Taking Control Over Your Emotions When Children Lose Control Over Theirs

I’ve experienced every emotion over the past few weeks, from revulsion to rage, when thinking about the recent federal lawsuit filed on behalf of the boy and girl from Kentucky who were handcuffed by a school resource officer in their school. I had a hard time finding the words I wanted to say. I was numb watching the video.

I think it is important for us, as people who care for and are committed to child and youth development, to acknowledge that our emotions are involved in our ability to work with and intervene in behavior situations with children in our care. As adults, we are supposed to have the emotional capacity to be “in control” when children are not able to be “in control” of their thoughts, actions, and emotions. Research shows that many children of all abilities do not think about the consequences of their actions because their brains have not developed to think in terms of consequences. The ability (or inability) to recognize our own emotions and respond appropriately to children who are “out of control” is a group/class management tool that can be developed through experience, accountability, and practice. I believe that what we saw on the video from Kentucky was the result of a system comprised of adults with poorly developed emotional skills.

When you are a caregiver (teacher, principal, counselor, policeman, sheriff, etc.) and you are getting angry, engaging in dialogue from “back talk,” responding impulsively, enjoying watching consequences (or enjoying watching the child out of control suffer), then you are allowing the child to bring you down to their emotional level, as opposed to bringing the child up to yours. The situation develops into two “emotional children” responding to each other; of course, the individual with more power is the winner, the individual with less power suffers, and we get a situation like the one we’re now discussing.

I get it. Caring for children with behavioral challenges takes an emotional toll on the most nurturing and experienced caregivers – especially in systems where caregivers do not feel supported by management and families. I used to supervise a youth development program in which the entire population was made up of children with behavioral disorders. On multiple occasions, I saw staff deal with behavioral challenges, and the situations would become aggressive and, at times, violent. Sometimes as a leader, I had to calmly take over and tell the staff member to “take a walk” or “go get some water.” When I did this, the staff member knew that I felt their emotions were starting to control how they were responding, but I did not think any less of the that person because of the situation. If we want to develop supportive systems, we must ensure accountability among every level of staff and family interaction – among peer staff members, among supervisors and management, and among local authorities. In behavioral situations in your community, who will be the adult that says, “Hey, I’m going to take over here… Why don’t you go take a walk for a minute?”

When a child is “out of control” with their behavior, that child needs you more than ever to be “in control” or your own. If you cannot be in control of your emotions as an adult caregiver, then you should not be the person guiding a child’s development. As such, I applaud the ACLU for representing these children who needed a voice in the face of being restrained, and I could not agree more with their statement that “[l]earning de-escalation skills should be as common as fire drills for schools and any law enforcement officers who serve them.” If you are an adult responsible for child and youth development programs who is looking for resources on de-escalating behavioral situations, then I encourage you to contact Kids Included Together for resources and guidance. (phone: 858.225.5680 or support@KITonline.org).

–Written by Jeremy Crisp, KIT Staff Member

Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.

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