By Andrew Hawk
Depending on their position, teachers will work with hundreds, and even thousands, of students throughout their careers. From the first year’s class to the last, students in a room will have a wide range of similarities and differences. So while consistency is one of the cornerstones of teaching, so is being flexible and able to adapt to meet the needs of every student. Enter emotionally intense kids. Although these students typically do not break rules, they are often high need and can monopolize teachers’ time. Here are some ideas you can try to support emotionally intense students in your classroom.
1. Communicate with Parents
Students go home every day and tell their parents about their day at school. When working with emotionally intense kids, teachers need to be sure that parents also hear things from the teachers’ point of view. Parents can often offer advice on how best to interact with their student. My first year of teaching, I had a very sensitive student in my class and I emailed with her mother daily. Try to work out an amount of communication that fits with your and the parent’s comfort level.
2. Be Ready to Listen
Time is something that teachers never have enough of. Emotionally intense children can be easily upset and usually want to talk to their teacher about it. If you find this is happening constantly, I recommend scheduling short check-ins during the day when the student can talk to you one-on-one. This helps control the flow of information and places time restraints on these interactions. Also, when the student knows there is a set time for their needs to be addressed, it helps them relax during the school day.
3. Facilitate Positive Interactions
Emotionally intense students can sometimes come across as needy. This can be off-putting to their peers and may make it difficult for them to form friendships. Having one or more friends helps these students stay calm and relieves a good bit of pressure from their teachers. Try to think of some creative ways for the student to interact with peers. For example, try arranging a lunch group or a group to play board games together during recess.
4. Find a Check-In Person
The more positive people you can insert into an emotionally intense student’s daily routine, the easier they will navigate each day. Find a teacher in another grade level, a custodian, a cafeteria staff member, or maybe a specials class teacher and set up a daily check-in time. This check-in person might occasionally have lunch with the student too. This idea is not new, but it continues to be a relevant intervention for students with emotional intensities.
5. Model Focusing on Positive Things
Administrators and teachers make it a practice to model the behaviors they want to see in their students. In addition to this modeling, you can talk a student through a problem by sharing how you would react in a similar situation. These incidental interactions sometime make the best social-skills instruction.
6. Recruit a Peer Buddy
I used to like to match a student from an older grade with a younger peer, such as a fifth grader with a fourth grader. This can be empowering for both students. The challenge is finding times in the day for the students to interact. If you can get the schedules worked out, this can be another very effective strategy.
7. Role Play
Another staple of social-skills instruction, role-playing challenging situations helps students react when the real moments arrive. What exactly you role-play depends on a student’s specific triggers. You can use role-playing one-on-one, with a small group, or as a whole class. A quick online search can provide multiple resources.
8. Positive Self-Talk
Positive self-talk helps turn a student’s inner thought processes into something positive. The student has to buy in to the idea for it to really be successful. The goal is to always find the good in any situation. You will need to spend some time one-on-one with your student to help get them started. Then you will need to prompt them to try reframing their thoughts when upset.
It is always good to have a backup plan for days when everything seems to go off the rails. If you are out sick or in a meeting, teach your emotionally intense students to write their thoughts and feelings down in a journal in place of telling you. They can leave the journal for you to read and you can write a note back. This is also a good strategy for the time when you want to start fading some interventions out of a student’s daily routine.
10. Develop a Behavior Plan
Do not make the next teacher start from scratch. Put your student on the schedule for your school’s Response to Intervention team and write a formal behavior plan that can be updated and travel with your student. Even if the interventions you have tried have been unsuccessful, this knowledge will still help the next teacher.
Stay healthy, everyone!
Andrew Hawk has worked in public education for 18 years. He started as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He completed his bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana. Andrew has taught first, second, and fifth grades as a classroom teacher. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University. Andrew has worked as a resource room teacher and also has taught in a self-contained classroom for students on the autism spectrum. In 2017, he earned a master’s degree in educational leadership, also from Western Governor’s University. This is Andrew’s first year as a building principal. He is the principal of an elementary school that houses kindergarten through fifth grades. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with this wife and two daughters.
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