Emotion Regulation: The Key To Working Through Struggles

Explore emotion regulation guidance and strategies for the classroom with Mental Health Counselor Betsy Purpero

Did you know strategies you implement now can set the stage for success with your students when they experience struggles in their school day?  The work you do to support your learners proactively is huge to help them with their emotion regulation and learning.

In this post we will explore emotion regulation strategies you can incorporate into your classroom to help students work through their struggles when they arise.

Helping Students Work Through Their Struggles

More than likely your day isn’t free from hiccups.  The same can be said for your learners. The struggles we face vary too.  From as small as not getting the last bagel at breakfast to as big as getting an F on a test, all our daily pain points are valid and real.

What we do with them and how we react can make a big difference in our day though.  Going through it can feel chaotic or stressful.  Can our kiddos get through these moments with resolve and flexibility or with toil and strain? 

Let’s help our students learn the emotion regulation skills they need to get through their storms.  

Set The Stage For Emotional Regulation

Before problems arise you can lessen their meltdown moments by starting with the basics.  The stage is the foundation for a theatrical performance.  Our basic needs are the foundation for our performance. 

How well do we perform when our basic needs are not met?  We can get tired, hungry, or cranky.  This makes us unregulated.  How can we resolve our problems when we’re in this state?  What we need is emotion regulation.  

Emotional regulation is how we deal with strong feelings, situations, and others.  How we are regulated determines our thoughts and behaviors.  When our basic needs are met we are in a better state to take-on what life throws our way compared to when our needs are not met.

To foster a classroom environment that supports emotional regulation it is essential to promote meeting your class’s basic needs, the foundation of Maslow’s Hierarchy.

What are the basic needs in class?  They include food, water, temperature, rest, and movement.  

To promote emotional regulation you can set the stage by:

  • Checking in with your students.  Hungry?  Tired?  Cold?
  • Offer times to get water or snacks.
  • Balance movement breaks with periods of sitting.
  • Regulate temperature with fans or open windows.  Encourage students to have an extra sweatshirt on hand.
  • Schedule brain breaks to give students a rest.

When your environment meets your student’s basic needs they will be better regulated both socially and emotionally!

Model Emotional Regulation

Troubles do come up, even in a well-regulated classroom where student’s basic needs are being met.  You can help your students ride out these waves though, with another simple strategy: modeling!

As the wave begins to form realize actions speak louder than words both for your learner and you. Behavior is a form of communication and your student is trying to say something.  What do their actions say? If you’re seeing and hearing things like frustration, anger or disarray talk back to them with your actions.

Be the calm to their chaos and model calm behavior.  Speak in a neutral tone.  Take deep breaths or count.  Suggest taking a break to cool off.

Waves are mesmerizing to watch and hard to ignore. Try not to ignore your student and acknowledge your student and what they are experiencing.  Doing this validates their emotions and is supportive. Show support by describing what you see or hear:  

  • Let them know you see and hear their struggle
  • Address their feelings out loud.  For example, “I hear the anger in your voice when you yell.  I see your sadness from your tears.”
  • Keep language simple.  Adding extra words, like giving your opinion on the matter, contributes to the turmoil.
  • Don’t expect your student to think rationally because they literally can’t in these moments.⠀

Eventually, the wave reaches the shore and ebbs away.  Allow the moment of frustration to pass together.

Teach Emotion Regulation Strategies

Hopefully, the point of contention has subsided.  This is where processing and teaching can begin!  If not wait until your student is in a calm state.

Process the situation together.  Explore what happened.  Consider:

  • What led up to the challenge?
  • What were the feelings experienced?
  • Were there triggers?
  • Anything done to help resolve the issue?

Build connections between actions and feelings to give them words to communicate their feelings.

  • Narrate to them what happened.
  • Connect the dots by saying something like, “I noticed anger when you stomped your feet.”  Check for agreement or disagreement with your student.
  • Reflect potential resolutions with “I wonder” statements.  “I wonder what else you could do to express your anger?”  “I wonder what things you need to help you.”  See what ideas your student comes up with.  Offer suggestions if needed.

Create a plan together for next time.  There’s something to be learned from any struggle.  Come up with ideas that might help your student the next time they encounter a problem.

  • Point out trigger points by saying, “Getting stuck on math problems seems to be the source of your frustration.”
  • Discuss actions your student can take like, “When you get stuck on a math problem next time what can you do?  Raise your hand?  Check with a neighbor?  Come see me?  Take a water break and come back to it?  Which one do you prefer?”
  • Put it all together by saying, “So next time you find yourself getting angry when you’re not sure about a math problem you can check with a neighbor as you picked.”

If you notice on-going struggles with your student you might need to dig deeper and check-in with their emotional needs.  For tips on how to do that check out this other post!

Putting It Into Practice

Now that you’ve explored classroom emotion regulation practices let’s look at how this could look during a typical school day.  Here is a case study to better illustrate how these ideas flow together.

Scenario:

Riley is a 6th grader who generally loves school.  One area of challenge is language arts.  Knowing that this is Riley’s hardest subject, along with other students, you set the stage for emotion regulation.  Before starting the lesson you do a movement break exercise because the class just finished math and had been sitting for a long time.  Everyone is back in their seats and ready.  

You teach your language arts lesson.  Afterward, the class has quiet reading time and needs to answer some reading comprehension questions.

About 5 minutes into the work-time you hear a student starting to huff and puff.  You notice it’s Riley.  Riley’s face is turning red and is crumpling up notebook paper.  You wait a moment then calmly walk to Riley’s desk to model emotion regulation.  Quietly you stoop down to eye level and say, “I hear some huffing and puffing and you’re turning red and crumpling up your paper.”  You pause.

Riley looks up with tears and nods in agreement.  You continue, “I sense something is upsetting you.  Would getting a drink of water and coming back help you?”  Riley gets up for a drink from the fountain then returns.  Riley’s tears are dried and no longer looks red.  The moment of frustration appears to have passed.  You invite Riley up to your table to take a look at the problem on the worksheet.  

When the problem is resolved you take a moment to teach emotion regulation strategies. You begin by processing the experience by saying, “let’s take a moment to talk about what happened today. Can you share with me in your words what you were feeling a moment ago?”  Riley shares their feelings.  Then you move into building connections between actions and feelings and say, “I noticed anger in you after working for a bit and then I heard angry breathing and saw a red face.  I wonder what things could help you next time?” Riley mentions getting a drink of water and asking for help might help.

You conclude the conversation by coming up with a plan for next time.  Both you and Riley agree on getting a drink then asking for help is the way to go next time Riley gets stuck on a reading comprehension question.

As with anything, learning is a process. Avoid expecting instant change.  We want our students to grow up to be emotionally aware adults. Teaching and practicing emotion regulation takes time and consistency. Incorporate emotion regulation strategies into your classroom and you’ll find great success with helping students work through their struggles. Feel free to visit our Activities page for an array of CASEL-Aligned strategies you can employ today!

Written By:

Elizabeth Purpero

Mental Health Counselor, Wife, Mother

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