From Meltdown to Understanding: Six Ways to Support Students in the Moment

5 min read

| By Kathryn Kennedy |

Whether you’re in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the school year or just starting, summer may feel like a distant memory and December break far away. You may also be supporting students who need additional help. They may be disengaged, consistently melting down, or exhibiting anger or some other overwhelming emotion. Just like us, our students are human beings and experience all things. Oftentimes, they don’t have the tools to work through what they’re experiencing. While not an exhaustive list, here are six ways to support students in the moment.

1. Understand the why and start with compassion and empathy.1
Taking the time to understand the why behind the behavior is vitally important when working with a student (or anyone) who is feeling overwhelmed. If possible, provide some space for your other students to engage in activity while you take time with the student who needs support. Many times, the student wants someone to listen. Other times, they just want space to decompress and let the overwhelm come out in some way. Show compassion for the student as well as yourself as you create a supportive space for your student. Practice empathy by actively listening, withholding judgment, asking open-ended questions, and exhibiting empathic body language. A great resource to support educators with supporting students is Dr. Mona Delahooke’s Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioral Challenges.

2. Create a safe space.2
Sometimes students who are overwhelmed just need some space to work through and/or decompress from what they’re feeling or experiencing. To support them as they are doing that, we can create a small space within our room. If possible, this space can include comfortable chairs or pillows, paper and markers to draw on, fidget toys, calming music, and other supports that can help a student calm themselves and feel safe. You can encourage your students to go to the safe space as they need to, emboldening them to support themselves by listening to their mind and body.

3. Encourage pendulation.3
Pendulation is the act of moving toward something as you feel safe to do so, and moving away from it as you feel overwhelmed. In pendulation, there’s an intentional check-in to see how the mind, body, and the nervous system specifically, are feeling—when moving toward, we feel okay to expand; when moving away, we acknowledge the need for bolstering ourselves before choosing to move toward again. The art of pendulation is a way to expand the nervous system’s capacity as well as contract it as needed. Sharing this practice with your students gives them another tool to use as they feel a sense of overwhelm. In the moment, if your student would like some space to process, invite them to go to the safe space and come back to talk when they’re ready.

4. Practice daily mind-body check-ins.4
Throughout the day, engage your students in regular mind-body check-ins. These intentional pauses can support the nervous system in not only self-regulation but co-regulation processes. During these mind-body check-ins, encourage students to notice what’s happening in their minds and bodies without judgment. This act of slowing down and noticing can also be a welcome pause for you as well. Check-ins will then become a go-to strategy that your students can use at any time when they start to feel out of sorts, especially when they feel too much too fast too soon. In the moment of overwhelm, support self- and co-regulation with practices from these mind-body check-ins.

5. Promote resourcing.5
In the moment a student is feeling overwhelmed, you can support them by inviting them to think of things that are good, such as a new dog they just adopted or a favorite activity they enjoy doing at recess. By inviting students to think of things that are good or safe, we provide them with another opportunity to support themselves in calming the nervous system until they’re ready to work through what they are experiencing that brought them into the space of overwhelm.

6. Implement joyful moments, play, and acts of kindness.6,7
Using joyful moments, play, and acts of kindness can be another option for promoting resourcing. While it might not help in the moment, you can create reflection opportunities for your students that include joyful moments. Ask them to share a time when they felt joy in their day or over the weekend. Remind them that they can always revisit those moments of joy when things feel overwhelming. You can also implement an activity that focuses on students engaging in acts of kindness. This can be at the classroom level and/or at the school level so that it promotes a culture of kindness and offers another opportunity for co-regulation.

There are many more examples of strategies for supporting students in the moment at Greater Good in Education and Momentous Institute. Continue to meet students where they are and practice understanding the why behind their behaviors.

1. Neff, K. (2015). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. New York, NY: William Morrow Paperbacks.
2. Levine, P. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
3. Levine, P. (2010). In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
4. Wellness Library. Wellness for Educators.
5. Levine, P. (2010). In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
6. The Science of Kindness. Random Acts of Kindness Foundation.
7. National Institute for Play.

K. Lee Lerner

Meet the Author

Kathryn Kennedy has cultivated her two primary passions for 20+ years. She serves as founder and executive director of Wellness for Educators and is the founder and principal consultant of Consult4Ed Group. Her recent publication, The Mind-Body Connection for Educators: Intentional Movement for Wellness, is the first in a four-part book series.

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