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When It Comes to Volatile Kids, Pick Your Battles

Dr. Ross W. Greene, a psychologist who works with easily frustrated children and their parents, is the author of the book, The Explosive Child. He advises parents and teachers to identify the causes of a volatile child's frustration and work with the youngster to help him or her develop coping skills that can prevent explosions and lead to more compliance. Included: Strategies for working with explosive children in the classroom.

Imagine teaching in a classroom where a child swears loudly -- or kicks a desk -- or hits another child -- or runs out of the room -- whenever he or she is angry.

On the other hand, maybe imagination isn't necessary. Maybe you already have one or more volatile students in your class, and you and your principal are drained from trying to find a way to keep all your students safe and to help them all learn.

Preventing Meltdowns in Explosive Kids

Dr. Ross W. Greene offers the following suggestions for ways adults can help prevent meltdowns in volatile children:

* Find out "What is the kid's deal?," explore what fuels the explosions.

* Anticipate situations that might trigger an explosion.

* Create an environment in which explosions are less likely to occur.

* Focus more on communicating with the child and on collaborative problem solving and less on rewarding and/or punishing behavior.

To find ways of coping with explosive children, some teachers and school psychologists are turning to advice from Boston psychologist Dr. Ross W. Greene. Greene's book, discusses how to identify and help children who are non-compliant or who have Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). Such children tend to explode -- launch into tantrums or rages -- at the slightest provocation.

Greene, who has appeared on The Oprah Show, Dateline NBC, and Good Morning America to discuss his approach, works with ODD children and their families at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he is director of cognitive-behavioral psychology at the clinical and research program in pediatric psychopharmacology. He also is an associate clinical professor of psychology in the psychiatry department at Harvard Medical School.

For more information about Dr. Ross W. Greene, read Defusing Explosive Children, an Education World Wire Side Chat.

Greene discussed his book and his technique with about 440 teachers and school psychologists at the Maryland School Psychologists Association 2001 conference in Hunt Valley, Maryland, which Education World attended.

Laura Shriver, a school psychologist at Francis Scott Key High School in Carroll County, Maryland, and co-chair of the conference program, reported that association members expressed a great deal of interest in Greene's topic. "There are a lot of violent acts in schools, a lot of explosive children. It is a pressing issue," Shriver told Education World. "I hope teachers use the skills themselves and educate other teachers."

Conference participant Amy Shulkin has experience with non-compliant children as a professional and as a parent. A counseling psychologist at Krieger Schechter Day School in Baltimore, Maryland, and the parent of a teenager with explosive behavior, Shulkin said she found Greene's book helpful.

"It was a relief to hear someone validate my experiences," Shulkin told Education World. "I bought books about dealing with difficult kids, but nothing worked. Dr. Greene's book helped me adjust my expectations; it's a way of conceptualizing problems I had not had before." She also recommends Greene's book to the parents of students with whom she works.


The keys to Greene's approach involves treating explosive children as if they are deficient in the skill of handling frustration rather than willfully disobedient. Then, pick your battles.

"Children do well if they can," Greene told conference attendees. "If they can't, we adults need to figure out why so we can help them. The explanation guides intervention."

A child's explosions, or meltdowns, as Greene calls them, have to do with a youngster's inability to think clearly in the midst of frustration. When asked to shift gears, some children cry. Others explode; they do not have the vocabulary to express frustration.

Focusing on what makes easily frustrated children melt down, rather than simply responding to the explosion, is far more likely to change behavior, according to Greene. "If what you do after the fact is not accessible and meaningful [according to the child's thought processes] prior to the next incident, the response is not worth it."


Shifting the mindset from reacting to preventing meltdowns takes work, Greene noted. Many of the children he works with have been punished for non-compliant behavior at home and at school and have shown no improvement.

In working with children and their families, Greene often meets with children's teachers and other school staff. Responses to an explosive child in the classroom could include allowing the student to do the following:

  • run out of the room to a desk in the hallway to calm down.
  • visit a display in the back of the room when he or she is frustrated.
  • work with another student on an assignment. If an easily frustrated student has difficulty writing, for example, he or she could dictate thoughts to another child.

One concern teachers express most frequently, Greene said, is about how other students will react if a teacher responds to an easily frustrated child differently. If teachers recognize the needs of all students, however, then accommodating an explosive child should not be any more of an issue than helping a student with a reading disability, he explained.

"Good teachers are able to meet the needs of individual students and meet the needs of the larger group," Greene contended. "If a teacher sends kids out of the room because they are messing up, it sends a powerful message about those who don't fit in. If [other kids] ask 'How do you have time for one?' the answer is you are doing it for all. Fair does not mean equal."

Teachers need to encourage all students to work at maximum potential, to behave in a manner that does not detract from their work or the work of others, and to treat everyone with kindness and respect, Greene added.

Brenda Frazier, a K-12 psychologist in the Williamsport (Pennsylvania) Area School District who attended the conference, said she has heard concerns from teachers about making adjustments for explosive children.

"Teachers are afraid that some behavior-management techniques will be perceived as favoritism," Frazier told Education World. "I have had teachers ask 'What do I do with the other kids?' The response is that everyone has different needs; some need help with reading, some with behavior. We should continue to encourage teachers to treat kids as individuals and reinforce the concept that fair does not mean equal."

Greene noted that collaboration among school staff to meet students' needs does require more time. "Schools should be run like in-patient clinics; they need to give people more time to meet and look at individual education plans."

Pam Hanna, another conference attendee, is a K-5 special education resource teacher at Annapolis Elementary School in Annapolis, Maryland. She agreed that a supportive classroom atmosphere can help all students. "You need to do this with the entire classroom, build an environment where students help one another," Hanna said, "although it's hard for teachers to take something else on."


The first step in working with ODD, or non-compliant children, is determining "What is the kid's deal?" or what triggers explosive behavior, according to Greene. Studies show that 80 percent of explosive children also have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD.) Many children diagnosed with ODD show symptoms of some other psychiatric disorder as well, he added.

Once there is an understanding of what fuels explosions, all adults involved with a child -- parents, teachers, and administrators -- have to help the child learn not to explode. Other students in the class can help too.

"The definition of good parenting and good teaching is being responsive to the hand you've been dealt," Greene told conference participants.

Some children may require medication to reduce their explosiveness, according to Greene, but that should be determined only after the child has had an extensive medical and psychological evaluation. Medication should be administered and monitored by a pediatric psychopharmacologist -- that is, a psychiatrist or other physician whose specialty is prescribing psychotropic medications for children.

School personnel should have access to an adequate level of clinical expertise, said Greene. "All school systems should have a pediatric psychopharmacologist on call."

A plan to work with an explosive child should include collaborating with the child to resolve conflicts, anticipating situations that easily frustrate the youngster, and creating alternatives to those circumstances. "Inflexibility plus inflexibility equals a meltdown," according to Greene.

Goals for the plan should include reducing the number of meltdowns, pursuing adult expectations, and teaching the child the skills he or she lacks, such as flexibility and tolerance for frustration.

To do that, teachers and parents working with the youngster need to emphasize the following:

  • antecedents rather than consequences
  • situational specificity
  • cognition
  • graduated training (shaping) of cognitive skills
  • the neurobiological chemical underpinning of behavior.

According to Hanna, teachers at her school already have been trying to get more background information about students. "What it gives us is good information so we can build on it. We're finding out what is driving their behavior or performance."


Once the question "What's this kid's deal?" has been answered, the next step is prioritizing issues. Greene recommended using a system of "baskets" labeled A, B, and C. Basket A issues are ones that are worth the risk of meltdown; Basket B issues can be discussed to help a child build skills for problem solving. Basket C issues are shelved for the time being. Putting an issue aside for a while is not the equivalent of giving in -- it just means that other concerns are more important at the moment, Greene stressed.

Discussions about Basket A issues almost always start with "No," "You must," or "You can't" and should be confined to such issues as health, safety, or protection of property, Greene says. "Basket A feels efficient -- but meltdowns take a lot of time."

Discussions about Basket B issues begin with "Let's," he said, and the adult expresses empathy, as in "Let's try to work this out. I can see you are frustrated."

Easily frustrated children also need training and reinforcement in using such simple phrases as "I'm frustrated," "I'm angry" or "I need a minute" to help them identify what they are feeling and prevent loss of control, Greene added.


Although all the educators Education World spoke to at the conference said that Greene offered practical advice they were eager to try, others do view his approach with caution.

Dr. Lawrence Diller, a behavioral pediatrician and the author of Running on Ritalin, which examines the increase in ADHD diagnoses over the past few years and the popular response of prescribing medication to treat it, told Education World that aspects of Greene's approach concern him. Diller thought that many of the children Greene describes still could respond to more "typical disciplinary techniques and limit-setting, appropriate for their age and temperament."

"My fear is that parents who have kids on the borderline [of becoming explosive] will seize on this to justify that their kids can't behave, and we will wind up with more explosive adolescents," Diller explained to Education World. "I am ill at ease with how this will be misinterpreted by a public already uncomfortable with discipline."

Diller says his opinion is based on his experience working with difficult children -- many of them 4, 5, or 6 years old -- and their parents. "I saw tentative and inconsistent parenting and inconsistencies between the parents," Diller said. "I'm not blaming the parents; these children are not easy to raise. But it seemed reasonable to me to work with the parents and help them learn to deal with their kids."

Several of those at the conference, however, said they wanted to try the "basket' technique. Guy Wellman, a middle-school special education teacher, said he "likes the tools Greene is offering, such as 'Let's work it out.'" All the ten students in his class have ODD, Wellman noted. "We have many meltdowns."

One student swears whenever he is frustrated. "I am looking forward to talking with him to help him come up with better ways of expressing himself."

Nettie Watkins, a psychologist for the Baltimore schools, said when she meets with teachers, she tries to increase their awareness of underlying factors to a student's behavior. Watkins added that she was encouraged by Greene's ideas. "I'm quite impressed. These are the best, most-practical things I can apply. It's a good match with the population and the problems they have."