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Defusing Explosive Children

Children who react to transitions and frustration by screaming, becoming defiant, or even hitting others can try the patience of both parents and teachers -- and throw a class into turmoil. According to psychologist Ross W. Greene, the key to working with such children is helping them stay in control to keep outbursts from occurring. Included: Tips for preventing explosions in easily frustrated children.


Psychologist Dr. Ross W. Greene specializes in the treatment of inflexible-explosive children, adolescents, and their families. He is the director of cognitive-behavioral psychology at the clinical and research program in pediatric psychopharmacology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and an associate clinical professor of psychology in the psychiatry department at Harvard University Medical School. Greene is also the author of The Explosive Child, a book about identifying and working with inflexible children, many of whom are diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).

Greene believes that parents and teachers should view a child's explosiveness as a delay in the ability to handle frustration and adapt to change. The goal of working with children who are inflexible and angry should be to prevent explosions or "meltdowns" before they occur, rather than to react to outbursts, according to Greene.

For more information about Dr. Ross W. Greene and his techniques for dealing with the explosive child, read the Education World article When It Comes to Volatile Kids, Pick Your Battles.

Education World: Why are so many more teachers now seeking help in dealing with explosive children? Didn't they always exist?

Dr. Ross W. Greene: They always existed. Some teachers who have been teaching for a long time will tell you, though, that there are more of them than there used to be. And we'd have to take a look at why that might be. Some people think it is because parents are more permissive; I personally do not buy that. Some people think it is because parents are spending less time with their kids. There is data to suggest that parents are spending less time with their kids, but it hasn't been looked at in the context of whether it's true for explosive kids. I don't think a babysitter is likely to be able to parent as well as a parent. There are risks babysitters might not take because they don't feel comfortable taking them; it's not their kid. There are ways in which a babysitter might respond that wouldn't be the way a parent would respond. That sounds possible to me.

I mostly think, however, that the world is a much more complicated place than it was 30 years ago. The demands on human beings' executive thinking skills, such as problem solving, planning, and controlling impulses and the demands for dealing with frustration are significantly greater than they have ever been. I think we are simply finding that many kids who perhaps would have done fine 30 or 40 years ago with the demands presented to them then aren't doing fine now, simply because the demands are overwhelming.

EW: Can you give me some examples of those increased demands?

Greene: The world is much faster-paced than it used to be. I think we teach at a faster pace; in some places in the country, we expect kids to be on a certain track by the time they are in third grade. We're leaving a lot of kids in the dust. We're trying to keep up with the Japanese; it sometimes comes out that other countries are better at this or that than we are. The net effect is that we place a lot more pressure on teachers and a lot more pressure on kids than they have ever faced before. Unfortunately, we also are much more curriculum-oriented than we've ever been, and the classroom as a social context largely has been lost. I think we need to get back to that if we want to deal with a lot of these kids well.

EW: I know you said that some teachers, and probably other people, think the problem is that parents today are more permissive. How do you differentiate between kids with ODD and those who are willfully disobedient, such as those those whose explosive behavior is goal-directed?

Greene: I don't worry about it because I think children do well if they can. Very little goal-oriented behavior is walking in my door. Now, I may have a biased sample because I'm seeing very, very difficult kids. Generally speaking, I treat them all as if it is a skill deficit. See, a lot of people come at this from "let's assume this behavior is goal-oriented and then if that approach doesn't work, we'll assume it's a skills deficit." I use the exact opposite orientation. I come at it from a skills-deficit orientation; if I don't find something, I think of it as goal-directed. I almost never see it as goal-directed, which tells you that I'm almost always stumbling upon a skills deficit along the way.

EW: When you start pursuing your approach, rather than the reward and punishment approach, how long before teachers might see a difference in a child?

Greene: Very quickly. It doesn't always work very quickly, but frequently it does. The child might need something besides this approach, particularly medication. Just by virtue of taking this approach, however, you take much of the heat that fuels explosive outbursts out of the equation. We frequently find that these kids calm down and come to understand that adults understand them. They come to understand that adults know what to do. That chills everybody out. With some kids, you don't see immediate results because chilling them out requires medicine in addition to this approach.

EW: Teachers are going to ask how they explain to the other students why one child is allowed to do something different.

Greene: The bottom line is, if you run your classroom in a certain way, you are not dealing with just one child's difficulties, you are dealing with every child's difficulties. Every kid walks in the door with things he or she is good at and every child walks in the door with things he or she is not good at. So it's not just the explosive kid you have to deal with. The kid who is really great at not being explosive has other areas in which he or she is not so good. If the class knows that and if the students know one role they have is to help one another, then other kids are not going to complain that the explosive kid is getting something they're not getting. The non-explosive kids know they're getting what they need, and the explosive kid is getting what he or she needs.

EW: What about the teacher who says, "This sounds pretty labor-intensive. I've got 30 kids to worry about"?

Greene: Meltdowns are more labor-intensive. Meltdowns are labor-intensive for the teachers, labor-intensive for the schools, scary for the kids, and expensive. Nobody will convince me that meltdowns are less labor-intensive than doing the right thing. Doing the right thing usually is cheap, not scary, and the kid gets better; it may take a little bit of effort on the front end but nowhere near as much effort as meltdowns have taken all those years.

This e-interview with Dr. Ross W. Greene is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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