6 Strategies for Handling ADHD Meltdowns at Home and in the Classroom


Most parents leave their children at school in the belief that they are being placed in a secure environment where they can learn, and they have faith that the teachers will foster their child’s aptitude for learning. It’s concerning that a video showing a third-grade boy with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, who is 8 years old, being handcuffed by a police officer has sparked a conversation about how to handle students with ADHD/ADD behaviors in the classroom.

The incident began when the 8-year-old boy had issues in class because of his diagnoses of PTSD and ADHD. The boy’s aggressive outbursts while in the vice-principal’s office caused him to be taken there, where the situation erupted and the boy’s arms were handcuffed. These behaviors could have been the cause of the issues that were present in the classroom. The police officer told the boy: “You are not permitted to strike me in that manner… As I’ve requested, please take a seat in the chair.” As the boy’s arms were shackled in handcuffs in what would become 15 minutes of restraint, he cried out: “My arm! Oh God. Ow, that hurts,” The American Civil Liberties Union and the Children’s Law Center filed a federal lawsuit on Monday in response to both this incident and another involving a nine-year-old girl in the same school district.

Parents or educators may feel helpless, irritated, and unsure of what to do when their child behaves badly in class or in public. A child with ADHD who is having a meltdown might be sobbing, screaming, and waving their arms around. Given the expectation that we SHOULD be able to control a child’s behavior, it is simple for parents and other caregivers to feel inadequate at that point. Avoid the SHOULD trap and acknowledge that children with ADHD can act out impulsively and lack self-control. A child having a temper tantrum is not a good indicator of a parent’s or teacher’s parenting or teaching skills. It merely illustrates the true nature of ADHD, which calls for tolerance, comprehension, and above all else… compassion. While this incident clearly demonstrates how NOT to handle a child’s ADHD/ADD behavior, the question people may be asking themselves is “How do you deal with erratic behavior or a breakdown?”

Knowing how to handle meltdowns can make a big difference for the child and yourself in remaining calm if you are the parent, caretaker, or educator of a child with ADHD or PTSD. Recognize that a person can only be upset or have a meltdown for so long before they exhaust themselves from sobbing or screaming, necessitating the patience of a parent or educator to remain calm throughout a meltdown. Here are 6 strategies for dealing with a meltdown:

Strategy 1: Know what soothes them

Ask your child if there is anything that soothes or calms them if they become upset before leaving for the store or dropping them off at school. Knowing this can help you prepare a strategy for handling them if they have a meltdown. Their identification of what calms them down also serves as an indication of what they are receptive to and what will help you enforce it most successfully. Inform their teacher or caregiver of this as a parent. A child might point out something or tell you what is causing their outbursts.

Strategy 2: Acknowledge the feeling and encourage communication

Make sure your child knows you are aware of their feelings. Using a calm voice, communicate and repeat, “I know you’re feeling _____” or “I understand why you’re upset because __________.” Encourage the child to discuss it if they can answer in a calm manner. This gives them a chance to talk and express their feelings without it turning into a tantrum. Without having to take them out of the shop or classroom, it can also help you gauge how serious the issue is. If the child is unresponsive or upset, refrain from saying what you said again. Teach them how to handle circumstances that might cause a meltdown once they are at a calm state.

Strategy 3: Set limits

Let them know that even though you can tell they’re upset, they need to settle down so you can finish your shopping or your lesson and finish the rest of the day’s tasks. Tell them they have some time to collect themselves before you need to continue. Continue to the next step if they are unable to calm down in five or ten minutes.

Approach number four: Give them the time and space to have a meltdown.

There is a limit to how long a child can cry or scream during a tantrum or meltdown. A parent on the go or a teacher attempting to instruct a classroom full of children may become exhausted waiting for them to finish speaking everything out. If you’re home and your child is having a meltdown, tell them they need to take a break in their room to calm down. This isn’t a punishment; rather, it establishes a limit for how upset they can be and gives them a safe place to do so. If necessary, let them punch a pillow, squeeze a ball, rip up some paper, or use any other soft object that won’t break. Check to see if the child can go to a quiet room if they are being too disruptive in class if they are at school. If you are in a public place or on a field trip, take the child back to the car or school bus so you can wait until they are calm enough to discuss the cause of their meltdown.

Strategy 5: Teach them how to handle the emotion

Walk your child through a calming technique to help them use it. Instructing someone to take three full breaths while inhaling into a balloon is one example. Children who are upset may benefit from deep breathing. Tip: Ask them to fill one or two balloons with all of their rage and frustration. You can make it a game by saying, “Let’s see how quickly you can get yourself under control. When the balloon has received sufficient air, let it go and laugh at the noise it makes. Additionally, teaching deep breathing can be done by blowing bubbles. While teaching calming strategies separate the behavior from who the child is as a person, and let them know that you care about them: “I love you even though I don’t like the way you hit and yell at me.” When they are able to calm themselves down on their own, don’t forget to acknowledge and encourage them.

6. Don’t try to do it alone; seek assistance!

Work together as a team with parents, a teacher’s aide, and the principal to determine how to handle meltdowns if you are a teacher or care provider. Get outside help if your child frequently has meltdowns that don’t respond to any strategies or interventions. Consult a therapist or ADHD specialist to determine the difficulties with meltdown behaviors and to come up with practical strategies for controlling ADHD behaviors.

Following the incident in which a student with ADHD and PTSD was handcuffed, the board of education of the school where this incident took place instituted new regulations that limit the use of handcuffs to circumstances where there is behavior that poses an immediate danger of physical harm to self or others for students. The need for parents and educators to consult one another about the requirements of kids with ADHD and impulsive or challenging behaviors is brought on by incidents like this. To feel safe and accepted, children look to adults. You play a crucial role in a child’s life as a parent, caregiver, or educator. Children must learn patience, understanding, and compassion as they mature in order to deal with meltdowns and in everyday life.

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