Plenty of people are angry at the officer who handcuffed Salecia Johnson and hauled her to the police station, and they have every right to be. But the real blame in this situation falls with a school district that was obviously ill-prepared to care for its students. The truth is, even with a physically violent tantrum, the police should have never needed to be called and the school’s teachers and administrators should have been trained to handle these types of situations.
My mother is an early childhood educator who has had her share of experience with at-risk and special needs children. I remember about five years ago when one of her kindergarten students fractured her wrist during a particularly difficult tantrum. She is no stranger to these situations. Immediately after reading the news story, I called her to talk about how this should have been handled.
LC: Is there another way to safely restrain a physically violent child? Because I feel like any alternative is preferable to what happened here?
DC: Yes. There are special techniques on how to hold them, how to move them. You have to be properly trained to do so. Your hip goes into their hip. Your leg goes in front of them. One arm goes around their body and you link it through your other arm. But again, teachers and administrators have to be trained by professionals on how to do this.
LC: Why is the training so important?
DC: If done incorrectly, the adult could suffocate the child. It’s happened before, where teachers have put too much pressure on the child’s chest and they’ve died. Everyone in our school had to go through certification classes.
LC: This young girl was throwing furniture and ripping things off shelves. It’s violent behavior, but is it completely inexplicable? Do we just assume that this is a terrible child who is completely out of control?
DC: Not at all. You never assume that a child is terrible or that they can’t be taught a better way to deal with their emotions. She is 6 years old. Obviously there was a problem, but there are a lot of reasons that kids can have this kind of meltdown. This child could have a mental illness. They could have a learning disability and be completely unable to communicate their frustration any other way. They could come from a difficult backround where violence was simply a way to express emotion. No matter what the reason is, these things happen with young children who have a difficult time expressing their feelings.
LC: And school districts should be preparing their teachers on how to deal with that…
DC: Absolutely. There is plenty of training on how to handle a violent child. But the most important training is how to stop those meltdowns from happening.
LC: What can teachers and administrators do to help prevent these situations before they start?
DC: It’s all about knowing the child your working with and building trust in that relationship. With the situation you’re talking about, the child was a kindergartner, so the school might not have had the time necessary to establish that type of trust, but that’s the goal. A teacher needs to learn their student’s triggers, so that you can see a problem before it gets out of control. Once you can read their actions leading up to a tantrum, you teach the child ways to deescalate or calm down. That too, is different for many kids. It could be having a quiet spot in the room just for them where they can go get control of their emotions. It could be putting on a set of headphones so that they can block out the noise of the classroom. It could be a choice – choice situation, where a child doesn’t deal well with authority, but if you give them one of two choices, it helps them feel in control. It could be removing everyone else from the situation so that they can get some privacy. Some kids are acting out to get attention from adults, some want attention from peers. It’s best to handle these things privately to remove that aspect of it and for everyone’s safety.
LC: So, you’ve seen these situations before. Walk me through how a violent tantrum would normally be handled in your classroom.
DC: The adult who the child is angry at would not be the person who helps the student calm down. Once the child has gotten violent, the teacher will be removed from the situation and will help the rest of their class. It can take up four adults. One person does all the talking and communicating with the child. That will be the same person to restrain the child so that they don’t harm themselves or anyone else. Another adult will be there the entire time, writing down every action taken and every word said. This is to guarantee the safety of everyone involved. It’s also so teachers and administrators can look back and try to figure our the triggers of the situation. Additional adults will clear the halls and help move the child to the office without any other student seeing them. You don’t want to embarrass the child or scare other kids. Once the episode is over, the team will get together with the teacher to try to find a way to reintroduce the child into the classroom. Also, counselors might help the child reestablish trust with the adult they were angry at during the tantrum.
LC: No handcuffs necessary then.
DC: No. Never. But again, it’s important to note that school districts have to pay for the training to take place. Very often, this is a money issue. Our schools certification is coming up next year, and we’re still fighting to get money from the school board to train new staff members and continue our own education when it comes to dealing with these types of emotional issues.