Story About a First Grade Tantrum

Story: A First Grade Tantrum


While teaching special education at an upper-economic public school, I had a cute, quiet first-grade student whose mother tearfully confided that as an infant, her daughter, Rita, had clawed and scratched herself bloody while standing in her crib.

Usually, Rita remained pleasant. However, if something or someone upset her, Rita would abruptly slam her desk to the floor before systematically slinging her books, binders, pens, and papers around the classroom. Knowing Rita would take careful aim at her peers, the other children learned to quickly duck behind their chairs as soon as Rita’s desk hit the floor. Within a few seconds, the normally calm classroom would erupt into total chaos. By the time her tantrum reached its peak, her curly dark hair would be flying in different directions.

One morning, after dismissing Rita’s special education class, I asked Rita to stay for a few minutes. I asked, “Rita, do you know ahead of time when you are headed for trouble?”

She nodded, indicating that she usually knew when she was about to lose control.

I prodded, “What would you think about asking Mrs. Green if you could come to my room anytime you knew you were starting to meltdown?”

Rita, “Sure. I would like to do that. But Mrs. Green probably won’t let me.”

It turned out that Mrs. Green, being a sensible, middle-aged woman, enthusiastically embraced any possible way to get Rita out of her room prior to a tantrum.

Rita and I devised a plan. If I was working with other students when she entered the special education room, Rita selected a secluded spot behind some bookcases where she could begin processing her feelings. I made two promises to her. “Rita, as long as you do not hurt anyone or break anything, you can show and tell me how you honestly feel. You will not be in trouble and you will not upset me. If I think you are planning to hurt yourself or someone else, I will have to call someone who can help prevent this.

In addition, I shared, “Rita, if I am working with other children when you come to the room, I will need to continue. I’ll get to you as quickly as possible. In the meantime, you have some choices about how to express your feelings. The ideas below describe Rita’s options.

  • She could talk softly into a tape recorder.

  • She could express her feelings through modeling clay.

  • Rita could begin by drawing or painting a picture to depict her most recent upsetting event.

  • Using her own picture, Rita could write about her feelings.

The simple actions of calmly leaving her classroom and walking quietly down the hall to my room altered Rita’s feelings enough that she could begin to breathe deeply and calm her thoughts. In NLP terms, Rita could “break state” or free herself from the negative feelings that were taking over.

Usually, by the time Rita reached my classroom, she started drawing. Writing often followed her artistic expression. As soon as the other special education students returned to their regular classes, Rita shared her work. Knowing she had a safe place to be and someone who would listen, provided enough stability that Rita was able to wait until the class I was teaching left the room.

After Rita shared her drawing and her words, I asked, “Rita, do you want to release those angry, hurtful feelings? Would you like to tear the paper into small pieces and throw the bits of paper into the trash?”

Together, we also discussed possible solutions she might try in her classroom. The words and thoughts Rita shared were not pleasant. However, the freedom to say, “I hate _____ and am furious that I have to go back there,” allowed her to express her feelings without threatening to harm anyone. Once she felt calm and armed with a plan, Rita would return to her room.

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