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De-Escalating: Helping Gifted Children Identify Their Emotions and Regain Control

Updated: Jan 10, 2019

By Sarah Young.

It’s the week before winter break. Utter chaos reigns. Every day there is a condensed schedule, an assembly, or other interruptions that distress my anxious, perfectionist, or autistic gifted kids. In the 3.5 minutes before students come pouring into my classroom adorned in ugly sweaters and crazy hats, I receive an email that says: Matthew is crying on the floor uncontrollably because he didn’t make math competition. Help.

When I arrive, our behavior interventionist is sitting next to Matthew, trying to calm him but getting nowhere. Sometimes, what we say to a child in crisis harms our relationship with them and prevents them from processing their emotions. Here are some of the unhelpful things I heard:

Okay, so what should I say to my student who is sobbing on the floor, unwilling to move or speak to anyone? Start with this:

Now, it’s time to implement what I call a “new thinking” strategy. Not every phrase works in every situation or with every child. You have to choose the phrase that fits based on what the child is feeling, be it disappointment, anxiety, nervousness, guilt, etc.

So, which phrase should I pick for my student? Well, the “worst case scenario” has kind of already happened for this child. He didn’t make the team. So, that eliminates the bottom two phrases, which help more with fear and anxiety. So, let’s try one of the top two phrases. Here goes.

Me: Matthew, why are you crying?

Matthew: I didn’t make math competition, and it was the only thing that I wanted this year. It was the only thing that was for me, not my parents.

Me: Wow, that sounds really frustrating. I bet you are really disappointed.

Matthew: Yes, I can’t believe it. I got 15th, and I needed to be top 8.

(Resist the urge to say: Holy moly! You got 15th out of 50 gifted students. That’s pretty amazing. You should be proud of that.)

Me: Gosh. I’m so sorry. What would you tell your best friend if this happened to them?

Matthew: I don’t know.

Me: Seriously, what would you tell Ben if this happened to him? Would you be frustrated with him?

Matthew: No. I don’t know. He could probably still go to practices and hang out. And there’s math team next year.

Me: Okay, so that’s great. You can still have all your math club friendships. What if we practice the problems you got wrong during your free choice time with me, so that you feel more confident next year?

Matthew: Yeah. That’d be good.

A few sentences later, and Matthew is okay. We go to the bathroom, get him cleaned up, and he returns to class in a good mood.

It’s not always this easy, but it is so important to hear our gifted kids, communicate their emotions, and then help them learn how to process those emotions and find healthier ways to deal with them. Eventually, students can internalize this process and need us less and less.

I have one student who still carries around a dingy, no-longer-sticky, post-it note with her “new thinking” phrases on it that help calm her anxiety. Her mom says she looks at it daily. What tools will you give your students to help them be healthier, happier, and learn to regulate their emotions?

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1 Comment

I truly am grateful for all that you have done. I appreciate all of the reading guidance you gave me. De-escalating a distressed child's emotions requires a nuanced approach, wordle especially when dealing with gifted children who may experience heightened sensitivity or anxiety.

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