SEL Tip: After a classroom meltdown, try a ‘reset’

How can we turn a rough day with students into a teachable moment? Here's one teacher's strategy for a "reset" that promotes accountability. 

Most of us have days when anxiety, irritation, or utter frustration get the better of us. Days when we don't show up as our best selves, when students get under our skin, and we get under theirs.   

Meltdowns can happen even when you’ve worked all year to create a supportive SEL rich classroom community: You’ve gotten to know your students and nurtured relationships and empathy among them. You’ve created community agreements with your students, and you revisit them regularly. You’re teaching the social and emotional skills we all need, students and adults alike, and you provide opportunities for practice throughout the school day. You might start the day with a mindful awareness practice, for centering and regulation skills, and you have a peace corner available for when big, overwhelming feelings get the better of us.

And yet, with all of this in place, there are days when everything goes south: Your students are agitated. They act out. They’re in each other’s space, not listening to directions. Arguments ensue and it all gets to be too much.

In response, you find yourself clamping down. You lecture, raise your voice, try to seize control – do something to put a stop to the off-task behaviors. ENOUGH! 

How might we turn this frustrating situation into a teachable moment, one that promotes accountability and gets us back on track?

Ms. McCormack, a master teacher I have the pleasure of working with at the Global Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, told me about how, after a rough day in her fifth-grade classroom, she used a strategy that she calls “a reset” to not only reconnect with her students, but strengthen her own teaching.

See Ms. McCormack share her story here.


In Ms. McCormack’s class, a reset starts with giving students an opportunity to share with her ways that she can improve before they are invited to reflect on their own behaviors. After a particularly rough day, Ms. McCormack explains, she had “a really open and honest conversation” with her students. Since that conversation, things have been going pretty well.

“Just as much as they’re holding me accountable, I’m holding them accountable,” she explains.

The word “accountability” gets thrown around a lot in schools, especially in the context of school discipline. We want students to be accountable for their actions.

Unfortunately, we live in a society where accountability is far from the norm for adults, let alone children. Our students have probably seen people of all ages trying to get away with problematic and harmful behavior, rather than face the impact of their actions, take responsibility, and try to make things right.

With her “reset” strategy, Ms. McCormack models accountability herself – before then asking the same of her students. She emphasizes relationship-building and repair through mutual accountability. It’s what Sonya Shah of the Ahimsa Collective describes as “a fierce, radical, amazing way to stay in relationship to each other while acknowledging that harm can happen … It is a way of saying I choose you, I choose relationship, I choose community.” 

Many thanks to Ms. McCormack for staring her story and her wisdom with me – and now also with you.