What To Do When Children Cry

This funny recent video about a two year old boy who breaks down crying when his father tells him he’s not a single lady, interrupting up his joyous dance to the Beyonce tune, has me thinking about the serious subject of students crying at school and what to do about it.
An Anecdote
Samantha, a first grader, was moved into my classroom after the first month of school because I have a reputation for being calm and patient and she had already interrupted someone else’s class who wasn’t as calm or patient.  Samantha was far behind in all subjects because her attendance was poor and when she did come to school she often cried for the first hour of class, causing a disruption to all of the students.
What Not to Do
Do not tell a student to stop crying.  Do not tell a student not to be scared, sad, mad, happy, etc.  Feelings are not right or wrong. However, a child is feeling, that’s how they’re feeling and telling them not to feel that way can really mess a kid up.
Also don’t tell them anything like big boys don’t cry, big girls don’t cry, second graders don’t cry.  This can cause gender confusion and create the impression that adults don’t show emotions which isn’t true.
Do not attempt to change emotions, change behavior.
Recognize the Payoff
This is the same for any behavior modification.  What benefit is a student getting from exhibiting a particular behavior?
In Samantha’s case, when she cried, her father would take her home to sit on the couch and watch TV with him.  Samantha wanted attention and crying provided that for her.  There can be different reasons why a student cries…feeling sadness, helplessness, anger, being overwhelmed, etc. but notice what the payoff is for the student. If they cry because math is hard, do they get to avoid math?  When they cry on the yard, do they get to see the nurse who gives them lollipops?  Do they just like ice packs (I see this a lot)?
Sympathize with the Cryer
You want to say something like, “I understand you’re feeling ___________ I’m sorry you feel _____________.”
Often sitting with the student for a minute or making sure they have a buddy to sit with will stop the crying after you’ve acknowledged their feelings.
In Samantha’s case, she could go on for hours, but rather than dealing with the crying, I dealt with the feelings.  ”I understand you want to be home with your dad.  I’m sorry.  But it’s important that you be here in school to learn and that you come in class quietly so that other students can learn as well.  Your dad will be here again at the end of the day.  Come and sit with Maria, she’ll be your special friend today.”
Remove the Payoff
Everyone needs occasional babying and that’s fine.  However, if a student really likes the babying they get when they cry, they might cry a lot more often.
Samantha wanted to go home.  We had to stop her dad from pulling her out of school just because she cried.  I had to avoid sending her to the office just because her crying made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
Samantha learned that she couldn’t get out of school by crying.
Next, Samantha was still getting attention from her classmates and me from her crying even when she stayed in my class.
I asked the rest of the students to start ignoring her crying.  ”When she comes in (and she always came in late) we’ll say good morning, Samantha, and then ignore her crying.  When she’s ready to be a part of the class, then we’ll talk to her.”
When Samantha came in we said good morning.  I would acknowledge how she felt but I would not let her join the classroom until she was done crying.  She stood in the back of the room or just outside the door where I could see her.  She couldn’t cry forever.  In time, she became a productive member of the classroom and her attendance improved.
On days that she avoided crying, I gave her positive encouragement.
How do you deal with crying in the classroom?

18 Responses to What To Do When Children Cry

  1. I am impressed by the thoughtfulness with which you handled Samantha’s ongoing crying issues. Most of the time when a child cries in my classroom, it is an occasional issue, so I check into what the source of the tears is, find out what the child needs, then move on. Sometimes I’ve had a student who cries often, and then, on my better days, I have made sure the student is okay, expressed sympathy for the unhappiness, and then calmly moved on with the day, inviting the student to join in when ready. At times I have been the impatient teacher, and then it actually takes longer to solve the problem than when I am able to be patient, warm, firm, and consistent in my response.

  2. Hi, Mr. Needleman,

    This is Brittany South from the University of South Alabama. I really enjoyed your post. I have babysat quite a few times. One family that I help often usually give the girl what she wants when she cries. Then when I go over to babysit her, she starts to cry when I don’t give her something, and I just ignore her. I saw in one of your tips that you said, “don’t tell them that big girls don’t cry”. Well, I am bad about doing that, and I am glad that you showed me that it could be mistaken by children as adults aren’t supposed to have emotions. I really enjoyed reading some of your tips, and not only will I try to use these tips in the classroom, but they will also help me when I babysit. Thanks.

    I am now finished with my assignment, so if you want to look at my post about your blog, go to southbrittanyedm310.blogspot.com.

    Thanks a lot!
    Brittany South

  3. Mathew,
    You have made some excellent points about dealing with the payoff of behaviour. Your tips are really useful especially the line- I understand you are feeling_____. I am sorry you are feeling ________. I’m definitely going to use that strategy to support my students.

    Although you have written about primary-school-age children, I find it no different working with teens. I have to ask myself what payoffs might students want when they behave in a certain way. It’s not always apparent. Sometimes you have to dig a bit to determine the payoff of a student’s behaviour ; sometimes you can just ask students, and they will tell you.

    Sometimes I need to stop and ask myself why am I behaving in a certain way? What is it that I want from my teaching practice. I have been doing that a lot lately.

  4. Hi, my name is Devin Richards and I am a student at the University of South Alabama also. I really enjoyed reading this post about how to deal with the crying kids. I work in a pre-school where the children are very attached to the parents and are very sad when they leave. I have to deal with these children everyday and I can honestly say that if I didn’t approach the situation the way you discussed, my class would not be productive. I always try to address the child who is crying like you discussed. By telling them “its okay to feel sad when mommy leaves”, “she will be back after nap-time” usually works for them. Thank you for your insight and if you would like to view my blog you are more than welcome to: http://richardsdevinedm310.blogspot.com/

  5. I love your ideas on how to deal with students who cry. I teach older students, so it’s more disruptive behavior or tattling that I have to deal with, but I believe that we are along the same lines. If one of my students is having a behavior meltdown or seeking attention by disrupting the classroom, I do the same type of thing. I tend to ignore the student until they decide to act appropriately. I will usually tell the student after the second or third time what is expected of them and why I am not talking to them, and then I ignore them. They are expected to sit away from the class when they are acting this way. I like how you suggest to say “I understand how you’re feeling…” instead of “Stop doing that.” I definitely will try to do this more often with my students.

    • Eager Teacher

      I’ve taught for a couple of years now and something I have found to be helpful with the older kids who are tattling, being disruptive or who are unfocused in any other way is to have them write about it. If they are tattling I tell them I need their story in writing.

      If they are disruptive or unfocused I give them a prompt of some sort: i.e.: what is causing you to feel____________. But, the catch is I have them do this during a break or recess.

      I find this approach touches on several issues at once: A) if students repeatedly cause problems it is good to have documentation B) they quickly decide their troubles are not that important (of course sometimes they are which is another reason point A is helpful) and they’d rather move on and shape up than write about it C) it gives them a chance to express their feelings and feel they have a voice in your room D) they practice higher order thinking and get some writing practice too!

      Hope this helps, it works for most of my kids most of the time :)

  6. Hi, my name is Lauren Reeves I am in EDM 310 at the University of Alabama. I really enjoyed reading this post about how to deal with crying kids and watching the video!! I agree with all of your point’s especially the big girls don’t cry or big boy don’t cry! I have to admit I have said that before, but after reading this post I will not handle it that way any more! I will definitely deal with crying kids the way you do by saying “I understand you’re feeling ___________ I’m sorry you feel _____________.” Thank you for all of your good points! If you would like to view my blog just go to: http://www.reeveslaurenedm310.blogspot.com/

  7. There are so many factors and reasons why the child could be crying.
    Here are several different ways I address a crier.
    “I see that your are sad. Can you tell me why?”
    or
    “I see that this is making you upset. I would like you to take a few deep breaths, get a drink and dry your eyes. When you come back I would like to talk to you about why you were upset.”
    or
    If a student is crying uncontrollably, I like to remove them from the classroom and bring them into the hall. I like to be at eye level with my students and discuss with them about what happened or what they are thinking about to make them sad or upset?

  8. Mr. Needleman,
    I found your post regarding crying in the classroom to be extremely informative. You had some great ideas that I will implement in the future in my classroom. When substitute teaching I have had some similar situations. I like your behavior modification technique. I never thought of tying to figure out what the student is gets by crying. This was very insightful. Thank you for the useful information.

  9. Lyndsay Jaskowski

    Each school year there is always some sort of crying that occurs in the classroom. Last year for example, I had a young girl (let’s call her Julie) who always cried when she got one little answer wrong. Julie also cried when she was unsure of the answer, because she was fearful of getting it wrong. She built up stress and anxiety causing her to cry frequently during the year. Through many talks and over time, Julie matured and learned to accept that mistakes happen and they are okay. I allowed Julie to cry if she felt like she needed to and eventually she grew out of it.

    This year I seem to have a whole room full of emotional students. One student in particular we will call Bill. Bill is a very sensitive child and his feelings frequently get hurt. He has come to me many times crying during the year and said that others were mean to him, bossed him around, or yelled at him. One day at recess he wouldn’t even play because he said he was too sad. Now of course as an educator, who wants their students feeling this way? When your students are so upset it can be hard to find the right words to say, especially for Bill because nothing seemed to make him feel better. I would let him tell me how he felt, talk to the children bothering him, and hope everything was okay. It wasn’t until I read this blog that I actually had a strategy to handle this child’s distress. Today during a math lesson Bill came up to me and said that other children were being mean to him. I could see the tears building up in his eyes. Instead of tell him “things will be okay” or “we will figure it out later” I used the strategies I read about. I said “Bill I understand you are feeling sad, I’m sorry you feel that others are being mean to you. But I really need to stay focused and learn because school is very important. Come and sit next to Andrew, he will be a good friend to you today”. It was as if I said some magic words and Bill put a smile on his face, sat next to Andrew and participated in math.

    As irritating as crying in class can be, it truly is important to sympathize with the crier. I now have a useful strategy to deal with Bill and other emotional children in my class. Even though I’m sure this strategy doesn’t satisfy the needs of every child, it is worth a try.

  10. Lyndsay Jaskowski

    Thanks!

    Even though it did work for this student I do have another student who is much more of a challenge. He becomes upset and cries at least 2-3 days a week. The littlest thing can set him off. For example, in my classroom I enjoy playing Jeopardy style review games in different subject areas. I believe that competition is good for the children so I do reward team points and give prizes. After the last time we played this student’s team lost. Instead of enjoying the consolation prize (a pencil), this student decided to start hysterically crying and hid under his desk. I have yet to try the method that worked with the first student with this one. The reason is I feel that this child cries so frequently he must have some internal issues. Could that be the case? Also, do you think I should not include any competitive activities in the classroom? All the other students enjoy to play, but with the frustration this one student causes, it almost ruins the game for the rest of the kids. Any ideas?

    Thanks,
    Lyndsay

    • I don’t know what grade you teach or what you have tried. Every human alive has “internal issues” so it’s just a matter of finding out what works for a particular student. I will stick with my original post. Acknowledge why the child is upset and then remove the audience for the tantrum. I understand you’re upset because you didn’t win. However, we need to get on with class and I need you to wait in the back of the room until you’re ready to rejoin us.

      Also, before starting the game the next time I would start by talking about game playing and how there will be winners and losers and how we deal with losing.

  11. Lyndsay Jaskowski

    I teach third grade so the children are young and very sensitive. I will continue to use this strategy in order to acknowledge why the child is upset.

    Our class has had talks about being a winner and a loser and that it is okay to lose. Hopefully this child will mature over the school year. I am looking forward to his progress.

  12. This is great advice on dealing with students in the classroom. I also think it would work great with my son who is 9. He tends to cry when he does not get his way. It is not just sniffling, it can sometimes be an all-out wail! Some of the suggestions you mentioned I am definitely going to try out with him.

  13. wow. tell them to bottle it up and hide it. people like you cause people like me.

  14. Wow! This is really good advice! I’m going into highschool this year, and I van tell that some of these techniques were used in classroom situations from my school past. My teachers implemented the remove and have a heart-to-heart many a time to many a kid in my elementary age classes. I came on this website to find out how to help a girl who is being bullied a little bit at VBS this year. This was really good, and if it happens again, I will definately use some of this material to help her and the other girl calm down and work it out! :{P

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