HALT a meltdown special needs

Years ago a respite worker taught me a magical acronym. It has helped me understand many meltdowns and even my own feeling of irritation. It works for special needs children, typical children, and adults.


First, halt means wait, stop, take a second before reacting. Which is essential in working with ANYONE. Second, each letter represents an emotion to help us understand the possible origin of the meltdown.

H: Hungry. Is the child hungry, are they having problems managing their blood sugar? My son was young and could not always connect hunger = irritable. So I needed to be aware of how long it had been since I had fed him. Sometimes a meltdown was really all about blood sugar. Easy peasy.

A: Angry. Some might think well duh!  The child is having a meltdown, of course they are angry. But a meltdown for a special needs child can stem from many issues. If I understood what the anger/frustration was about, I could manage the situation better for the next time. Often by the time we were in meltdown mode, it was too late to reverse things. But it did help me spot situations where I could get better. Did I give the child enough time to transition? Did I ask her to do something she hates?

L: Lonely. Feeling misunderstood, isolated, or lonely can cause extreme reactions.  This letter helped me take time to understand the needs my child had. Was she needing some Mom time? Did I brush off his needs because I was busy? Did he need a friend? Did she feel misunderstood? At times, I could help my child feel connected by quietly sitting and waiting with the child during the meltdown. Letting her know I was here for her was enough.

T: Tired. Obvious, right? But not always in children whose engines run high. My son Sam is in constant motion. I would forget that perhaps he was tired. If I could get him to sit still for a few moments, often he would fall asleep.

HALT taught me to slow down my reactions and learn to think first. I was calmer; I understood the cause of the meltdown and the behaviors became fewer and shorter.

Now after a few more years experience with difficult behaviors, I would add another letter: HALTS

S: Sensory. Sometimes meltdowns come from environmental factors. Socks that are “rumbley” as my son would say. Fluorescent lights that hum. Loud noises that blend into the background for me but are overwhelming to a sensory child. Clothes with tags. Toilets flushing (especially the automatic ones! Nightmare). All sorts of environmental issues can cause a sensory meltdown.

I am sure there are many other reasons for difficult behaviors but HALTS has helped me slow down, find compassion, and think through the crisis through my child’s eyes.

What helps you during your child’s meltdowns?


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