Student meltdown

I have a new high school class - 16yo’s, the ‘honours’ students who have passed some kind of placement test to be there. It’s a public school too, not one of these expensive private schools for dunderheads. They’re generally pretty good, and so far I’ve met them three times. (One hour per group of 18 per week.)

So on the third class they’re getting up in pairs to present their homework. I was hoping for 50-100 words per pair, but one kid had a full page of A4!! I had noticed him before, as he seemed a bit shy and ‘odd’, but it’s too soon to have a handle on the various personalities in the room.

He stood there holding this page an inch in front of him, so that you couldn’t see his face, reading it in a very quiet monotone. This is a bit of a pain, as they were supposed to be speaking from memory and I didn’t have 20 minutes spare to let him do his thing.

His piece was actually pretty good, and you have to give him an A for effort. He was just doing the wrong thing, and I had to intervene and try to get him to improvise a summary. I did it gently, and in my usual jocular but firm manner that works with everyone else, but the result was quite unexpected.

He bolted into the corner and curled up in a little ball on the floor with his paper in front of his face. Yikes!

I got him into a chair without much difficulty and left him staring at his paper while I dealt with the rest of the class. And after giving him time to relax we had a little chat. He seemed cool that he was guilty of “too much” rather than having done anything wrong, and after I talked him through what I wanted he did it straight away. No problem. Smart kid, but he had ‘failed’ and was obviously feeling pretty bad.

I asked him if he could do the required task in front of the class and he responded “I’ll try” so we gave it a go. And apart from being very quiet, he was OK. Academically, he was OK, but he was clearly having a hard time emotionally. And as soon as he had finished, he dropped into a ball again. Couldn’t even make it to the corner this time. Poor bastard.

So what do I do next class? He’s able to do everything required, but has problems dealing with pressure. The aim of the class is to develop public-speaking skills.

I’m not especially worried about it. He’s game enough, and I figure that if I don’t make a big deal about his problem he’ll just do whatever he’s capable of. As long as I’m aware of his limitations I can avoid pushing him into another meltdown. But all the same, suggestions are welcome.


Ooh, Loretta, please don’t make every kid ‘present’. I know what you are trying to do, but it just doesn’t work with teenagers, and every now and again, what happened in your class will happen. It’s a recipe for disaster. Teens need activities which have low social ‘risk’ because they are all at different levels of development.

The kid will get over his fear of this, but not if you push him; you’ll make him hate English class. By writing so much, he’s shown his commitment and effort; he possibly over-prepared because he was nervous about public speaking.

Don’t let him ‘off the hook’, but give him other ways to contribute to class. Why not get him to ‘rate’ the other speeches, according to a pre-agreed set of criteria? Or give him responsibility for choosing future topics? Or get them to present in groups? Develop soft communication skills, as well as the language. Your class could be a rest from the usual crap he has to do, while still giving the kids something valuable.

It could be that something else is happening in his life that he was unwilling or unable to talk about, or he was just having a bad day.

Maybe just a question of him making fully sure he knows what he’s supposed to do beforehand? It’s possible the memorizing aspect made him nervous, but I think if so he would have been more likely to just try to muddle through it rather than just do something else. I don’t believe students here are strangers to memorizing and reciting. Maybe it was just a last minute change of expectation (from his viewpoint) that made him nervous.

It takes some people (if not all people) a long to get over the fear of public speaking. People react to such activities in varying ways. His reaction (while a bit extreme) does seem to be within the norm (though I’ve never seen someone literally get into a fetal-like position (physically) after speaking).

Has he had to do any kind of presentation prior to this event? If so was it in a group setting (meaning did they bounce the speech off each other) or was it a solo presentation?

Loretta I hope you read this:

I just want to say thank you for your insight that you’ve posted on this board. I love reading your threads/posts on various topics regarding the ESL field. Your posts drive me to become a better teacher. Thanks again.

Monster, don’t you ever say anything like that again. It’s embarrassing.

Anyway, according to the boy’s homeroom teacher he is “different” but not as different as his sister. She’s autistic, for real.

He did fine yesterday. But I didn’t put any pressure on anyone to do anything challenging.