“What about the other children?” This question inevitably arises during discourse around how to support students exhibiting big feelings and, thus, big behavior. Let’s talk about it.
Before I start, I want to direct you to an absolutely amazing article I shared with my educator community. That article was excellent and incredibly helpful in reframing this question. I won’t do it justice, but I will try because it’s important to have this dialogue.
What about the other children? The very problem with this question is that it is coming from a place that only holds space for neurotypical children who don’t appear to need more support. I say appear because there are so many children who are simply better at masking but would absolutely benefit from the same support and accommodations “that” student needs. They just haven’t communicated in the same way that has gotten anyone’s attention. This is important to note because when we are talking about inclusion, we are talking about recreating our environments and destigmatizing disability and mental health. That benefits everyone, not just some.
When you are looking at your classroom culture, what is your goal? Is your goal to provide empathetic, collaborative problem solvers, or is your goal simply to deliver academic instruction to compliant children following your rules? This is a vital question and shapes not only your classroom but how you might receive this article. If your goal is to truly create safe, warm, and supported classrooms where all children feel safe, keep reading.
Creating inclusive environments is not as difficult as it might seem. Accommodations are not genuinely outrageous supports; they are just supports that some students require to access their education, which some of their peers may not require but would certainly benefit from.
Implementing empathetic interventions
In another article, I outline a behavior response plan. You have a student with behavior in your classroom. You need to create a proactive plan to see much behavioral growth. If you have repeated escalations, daily or weekly, that are large, you are on an escalation hamster wheel and are probably in reactive mode, not proactive mode. That article is about implementing an effective plan to change the behavior. But repeated escalations are a red flag. Resist the urge to blame the unsupported student. That’s how you build trust not only with the student in a crisis but with your entire classroom. As you demonstrate empathy, you build empathy.
If you demonstrate fear and dysregulation, you build fear and dysregulation.
It is easy for people to point fingers. We all have some culpability in the miscommunication and reactivity in our profession. We have all, however, been failed by the system. That system is also failing the kids, and we are all on the front lines trying to protect and teach them. The first and most important step in creating safety for the “other children” is for you to keep care and empathy for every student you have, even the ones in crisis.
Destigmatizing Mental Health
Normalizing conversation around feelings and mental health in your classroom is a game changer. We all have big feelings sometimes. Talk about it. Name it. Speak to it. Someone having a crisis where they feel supported and cared for leads to healing. Someone having a crisis and being alienated and feared can lead to catastrophic events. Imagine what speaking directly to and practicing regulation skills in your class would do. It increases everyone’s skills in that area. Your school undoubtedly has more than one student who is in crisis. What if it was a school-wide practice to have calming areas in all classrooms? What if it was a school-wide practice to learn how to identify our feelings and emotions? What if it was a school-wide practice to learn how to take breaks? What if it was a school-wide practice to help students understand that they are all interconnected and they can help support each other, not fear each other?
What if we led with love instead of fear and compliance?
Escalations in the classroom
If you have an escalation in your classroom, your students should be able to understand that their classmate is in a crisis. They will know that because YOU taught them that as the safe adult in the room. You have created a safe space for them to understand that they may have to leave briefly to stay physically safe if anyone’s feelings get really big while they are practicing new tools and strategies, but they are emotionally safe and not traumatized because they understand what is happening. You must understand what is happening first and be the regulated adult in the room. We practice room clears. If you have to evacuate your classroom, it should be limited in frequency and done with extreme care because it can be stigmatizing. When you preventatively plan, you take the emergency feel out of it and help empower the student having big feelings to leave the classroom and find support elsewhere ( a counselor’s office, a school sensory room, etc.)
However, you should have an incorporated break space in your classroom that all students have access to. It should be celebrated that someone is taking a break to help regulate themselves. Do not be so stuck on the schedule and academics that you accidentally create shame around using that space. I know, I can hear it now: “But what if the student is just wanting to get out of math?” What if? You have identified the problem behavior, you can make a plan with the student, and while they are practicing that plan, you have provided a safe way for that student to take care of their feelings. There is no loss there.
Creating trust with your students
When your “other” students see you embrace the student having a hard time, you build trust with everyone. Just because some children can meet expectations better than others does not mean you are establishing trust or a good relationship with your other students. When they see you interact negatively with the student who is struggling, you are showing them that you are not a safe adult. Do you want to teach out of fear? I understand that toxic positivity is real in education, but we are all in this to help teach kids. Aren’t we? Do you sincerely want your teaching legacy to be the teacher who was only a good teacher to the children you scared into compliance? Children look to the adults to tell them things are okay. So even if you are having an escalation in your classroom, if you have a student expressing big feelings and big behaviors, take a moment to try and help. You will increase the emotional safety in your classroom and, inevitably, the physical safety. The students in your classroom should all be your students. Care enough about each of them to help in whatever unique ways they need help.
If there is a classroom escalation or evacuation, the restorative conversations you have with your class are critical. If you allow space for children to express their feelings, you create emotional safety. If you make space for them to reach out to try and help support their classmate, you create emotional safety. If you facilitate restorative conversations between students, you build emotional safety. Children are resilient, loving, and forgiving. They are this way naturally until they are modeled or taught a different way. They can hold empathy and understanding for their classmates in amazing ways.
I am going to say something that will not be popular, and if you are an educator, it may be difficult to hear. But self-reflection and growth are part of the job. If you have a student who is unsupported and thus having multiple escalations, that is a system failure, and you need to get them help. If your students have been hurt repeatedly physically, you did not create a plan to keep them safe. You may not have provided data that would support the appropriate level of support. You may not have made any environmental changes that would help support that student. If your other students are afraid or traumatized, it’s because you didn’t create an inclusive environment of empathy and understanding.
We HAVE to look at the entirety of the problem and be solution-driven to help all of our students. Getting on the internet to vilify students with disabilities, “venting” about them in meetings, and blaming them or their parents for not having the support they need does nothing to help anyone in any way.
As for the “other” children in your classroom? Teach, reinforce, and model empathy and regulation.