In my never-ending quest to find good books on parenting and education, I was pointed in the direction of The Out-Of-Sync Child, a book about sensory processing disorder. I dutifully started reading and learned a lot, but I found it difficult to get through. What I learned is that people (or children, in particular) can be over-responsive, under-responsive, or sensory craving in any one of a large number of different senses and/or movement types. There was copious information about how these can present themselves and what different types of behaviour might indicate in terms of sensory processing. I really felt that the book would be a wonderful resource if I were an occupational therapist and well-versed in sensory processing disorders. Alternately, if I had a specific child I was thinking about, the book could inform me about the possible reasons behind what I had observed. I was overloaded, though, trying to use the book to think about the 60 students I currently service at school and the 350 or so campers who will be attending Kodiak this summer. Put together (multiplied by my decades-long career), I could match a child with every characteristic mentioned, and my head was swimming, so I put the book down in the short-term and refer to it only when I have a specific child in mind. And though it has been helpful and I have recommended it to teachers and parents who are struggling with specific (possibly) sensory-related issues, I decided to move onto the next book on my list: No More Meltdowns, by Dr. Jed Baker.
What I found in reading this book is a beautiful marriage between Stuart Shanker’s Self-Reg and The Out-of-Sync Child by Carol Stock Kranowitz. In fact, Carol Kranowitz wrote in the forward of No More Meltdowns: “I have a very high opinion of this book. It talks sense. It includes engaging case studies of recognizable children. It includes humor… It encourages us to become mindful, flexible, and hopeful, so we can model positive behavior for our children” (p. xi). No More Meltdowns is informed by the theories of Shanker and Kranowitz, but it is very practical, filled with case studies and real behaviour plans for managing specific types of meltdowns. At 150 pages, it is a quick read and its clear and informal writing style makes it accessible to parents, teachers, and anybody who loves kids. Each of the first 6 chapters has a summary at the end, so readers get an opportunity to review any new or important information. Chapters 7-10 look at specific types of meltdowns and offer practical plans for how to manage them. And the last chapter has a few final thoughts and an outline of a meltdown prevention plan for your situation.
From the beginning, Baker grounds this book in theory while simultaneously linking it to real life. He explains what a meltdown is (an inability to cope with high levels of stress) and who is more likely to experience them (children with difficult or rigid temperaments, emotional reactivity, and ones who have difficulty with problem solving, abstract thinking, and perspective taking). Then, he outlines a four-step process for managing meltdowns, each with its own dedicated chapter. Step 1: Manage your expectations of your child so you can control your own temper, create opportunities for the child to demonstrate competency, and avoid power struggles. Step 2: Develop strategies for calming a child during a meltdown. Step 3: Understand the cause of a child’s meltdowns. Step 4: Develop a prevention plan for the future. Just like in Shanker’s Self-Reg, Baker emphasizes that the issue of paramount importance in the middle of a meltdown is dealing with the emotions and restoring calm rather than confusing a mind that is in “fight, flight, or freeze” with logic and reasoning. And while adults usually want to eventually hash out the source of the problem and have a child make amends for unacceptable behaviour, some children re-escalate when forced to confront their mistakes and need lessons framed as hypothetical situations that bear a striking resemblance to (but are not the same as) the ones that caused the escalation in the first place. If a child had a meltdown about sharing the blocks, the lesson might have to be about sharing Legos rather than blocks in order for the child to feel that he has saved face and not had to rehash an upsetting and emotionally-charged past failure.
Below, I will try to provide some of Baker’s most important advice about his four-step plan for meltdowns.
Step 1: Managing your expectations (Accepting and Appreciating our Children)
The first advice here is for adults to control their own frustration by expecting bumps in the road, understanding that these challenges are temporary, and accepting that meltdowns or oppositional behaviour is not a report card on your parenting or teaching. The second part is to build competence and confidence in our children by giving them successful experiences before asking them to accomplish something really challenging. If they feel like a successful person and are made to expect that challenges and frustration are part of learning for everyone, they are more likely to persevere and not see every failure as evidence of their (perceived) inadequacy. Last, avoid power struggles, particularly in situations where children’s resistance to a challenge is related to a lack of skills to cope with the situation.
Step 2: Develop Calming Strategies to De-Escalate a Meltdown
Here, Baker suggests using distractors (and he provides a list of possible distractors for younger and older children) to avoid escalating an already emotional and tense situation. However, he warns about overusing this strategy, especially if the purpose of the meltdown is avoidance. More importantly, though, he suggests working with children when they are calm to create a self-calming plan (and he provides a template) and then practising these strategies over and over again by imagining (rather than experiencing) an upsetting situation and difficult emotions.
Step 3: Understanding the Cause of Repeat Behaviours
Many resources on behaviour talk about the ABCs (antecedent, behaviour, consequence), but what I really appreciate about this book is the two-page list of questions to consider when thinking about the ABCs. These include possible triggers such as sensory stimulation, structure, biological triggers, demands, waiting, threats to self-image, and a desire for attention and possible functions of behaviour such as avoidance, attention, a desired object, self-soothing, or venting anger/frustration. Baker gives a case study of “Kevin”, completes an ABC chart about the described behaviour, and then models how to search for patterns.
Step 4: Develop a Prevention Plan
In this chapter, we are introduced to the components of a good prevention plan: changing the triggers, teaching skills to deal with the triggers, establishing reward/loss systems, and considering biological or physical strategies. Then we revisit Kevin from the previous chapter and see how a prevention plan, including all of the steps, might change Kevin’s behaviour.
The chapter ends with an explanation of the four types of meltdowns based on their triggers: Demands, Waiting, Threats to Self-Image, and Unmet Wishes for Attention. The rest of the book looks at these four categories of meltdown and goes through several examples of each, explaining the situation, examining the prevention plan that he developed, and providing resources to generalize for other children experiencing a similar difficulty. These chapters are filled with practical advice that could be used by any adult who lives or works with kids. Following are the topics covered:
Trying New Foods
Getting Ready in the Morning (and Rushing for the Bus)
Going to New Places
Stopping a Fun Activity
- Threats to Self-Image:
Dealing With Mistakes
No One Wants to Play
Bedtime and Night Routines
I highly recommend this book if you are a parent or professional dealing with meltdowns. I have recommended it to the teachers in my school (especially the kindergarten team), social workers, psychologists, and parents, and everyone who has looked at it has told me they would further recommend it to their colleagues. I have also photocopied the ABC chart for our Camp Kodiak staff handbook and will have blank Prevention Plan forms available in the office. If you want a resource you can use tomorrow, this is the book to buy.