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NFER - Tests for Years 1-6
NFER - Tests for Years 1-6
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3 Ways to Deal with Emotional Distress in Primary Children

At a loss to know what to do for the best when children express strong emotions? Help is at hand with Professor Sue Roffey’s snappy advice...

  • 3 Ways to Deal with Emotional Distress in Primary Children

1 | Unprovoked aggression

Say the child’s name followed by clear, firm instructions, eg ‘Hands on your head please’ – it’s easier to follow an instruction to do something than to stop doing something.

Speak slowly, in a low voice. Acknowledge their feelings but say firmly that it is unacceptable for anyone in this class to hurt anyone else.

Making a child say sorry on the spot is rarely meaningful. Restorative conferencing when things have calmed down is much more useful over the longer term, even though it takes more time initially.


2 | Clinging to parents

If a parent is visibly upset, suggest a private place away from their child. Reassure them that their child will be OK and consider videoing the child to show them positively engaged in learning activities after their family member has left.

Have the equivalent of a ‘security blanket’ for the pupil. This could be a symbol drawn in felt pen on both the parent’s and child’s hands or a photo.

A ‘worry doll’ to talk to can be helpful for young children who are particularly anxious.

Plan a fun, distracting activity, possibly with another student.


3 | Selective mutism

Have the same expectations for this pupil as for others, with the exception of communication. Treat them in terms of their strengths, so that they are not defined solely by their communication difficulties.

Offer alternatives for communication but put no pressure on the child. Have a warm but low-key response to any communication effort. Echo what you heard if the student’s voice is very quiet.

Try verbalising what the child is doing, eg ‘I see you are drawing a horse’. Employ patience – ask simple questions and wait five seconds for an answer.


Sue Roffey has been a teacher, educational professional and academic. This is adapted from her new book The Primary Behaviour Cookbook (Routledge).

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