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Helping Upset Children in a Therapeutic Setting

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Children on the autism spectrum often become very emotional. Let’s be real, all children become very emotional at times. Upset children can be very challenging in a therapeutic setting. In this blog post, I’m going to cover the different things you can do to help kids move on from what’s bothering them, while still respecting their feelings. 

Have you ever been teaching a session and notice your student is feeling very sensitive or emotional? Sometimes the emotions build-up, other times they come out suddenly. Regardless, it can be challenging to decide what to do. On the one hand, you have goals and interventions planned for the day. On the other hand, you really can’t be effective if your child is crying or super sensitive. So what do you do?

Today we are going to talk about how to help upset children in a therapeutic setting as a SEIT. For more information on what a SEIT is click here

It is important to remember to always respect how a child is feeling, while not letting them wallow if there is nothing productive to be done.

Try to figure out what is upsetting them. 

Not all kids can tell you obviously. However, often our students are able to verbalize a few things. If it’s a simple fix, then fix it. No biggie. Take the opportunity to teach more effective methods of communicating what’s bothering you.

However, if it’s an ongoing problem, and there’s nothing to be done, things can be more complicated. 

During the pandemic, I had kids dealing with a variety of emotions. All of them boiled down to a few simple points. I hate the pandemic. It is making me nervous. I don’t want to do school on Zoom.

Can I solve that problem?

I wish! 

It became obvious to me very quickly that I couldn’t just let my kids wallow in misery. That was only making the problem worse and causing stress for me. 

When children become upset in a therapeutic setting it’s important to remember where they are. A therapeutic setting. 

When children become upset in a therapeutic setting it’s important to remember where they are. A therapeutic setting. 

My infinite wisdom

Yes, as a SEIT you are in charge of their academics, but you’re also in charge of their social-emotional skills, and making sure things are generalizing across environments. D

Don’t blow past how they’re feeling, acknowledge it with kindness. Listen to how they feel, and remind them that all their emotions are safe!

So you acknowledged their emotions, gave them a few minutes, and the water works are still going? 

Don’t worry. You have a few options. 

First of all now is not a good time to work on academics. You don’t want your students to associate school work with misery. Instead try to focus on easier, more fun goals through activities your students find motivating.

When my kids get upset we like to play some games, to take their minds off their troubles and get them to calm down.

I always explain to my students that since there is nothing we can do about their problem right now we have to move on. I find teaching them that their feelings are valid but at a certain point not helpful, is a good lesson for them on how life works sometimes.

We can’t stop everything just because of large existential problems. 

I tell them we can revisit this later or encourage them to talk to their parents about what is bothering them, and then suggest we do something fun to feel better.

Always explain to my students at this moment why we’re doing what we’re doing. I find if you talk to children in a therapeutic setting with respect, they respond better to you, and you get to have an easier relationship. 

Let’s play some games!

Keep it simple and fun. Pick something that can be quick and motivating for your kiddos. 

If my student is into music, we play a game where I play them instrumental versions of hit songs, and they have to guess what the song is. 

Other students love tic tac toe, hangman, or connect four. These are great because they work on turn taking and strategy while also being fun!

If you are teaching remotely check out as a great way to have simple games to play with your kids. That’s not even an affiliate link! 

I also have kids who are soothed by fun reading games or interactive stories. For them, I wrote an interactive google slide show in a Choose Your Own Adventure-style, where you get to make decisions for the character. It has clickable buttons and my kids love the creative designs and fun story. To purchase that click here

The important thing is that you choose something fun and motivating for your kid, that will cheer them up. 

There is no one size fits all solution for upset children in a therapeutic setting, so make sure you go with something customized for your kid.

You’re their person. You know them best.

Take note of how they’re doing!

After a few rounds of your game, check in with your student. Are they doing better? Has their mood lifted? 

If so, go back to what you originally planned. They might get a little emotional again, and that’s okay. Remind them that work is so good for their brains, and you are so proud of them. 

If not, that’s okay too! 

Keep playing or pick a new game. If they seem very fried maybe give them a break. The benefit of being in a 1:1 therapeutic settings is that we can be flexible and give them what they need. 

In the long run, it’s alright if you don’t get through your intervention today. There’s always tomorrow!

Here is a great summary of what to do with upset children in a therapeutic setting.

  1. Let your student explain their feelings. Give them time to process it, or fix it.
  2. If you can’t fix it now, calmly explain that we have to move on and we can circle back to this big problem later.
  3. Play a fun motivating game to lift your student’s feelings and spirits. 
  4. Assess how they are feeling and decide to keep playing or get back to work, based on how they are doing.

If you need more ideas on fun things to do with students on the spectrum make sure to check out this blog post on 20 Fun Things to do With Students on the Spectrum in the Summer! 

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