How to Cope With Classroom Chaos -- The 4-7-8 Way

This is a photo of my "Lord, Give Me Patience" look that I developed as a first-year teacher of 7th graders (need I say more?!) and perfected as a reference librarian (after being asked one too many times to find the "blue book that I used in my report but forgot to cite"). Responding calmly to a crisis is both an art and science. The art of knowing what to do, and the science of being able to recall and apply that knowledge on the fly.

I will be honest. Responding constructively under pressure does not come naturally to me. The only way I have been able to shift from fear/anger responses to developmental, peacebuilding responses is through practice. A lot of hands-on practice, both in roleplaying situations (workshops and classes) and real-life crises (with a mentor at hand). One of the perks of being married to a licensed clinical professional counselor for nearly two decades has been all the free therapeutic interventions. Thankfully, I have never completely lost my cool at work over the past 20+ years, although I have come pretty close on a few occasions.

I had far more failures than successes with staying calm during the early years of my career. My heart was ready and willing, but my hot-blooded temper was not on board. Like when I worked for an afterschool program and a murderous first grader chased me around the school, fully intent on bashing my brains in with his hockey stick. He had an emotional-behavioral diagnosis, a combustible temper, and a tumultuous home life, so the threat was real. Never mind the fact that I had the height and weight advantage. My yelling simply fueled his fire, but it was the only response I knew at that time. Everything I had read or been taught flew out of my head in the face of actual danger.

I remember replaying the hockey-stick horror afterward to think through how I should have responded. I knew I needed to step up my game to be better prepared for when I entered a real classroom, but I also assumed I would not have to deal with such outbursts among 7th graders. I was painfully naive back then. I sailed through my student teaching placement at a suburban school with a sizeable group of students bused from the inner city, and I never felt my safety threatened, even though most of the 7th grade boys were taller than me. That confirmed my assumption that I was safer working with older kids who could express their frustration with words. Bad words were easier to deflect than hockey sticks.

Just to be on the safe side, though, I took my first teaching position at a private school because it was "safer" than public schools. I was teaching math and science, the latter of which necessarily involved dangerous chemicals and equipment. I made students complete a safety unit before we went to the lab, ever the optimist that passing a quiz would ensure appropriate behavior. As it turned out, math class was the danger zone. Scissors are potentially lethal when airborne. An impulsive student decided to "pass" a [pointy] pair to a student on the other side of the classroom via air delivery. Thankfully, no one was harmed in the making of the algebra cubes, but my patience was sorely tested. The most valuable lesson I learned that year was that I needed better coping skills. I met my husband shortly after the scissors debacle.

Back then, I was readily frustrated when people did not conform to my unspoken expectations. I have since learned (mostly the hard way) to meet people, especially children, where they are -- not where I think they should be. I have learned to look beneath the surface, to understand situational realities. To ask better questions and listen between the lines of the answers. To support steps in the right direction and give grace for mistakes while upholding expectations and maintaining safety.

Our natural fight-or-flight (sympathetic nervous system) response is incompatible with a calming, deep breathing (parasympathetic nervous system) response. Where my natural response to frustration used to be screaming like a banshee (and on occasion still is), my husband's voice now dominates my mental loudspeaker saying, "Breathe in through your nose, 2, 3, 4, hold, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, breathe out through your mouth, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8." Several loops through this breathing technique, and my inner Hulk fades from view. Anxious feelings evaporate. Rational thought returns. This 4-7-8 breathing pattern is a tried-and-true stress buster and works well for managing general stress and anxiety, too. Rehearse the pattern often so it becomes your default when faced with a challenge.

Closing eyes for a second or two is another way to reset the anger response and "see" the situation more clearly. This works better in some situations than others. I certainly do not recommend closing your eyes for even a fraction of a second in traffic, for example, or when you are working with children who have a hockey stick and/or a pair of pointy scissors. Exercise responsible judgment in the face of imminent (or reasonably predictable) danger, and when you shut your eyes momentarily, resist the temptation to turtle indefinitely.

We cannot control other people. We can only control how we perceive and react to other people, so let's choose to create calm, when possible, and minimize the attention and emotion given to negativity. Less stress for us, less stress for them.

When you are in the middle of it all, just breathe.

What situations test your patience to its limit, and how do you cope? Leave a comment with your stories and saving graces!