost every teacher or parent has dealt with at some time in their career. And that is actually sort of a radical notion. Here's a disclaimer, I'm going to... I feel it's my duty to share this radical notion. And that is that meltdowns and the other behaviors that you're talking about, so biting, spitting, things like that are actually developmentally appropriate for the age groups that we're talking about.

Mamie Morrow:
Tell us more.

Megin Ruston:
That does not mean that these behaviors are acceptable behaviors. No, we don't want or encourage children to bite or spit or have meltdowns, but that means they are appropriate responses for this age group, for this developmental level that we're to talking about. Usually when we're talking about meltdowns, meltdowns happen when a child feels overwhelmed by their emotions or even sometimes by their environment, so by their surroundings and they're a common response to frustration sadness. And in toddlers, it's a common response to that emerging independence. So you can kind of see them as a milestone in that respect. Milestones, they're definitely no one's favorite milestone, but they kind of are a milestone, nonetheless.

Mamie Morrow:
Yeah. Because the kids are trying to do things on their and they're getting frustrated because they don't quite have the dexterity or the capacity to do that. Is that what you mean? It becomes a frustrating experience for the children.

Megin Ruston:
Yeah. So when we're talking about very young children and we may get into this a little bit deeper in a minute, but they don't have the language yet to really describe what they're feeling or what they might be experiencing or what they're frustrated about. But also when we're talking about those toddler years, they are discovering that they are a completely separate entity from the adults in their lives, that they don't like the same things you like or that they do like things you don't like. And so that part of that emerging fierce independence can sometimes show up as a meltdown.

Mamie Morrow:
I love how you call it fierce independence. I remember when and my children were very young and they developed this deep stubborn trait. A friend of mine gave me really good advice and she said, "The same traits and characteristics that your children are exhibiting right now, that might be really difficult for you to handle now are the very things you need them to have to be successful in life." And so-

Megin Ruston:
Absolutely.

Mamie Morrow:
It helped me to see it in a different way. This independence and this fierce streak of I can do this is not anything we want to squash in a young child. We want to continue to help them to develop that, but also find a better way to handle their emotions as they're going through that. Can you help us understand-

Megin Ruston:
Exactly.

Mamie Morrow:
Yeah. What are some other triggers? Because I know that tantrums and meltdowns can come from a variety of things. So what are some other triggers that we can better understand so we can try to avoid those?

Megin Ruston:
Well, when it comes to biting, there can be lots of reasons. And usually biting, we see in infant, toddler years. Less so in the preschool years, there's always a little wiggle room when you're talking about development, but for infants it can be... Biting can come from frustration and anger too, but it might just be because they're tired, they're hungry. When we're talking about babies, it can be a need for that oral stimulation, babies explore the world with their hands, their eyes, and as any teacher knows, with their mouths.

Mamie Morrow:
Maybe let's lead with the mouth first, right?

Megin Ruston:
Right, right. Everything. But I think when it comes to understanding sort of what is behind a meltdown or what's behind biting behavior, understanding those triggers, this is where a teacher's knowledge of child development and what's developmentally appropriate is really going to come into play. For toddlers and even preschoolers to a degree, they're just learning how to be in control of these very big emotions. So we know that self-regulation is a skill that takes practice. It's not something that we're all born with and it takes practice just like other skills young children are learning. So having that understanding, and then we also talked about language. So not having that expressive language capability yet to express what that child is feeling. They aren't at that level yet where they can say, "You know, Mrs. Mamie, I really appreciate the time and effort you put into making my sweet potatoes today, but I feel like I'm in a rut, we've had sweet potatoes every day and I'd really like if you could make me something else."

Mamie Morrow:
That'd be lovely.

Megin Ruston:
It would be great but it doesn't look like that-

Mamie Morrow:
Instead you get a-

Megin Ruston:
When they're [crosstalk 00:07:57].

Mamie Morrow:
Of mashed potatoes. Yes.

Megin Ruston:
Exactly, or on the floor. Yeah. So another way to really kind of understand where these behaviors are coming from and to figure that out is to observe. Observe the child that you see maybe with a pattern of biting or a pattern of meltdowns, is observe, be close to that child during the day. See if you can figure out if there are certain times of the day where a child tends to be more upset or more frustrated, or if there are certain events that might trigger that frustration.

Mamie Morrow:
Yeah. And that sounds like we're really, when we're observing, we're looking for patterns. We're looking for antecedents that we can see that something that's happening before that meltdown or that biting gets triggered so that we can help to find ways to help that child either be able to manage their emotions during that time. And we can be there and be at the ready, or we can even try to possibly strategically avoid the child having to experience those more upsetting situations that happen, once we've noticed kind of what's leading into that behavior. So I agree. The observations is really helpful. Do you have any advice on like how long those observations should be or what people should be looking for specifically?

Megin Ruston:
I think if you're trying to sort of nail down a pattern. When does this happen? What part of the day does this happen? I think you don't need to necessarily set aside a hour long window or anything, but I really think it is beneficial to sort of be more mindful of this child throughout the day. So if you are, for example, you're outside being close to this child to see if any of these behaviors happen or during mealtime being mindful, just being sort of aware throughout the day. And again, it doesn't need to be a terribly long time, small windows throughout the day. And a lot of times teachers have their notepad and their pencil in their pocket for those anecdotal records throughout the day. So if you know you're going to intentionally be watching a child for these behaviors, having something like that in your apron or in your back pocket can be really helpful.

Mamie Morrow:
Yeah and I would imagine it could be helpful after everything's kind of calmed down to just quickly write everything you can remember about maybe how the child was acting before. Did they start to get agitated? Did they start to kind of rub their hair a lot? Or a little tell that you can start to notice this child is starting to kind of spiral into that meltdown. And then also noting what helped the child to overcome, so you can try to find that pattern as well.

Megin Ruston:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Exactly, exactly.

Mamie Morrow:
And that really leads us into, it's so important to understand the nature of why children have these meltdowns and tantrums and bite and to better understand that it's just part of, an important part of their developmental process. But when teachers are in the middle of it and a child's in the middle of it and those emotions are really, really big and we know when emotions are big, that's not the time to try to reason and logic and think with a child. They're just being overtaken by those emotions. What are some strategies you can help educators and parents and caregivers think about to help resolve or reduce those big emotions during these times?

Megin Ruston:
So I think it's really good to know one, children do outgrow these behaviors.

Mamie Morrow:
Yay.

Megin Ruston:
It is not something... I don't know, personally, I don't know any typically developing children that graduated high school still biting or having meltdowns, although teenagers are known for having their own meltdown.

Mamie Morrow:
Different type of meltdown.

Megin Ruston:
Absolutely. And that's-

Mamie Morrow:
Just take their phone away.

Megin Ruston:
That's a whole other podcast. But I don't know any children who, typically developing, who have gone on to be habitual biters or tantrum throwers. So children do outgrow these behaviors. And we talked a little bit about trying to prevent them and being proactive if you can. So we know that children thrive when they know what to expect with consistent routines, avoiding more demanding tasks at certain times of the day, avoiding power struggles.

Mamie Morrow:
That's a big one, especially with toddlers.

Megin Ruston:
That's big one with toddlers. So because the truth is the moment you've entered a power struggle with a young child, you've probably already lost.

Mamie Morrow:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Megin Ruston:
Let's be real. So just avoiding power struggles and allowing them to have as much independence that is possible in the classroom, whatever... Obviously keeping safety in mind, but whatever they can do themselves, allowing them to do it and offering those moments of positive guidance. And if you do see that frustration building stepping in and saying, "Hey, I see it looks like you're getting frustrated. Can I help you figure it out?" Sometimes as adults, we want to come in and fix the problem and save the child from-

Mamie Morrow:
[crosstalk 00:13:45].

Megin Ruston:
Save the day. Sometimes though I know I've had moments where that actually sort of escalated their frustration where I wanted to come in and fix it. And that sort of actually I aggravated the child even more. So being proactive and trying to prevent a meltdown or that frustration is huge. We all know sometimes that doesn't happen. So sometimes a meltdown will... Sometimes you just find yourself in the throes of a meltdown and you kind of have to help this child ride it out. A big piece of trying to help the child kind of through these big emotions is controlling your own emotions.

Mamie Morrow:
Ah, so of course we're helping the child manage these emotions, but emotions are contagious. So we're-

Megin Ruston:
Exactly.

Mamie Morrow:
They're feeling all upset and frustrated is likely getting us upset and frustrated as well. So how can we help them manage their emotions while we're also managing our emotions? And I'm assuming we're modeling for them through the process as well.

Megin Ruston:
Modeling is huge. So I would suggest that the conventional wisdom to ignore a meltdown is not going to be the most effective strategy and ignoring a meltdown can actually be really counterproductive. Ignoring a meltdown, can prolong that interaction, it can prolong the meltdown and it's not teaching the child what we think it's teaching them. That includes sending a child away to a quiet or a cozy corner alone for them to quote calm down. So I know I have seen that a lot in some of the classrooms I've worked in or observed. A teacher may say, "Okay, I can see you're really upset. Why don't you go sit over here until you can calm down, then we'll talk about it." And that's starts out okay.

Megin Ruston:
I can see you're upset, acknowledging a child's emotions that starts out okay. But really we just said that self-regulation is a skill that takes practice and guidance from adults. So when you send that child away alone, they're not thinking through their emotions. They're not thinking about why they're upset. They're just upset. So staying with the child, not ignoring, but also I think for biting and for meltdowns acknowledging a child's emotions as opposed to dismissing or downplaying them like, oh, it's not that big of a deal, you'll be fine. It's okay.

Mamie Morrow:
Because for them it is a huge deal right now.

Megin Ruston:
It is a big deal or they wouldn't be so upset.

Mamie Morrow:
Right, exactly.

Megin Ruston:
Imagine, imagine all of us I think, or most of us have felt dismissed or we know what that feels like to have our feelings dismissed and it doesn't make us feel any better. It doesn't help us get over whatever we're angry about. It can actually do the opposite. It makes us sometimes even more angry.

Mamie Morrow:
Well, and it also makes children feel like certain emotions in the classroom are bad. And we don't ever want a child to feel bad because they're feeling upset or angry or frustrated. Because that's what they're feeling. They're feeling it for a reason, something caused it. And like you said, one of our goals in these early years is help children develop self-regulation and that's regulating the good, bad, and the ugly. Regulating all of these feelings. And so how do we help children to better understand where these feelings are coming from and how to overcome them when they're feeling them? So I guess my question is how do we help children to be able to calm down and then be able to have those conversations? You said, having them go by themselves is not necessarily helping them with that guidance. So what would you suggest in those moments?

Megin Ruston:
Well, for a meltdown, I would say, first of all, you need to help that child return to a regulated state. Because just like you said earlier, there's no problem solving going on when someone is unregulated, even in adults. So staying with that child and helping them return, providing comfort, like I said, acknowledging those emotions instead of dismissing them. Label the emotions that you see the child experiencing, give them the words, because they may not be able to describe what they're feeling themselves. So labeling those emotions, giving them that emotional vocabulary to help describe what they might be feeling. Then when they are calm, help them find a solution.

Megin Ruston:
Can I help you figure this out? I saw Katie took the block from you and you got really upset. So acknowledging and telling that I would be upset too if someone took my blocks, how can we go back instead of yelling or hitting? How can we go back? Can you tell Katie I was still using those. So giving them the vocabulary of their emotions, but then also helping them find a solution once they've reached that regulated state.

Mamie Morrow:
And what do we do when a child is the victim. They were, two children, one just bit another or one just hurt another child. How do we help in those moments? How do we help to resolve and create learning opportunities through those moments?

Megin Ruston:
Yeah. So similarly, when... And again, if we're talking about talk toddlers, it might look a little... If a toddler bites, how you respond to that might look a little differently than when an infant is biting. For toddlers and preschoolers, if there's an altercation and a child bites another child, you might approach the child who did the biting and say something like, "We do not bite, biting hurts, and I cannot let you hurt, Katie or anyone else." Still calm, keeping your own temper in check, but firm. But I think it's important not to just stop there. So [NAEYC 00:20:37] actually gives some really great resources on how to handle biting in the classroom and sort of what to do next. So once you've told that child biting is not okay, biting hurts. You want to respond to the child who's been hurt.

Megin Ruston:
Model that empathy and provide comfort. Then go back and talk to the child who did the biting. So trying to find out what led up to it. But when you addressing the child who was hurt you can say something like, "I'm so sorry you're hurting. That must have really hurt. Do you need some ice?" so modeling empathy to the child who did the biting, then going back and talking to the child who did the biting and saying, having them help find a solution. So having them kind of practice that empathy as well. So maybe how can we help your friend feel better? Maybe you can go get him a bandaid. But still restating the rule, talking about how the child could respond later on in a similar situation.

Mamie Morrow:
And what if it becomes a habit? We know there's some kids who are habitual biters or habitual tantrum throwers. What do you do in those situations where you feel like you've gone through the process, but it just kind of keeps happening?

Megin Ruston:
If biting becomes a habit I think then it is super important to reach out to the family of that child and involve them in a solution. So if you have found... If you see a pattern of biting with a child, you're going to want to observe, like we were saying before, go back and observe and see if you can find out what's triggering the biting. If it's anger, frustration, fatigue, hunger-

Mamie Morrow:
Hunger, sleep.

Megin Ruston:
Right. But also talking to the family and seeing if they have strategies at home that they're using.

Mamie Morrow:
Or if they've seen any of that behavior, because possibly it's only at the school because at home they don't have another sibling or they don't have the same situations happening. Because I know at times parents have been like, "Well, we don't ever experience that at home or anywhere else. It's just at school."

Megin Ruston:
Right. A lot of times that is the case because if you've got a toddler at home and there's no other kids in the home to bite, then they're not... And they're not biting their parents, it's not going to be as significant an issue at home. But I think absolutely it's important to involve the family. Talk about what you have noticed, what you've observed and sharing that with them, suggest some strategies to the family that you are talking about putting in place. So talking about this is how we deal with biting or this is what I've said to your child when they bite. I think it's important to also understand that when you have a plan in place, it might take a while. So even though we've talked about some effective strategies, if biting has become a habit, put some strategies in place, but really understand, it may take a bit. Again, that idea of what's developmentally appropriate.

Mamie Morrow:
I would just add in that the common theme that I'm hearing you say is to really invite the parents in being part of the solution process. And I think it's an opportunity to teach the parents about what biting is. We certainly wouldn't want to alarm the parents or make the parents feel that their child is being labeled, targeted as a biter, but really just come at it of an opportunity for all of us to learn together, to better understand the child, get the parents' perspective and maybe even also find out what calms their child down at home. Because it's possible that you, the teacher at the school, haven't been doing those same strategies that might really be very helpful in the classroom.

Megin Ruston:
Exactly, yeah. And you can always put something in place. You can have a plan in place, try it for several weeks.

Mamie Morrow:
Yeah, yeah-

Megin Ruston:
You don't want to-

Mamie Morrow:
It takes time.

Megin Ruston:
It takes time, but then you can always come back and reevaluate and and readdress with the parents and kind of reassess the situation.

Mamie Morrow:
Yeah. Yeah, once you've brought them into the mix, you definitely want to continue that communication and let them know how things are going at school and your continued observations so that it's a learning process that you're going through together. And Megin, I wonder what you would say at the end of this really rich conversation, you would really be hoping that caregivers and parents and teachers are walking away with as they think about their own children or the kiddos in their classrooms that are going through some of these challenges?

Megin Ruston:
Gosh, so many things.

Mamie Morrow:
You have to narrow it down.

Megin Ruston:
Yeah. So first of all, really understanding that even though these are challenging behaviors, even unwanted behaviors, they are developmentally appropriate.

Mamie Morrow:
They're important, yeah.

Megin Ruston:
They're developmentally appropriate and sometimes can signify upcoming milestones. Also we know that all behavior is communication.

Mamie Morrow:
Yep.

Megin Ruston:
So really pay attention to the signals that these children are sending you, stay close and step in if you need to, if you see a child becoming frustrated or you see a child who may be getting ready to bite and supporting them with these strong emotions, being there to suggest other ways for them to express these really strong emotions.

Mamie Morrow:
I love it when you talk about behaviors is communication. And that's why words are so powerful, because it helps kids have another way of expressing themselves. And so my takeaway is considering how to ensure that teachers and children are developing emotional literacy, really understanding and naming those words and feelings. And then also how to really continue our journey of supporting children with self-regulation. And thank you Megin so much for coming with us today and talking about this very important topic and sharing your experiences with us.

Megin Ruston:
I'm happy to be here, Mamie, anytime.

Mamie Morrow:
If you're interested in continuing this conversation with other educators, I'd encourage you to join our class learning community. You can share or learn more strategies with thousands of educators around the world. The link to join is in the show notes available on your listening platform. Also in the show notes is a link to a few really helpful blog posts on this topic that I encourage you to check out. Thanks for joining us today and I'll see you again next week, but until then be humble, be teachable, and always keep learning.

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