You’re handing out a simple math quiz when, suddenly, one of your students stiffens and falls to the floor, then begins to have convulsions. Or, equally unnerving, the student inexplicably starts to twitch or move about, completely unresponsive to your call.
What do you do?
Very likely, you and your class are witnessing a seizure, and your best reaction is to stay calm and call for aid—or send another student to the principal’s office for assistance. Seizures are not too terribly common—about 5 percent of the U.S. population will experience one or more, research shows. But they are more common in children than in adults, and the younger the child, the greater the chance of one.
Seizures happen when large numbers of nerve cells in the brain, of which there are millions, suddenly start firing off electrical charges at the same time. The stimulation overwhelms the brain, and a seizure starts. Fortunately, they’re seldom life-threatening. But they are scary and can come in many forms, from a full-blown seizure, known as a tonic clonic or grand mal seizure, where the student stiffens, falls and convulses, to the harder to identify “absent” and partial seizures, where the student may be staring off, walking about, or twitching uncontrollably in some way.
How can you best help your student?
Whatever the type of seizure, the steps you should take typically remain the same :
1. The first and most important step is to remain calm. This is crucial not only for yourself, but for the student’s safety as well. Staying in control will also help the others around you keep calm, placing less stress on the student while the seizure naturally plays out.
And it will end, usually in a matter of minutes.
2. If the student has collapsed, place a towel or soft cloth under the head to protect it should convulsions start, and, if possible, roll the student gently onto one side to keep the airway clear should fluid collect in the mouth. Do not put anything between the teeth, or try to take food or anything out of the mouth.
Contrary to popular belief, convulsions don’t cause people to swallow their tongue. In fact, that’s impossible because the tongue is attached to the base of the mouth.
If the student is awake and starts to walk around, do your best to clear things out of the way. You may block the student from walking into walls or down stairwells, but do not restrain the child.
In the case of an “absence” seizure, which may look like simple daydreaming, slowly approach and gently touch the student’s arm. Never shout: The child having the seizure can’t hear you, and you’ll only frighten others in the class.
3. Try your best to make a record of the seizure: when it started, how long it lasted, what the student was doing before the seizure happened. Ask others if they noticed any unusual behavior in the moments before the seizure began — students nearby could well have seen something you missed.
This information could be crucial to a doctor trying to determining the seizure’s cause.
4. Remain with the student throughout the duration of the seizure. Call for professional help — a school nurse would be ideal; an ambulance necessary, especially if the seizure lasts longer than five minutes or repeats — but don’t try to administer first aid yourself, even if a convulsing student turns blue. The child will start breathing again, once the muscles relax.
After the seizure passes, help the child to rest and avoid unnecessary embarrassment. Then, maybe, you and the class can go back to that math test.
Kaitlin is a professional writer/editor and currently works in legal marketing. In her free time, she likes to tap dance, practice yoga, and play softball. If she had it her way, she'd live at the beach.