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.
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?