Preventing meltdowns before they happen: A classroom guide

By Brittney Newcomer, MS, NCSP

When students have meltdowns in the classroom, it’s hard to know what to do. A meltdown is a reaction to feeling overwhelmed. And it’s usually not something students can control. 

Students might be overcome with strong emotions like fear, frustration, or sadness. Or they might have trouble managing information from their senses. They may struggle to communicate how they feel and what they need.

During a meltdown, students may yell, cry, lash out, or run away. They might completely shut down and withdraw. A meltdown can last for several minutes up to several hours. 

So what’s the best way to handle student meltdowns? Try to prevent them before they happen.

Understand common triggers  

The first step in preventing meltdowns is to find out what triggers them. Triggers can be different for each student, even in the same situation. Common meltdown triggers include:

  • Sensory overload: Students may be sensitive to loud noises or certain textures, touches, or tastes.
  • Changes in routine: Some students feel overwhelmed by changes to their school day, like an unexpected school assembly.
  • Frustration: Students may become frustrated by academic work or a conflict with a peer.
  • Basic needs: When students are tired, hungry, sick, or feeling physical pain, they may have more difficulty managing their emotions.
  • Trauma: Students who have experienced (or are currently experiencing) trauma may have strong reactions to sensations or situations. 

Identify your student’s triggers  

So how do you know exactly what may trigger a specific student’s meltdown? Here are some sources to consider:

  • Talk with the student’s family. Ask what they’ve observed at home. 
  • If the student has an IEP, review the IEP and the evaluation. If a functional behavior assessment (FBA) is part of the IEP, see if it lists any triggers.
  • Ask the student’s previous teachers about triggers they noticed.
  • Have a conversation with the student to get their perspective.
  • Observe the student and notice patterns. Note the time of day, situation, and what happens right before a meltdown. 

Prepare for possible triggers 

Once you have a sense of what might be causing meltdowns, you can try to prevent them by preparing for triggers. 

Preview potentially overwhelming situations. For example, assemblies may be triggers for some students. Meet with students ahead of time to explain what the assembly will look like. Then talk about, model, and role-play how to handle triggers. When-then sentences can help guide this conversation. 

Make a plan for how to manage triggers. Consider fire drills. If the sound of a fire alarm is a trigger for a student, plan to give the student noise-canceling headphones during the drill. 

Offer choices to avoid known triggers. For example, if you know a student gets frustrated when writing with paper and pencil, offer other options like dictation or typing.

Ask students how they’re feeling. This can help you learn the signs of when students are starting to feel overwhelmed. Once you notice the signs, you can help them find a solution or suggest they take a break. 

Tips for managing meltdowns

You can’t always prevent meltdowns. Some triggers may be unavoidable or unknown. Here are some quick tips for how to handle meltdowns in the moment. 

  • Remain calm and use a neutral tone. Make sure the student knows you’re there to support them. 
  • Guide the student to a safe space to calm down. This may be a spot in your classroom away from other students. Or it may be a quiet space in a different room. 
  • Give the student time and space, but don’t offer strategies. During meltdowns, students are not likely to respond to calming cues.  
  • When the student is calm, have a conversation. Let the student know you want to help them find a solution. 

When students have meltdowns, they’re communicating that they feel overwhelmed. Finding out what triggers meltdowns helps you prevent these behaviors from happening in the future. This helps the student feel safe and comfortable in your classroom.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Brittney Newcomer, MS, NCSP is the associate director of thought leadership at Understood. She has served in public schools for more than a decade as a teacher, evaluator, and curriculum manager.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Andrew Kahn, PsyD is a licensed psychologist who has served as an evaluator and consultant in public schools for nearly 20 years.