Monday, April 16, 2012

How To Handle a Meltdown in the Classroom - A Sensory Perspective by Angie Voss, OTR/L

Hello Aspierations Friends!

Today we have a blog with information from Angie Voss, OTR/L from regarding how to handle meltdowns in the classroom from a Sensory Perspective. Although useful for teachers, teacher aides and classroom assistants, this information is also helpful for parents, day care or day camp leaders, scout leaders or group activity coordinators.

SPD stands for Sensory Processing Disorder. It is very common for children and adults on the autism spectrum to have sensory processing issues.

How to Handle a Meltdown in the Classroom
A Sensory Perspective

One of the biggest mistakes made by teachers and assistants in the classroom is in how they handle and respond to a “meltdown”. As a sensory based occupational therapist, I believe the biggest missing puzzle piece is in understanding WHY a child has a meltdown. Most teachers and staff have simply not been taught why the child may be having a meltdown and how to help them. Unfortunately meltdowns often fall into the behavior category in our society. Yet in my clinical opinion, there is a very small percentage of meltdowns which warrant being considered behavioral, especially with children with sensory differences (including but not limited to: ADHD/ADD, autism spectrum disorders, anxiety disorder, developmental disabilities) and sensory processing disorder.

Children inherently want to please, they do not want to misbehave or get in trouble.

This concept is very important to remember when talking about meltdowns. The meltdown is often misunderstood for attention seeking or spoiled behavior or simply the child trying to get what they want out of the situation. This may be true in a few cases, but with many children it is often much more deep rooted than that.

Here are some of the most common reasons a child with sensory differences may have a meltdown in the classroom....
 Sensory overload from various stimuli (such as a loud and chaotic classroom, visual disorganization, or being bumped or touched unexpectedly by too many children)
 Dysregulation and the inability to maintain self-regulation and a ready state due to minimal or limited sensory tools and strategies in the classroom
 Sensory overload from a loud cafeteria or gym activity
 The inability to cope with a new or challenging situation
 Inability or difficulty in communicating wants and needs
 Difficulty with transitions, and lack of or minimal warning time to transition
 Lack of sleep or over tired
 Lack of proper nutrition or too much of the wrong food
 Change in routine within the classroom, possibly a substitute teacher
 Lack of essential sensory nutrition found through movement and play during recess

Most meltdowns trigger a "fight or flight" reaction for the child's brain, especially children
with sensory differences and needs. Therefore the meltdown lasts longer and is difficult to

What Does “Fight or Flight” Look Like?
 Hitting, kicking, biting, spitting, pushing (especially while standing in line or in new
challenging/overwhelming situations or activities)
 Trying to run or escape from the situation
 Trying to hide under something like a desk, table, or chair
 Burying themselves in a teacher’s arms, avoiding all eye contact, or trying to curl up in a
ball on the floor or at their desk
 Covering ears or eyes
 Crying or screaming
 Shutting down completely and not speaking or responding
 Even falling asleep unexpectedly

How do you Help and Respond with Respect for the Child?
Top Three Points to Remember
1. Physical restraint is NOT an acceptable solution.
2. Do not treat the meltdown as behavior…respond based on “fight or flight”.
3. Be prepared and have a safe sensory retreat available for the child.

Children with sensory defensiveness perceive their environment as dangerous and painful
based on how they process sensory information. Therefore their nervous system switches to
the sympathetic nervous system and displays a “fight or flight” response. A child who has a
difficult time processing and modulating sensory input can also have the tendency to switch
to “fight or flight”. And almost all sensory kiddos have a difficult time with self-regulation, in
turn, a greater risk for “fight or flight” episodes.
Sensory Solutions, PLLC Angie Voss, OTR/L
For Further Information Visit:

We had previously contacted Angie to make sure it was okay to reprint her work on our blogs and she was delighted to agree.  We also recommend her book, "Understanding Your Child's Sensory Signals - A Practical Daily Use Handbook for Parents and Teachers."  We purchased ours through Amazon.

For more information, please check out her website at

Angie is a registered and licensed occupational therapist specializing in sensory integration treatment techniques and sensory processing disorder. She attended  University of Florida and San Jose State University, where she also completed an extended internship in a sensory integration clinic. Angie has always been dedicated and passionate about her work with children, with a deep down, true adoration and respect for sensory kiddos. From day one in her sensory integration clinic internship she KNEW this was her calling and perfect career path. She excelled and naturally understood the concept of sensory integration and had a dramatic and positive impact on the life and progress of her very first little patient, even as an intern!  From that internship forward she knew she was in the right place with the right career and has spent the last 20 years advocating and impacting the lives of countless children with sensory differences and SPD. 

For a printable link of the information presented here, please visit:

Thanks so much, Aspierations Friends!


  1. This is a great piece. Thanks for finding it.

  2. Hi Gavin! Thanks and you're very welcome! Angie goes into a bit more meat on how to help kiddos having sensory meltdowns on her website.

    I will post more of her writing in the future!