Emotional Self-Regulation

February 16, 2020

By Psych4Schools Guest Blogger Astrid Gates with Murray Evely

Emotional self-regulation is the ability to monitor and manage our own behaviour, calm ourselves when we’re distressed and pick ourselves up when we’re feeling low. Self-regulation skills are developmental in nature, just like learning to walk, talk and read. Since children make progress academically when they are calm and attentive, work well independently and with others, and control their behaviour and emotions, it makes sense to prioritise these skills.

Teaching is far from easy when a child hasn’t learned to appropriately manage their emotional reactions and behaviours to meet the typical day-to-day stressors associated with schooling.

Why teach self-regulation strategies?

Some children will have great difficulty in learning to manage their emotions, particularly those struggling with family breakdown, anxiety, trauma, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder or other issues and conditions. Some will explode or implode over what appears to us to be minor issues or challenges. However, poor emotional regulation is often triggered by unresolved trauma, cognitive confusion, attentional issues or overload from sensory processing difficulties.

Frequently, such behaviours result in the child being given negative consequences such as reduced recess time or being removed from the classroom. This may give the teacher and class a break – but will rarely change the behaviour. This is mainly because the child is not ‘losing it’ on purpose. They just do not have the ability to appropriately regulate their emotional responses.

Rather than disciplining them for what they aren’t yet ready for, we should support them to develop the skills and abilities they need.

Helping children to develop skills to manage their emotions

  1. Teach feelings vocabulary to help children identify emotions and recognise how different emotions feel in their body. Many children will refer to happy, angry and sad or ‘good’ or ‘bad’ when asked about feelings. If a broader emotional vocabulary is available to them, they can more clearly express the way they are feeling. This will help them to get their needs met more successfully. The movie Inside Out (PG) can be a useful stimulus for this work, and there are many online resources for Learning about feelings.
  2. Teach children to read their bodies’ signals and to identify feelings through bodily reactions. A popular visual exercise has children trace around their bodies on butchers paper or draw outlines of themselves. You then talk about situations where children had strong feelings and have them colour the parts of their body where these were felt. In groups of three or four and with your support you can then help them to analyse what different emotions look and feel like for them.

Once a child can identify physiological cues, they can start to identify their triggers and apply tools for managing each feeling.

  1. Develop specific actions with children to help them to ground themselves in the moment. The superman pose, tapping the sides of their bodies with their fingers, clenching and relaxing their toes – can help bring them back to their own body. Focusing on the physical sensation created, rather than negative thoughts and feelings, can help children feel in control and settled. They will need to practise, practise, practise!
  2. Mindfulness has become a key pathway for Social and Emotional Skills (SEL) in many schools. Simple breathing techniques can help children learn to be aware of the busy-ness of their chattering or wandering thoughts and ‘train the monkey mind’ (the constant self-chatter) back to the present.

Programs such as Zones of Regulation and You Can Do It! can be implemented with small groups. Often strategies and techniques can be taught across the school and across the curriculum. Ideally, a focussed lesson at the start of the week would be built on during the week using visual supports and messages, weaving the language of thinking and feeling into everyday conversation and infusing ideas and learnings throughout the classroom program.

Assisting children to learn to identify what they are feeling, to communicate what is going on for them and to use de-escalation strategies to ground themselves in the moment, are central to the development of the ability to learn to take emotional control and self-regulate.

For strategies to help children de-escalate worry, tension and anxiety and strategies to teach relaxation techniques see the Psych4Schools ebooklet Working with children to help prevent and reduce anxiety (new edition, book 1).

For children who continue to display oppositional or agitated behaviour, irritability or anger outbursts see the Psych4Schools ebooklet Working with children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (revised).

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Astrid Gates, Department of Education Queensland Psychologist/Guidance Officer

Murray Evely, Psych4Schools Psychologist/Guidance Officer