Please take a moment to check in on the class feelings board if you would like.
We've all seen the different types of people when it comes to emotional regulation. Some have very little inhibition and have strong reactions immediately. Others let tension build up until they have a meltdown. It's like a train wreck that you can see happening but can't stop once it has picked up too much speed.
The trick is to find ways to express and work out these emotions before the meltdown, tantrum, or thoughtless behaviors. Our reactions are usually a combination of temperament and personality, much of which can come from early experiences and training. One of our jobs as teachers is to help children learn how to slow down and make better choices when their emotions are hijacking their bodies and minds.
The most important first step has already been discussed in the previous unit - self care. Practicing healthy self care routines will keep our minds and bodies naturally more regulated. Once a child is worked up, first they will need to use calm down techniques to get back into the yellow zone on their 'temperature gauge,' and to a point where their energy is not at 'tornado' level (see Self Care unit).
The next step is learning to calm the mind and body back down when overwrought. Problem solving can only happen after the mind is calmed down enough to think more logically. The most common mistake adults make is asking children to problem solve before they are capable - that is where we often see kids start yelling and getting agitated in response. Their system is simply not ready to handle this next logical step yet.
Another important part of emotional regulation is flexible thinking. Flexible thinking is what allows us to adapt and formulate a new plan when things don't go as expected. We have all had to practice flexibility during the COVID19 pandemic, and that practice will hopefully lead to greater resilience for all of us. Flexible thinking is a key coping strategy.
Weak flexible thinking skills can impact academic performance. For example, rigid thinkers can have difficulty with reading skills - everything from understanding the correct pronunciation of words to the tendency to interpret the text literally. This is true in all subject matter areas - another example would be an unwillingness to approach math problems through a variety of strategies. Academics can be frustrating for those that get stuck in their thought patterns.
The student activities below include ways to practice flexible thinking, as well as many ways to practice calming down the mind and body. I recommend asking students to make this a daily practice. They should be practicing to calm down their bodies while totally calm, 1-5 times daily. This practice will build muscle memory, so that the techniques are more effective when actually upset. One main reason these techniques fail kids is because they only try to use them while already agitated.
Problem Solving Wheel: Teach students to stop, calm down, and then think. Use this wheel to help them make a good choice for what to do next.
Bending the Rules: Try playing games but changing the rules of the game. This might be met with resistance, but if you can come up with rules that make the game slightly more fun, eventually it may be met with joy and curiosity.
Three Solutions: Students often come up with one answer, and then dig in their heels defending that answer or way of doing things. Ask students to come up with three possible answers to various questions or riddles. This is a very important skill to hone for group work.
Yoga/Stretching: There are many printables available online of 'animal yoga.' These stretches are relaxing to the body. You can also find great story-telling style yoga at Cosmic Kids Yoga.
Calm Down Spots: I mentioned these earlier, but having a spot that students are used to using as a 'calm' area will also help them when agitated. Students can be asked to go to their calm down spots until they are back in the green, or at least the yellow. It should be explained to students ahead of time that this is not a punishment, being 'sent' to their calm down spot. It is merely a strategy that is very helpful for avoiding poor behavior when agitated. In this article, I give lots of advice for how we made a calm down spot at our home for my son. This includes building a 'calm down kit' to keep nearby.
Breathing Shapes and Props: A unique way to practice breathing is to ask students to choose their favorite breathing shape. I have included one example here, but there are many different ways to practice deep breathing - often one style will suit a particular student better than another. Ask students to practice this daily, so that they build their muscle memory. Students who attempt to do deep breathing when agitated, without practice, often end up breathing far too rapidly and feeling more frustrated. This site also includes props, such as breathing with bubbles.
Exercise and Movement: As discussed in the unit on Self Care, exercise is great for emotional regulation. While a child who is very upset won't likely be in the right state to go for a bike ride, taking a little walk or doing some movement in place, such as jumping jacks, might help them to work out some of their energy. Whatever movement they choose should not be one that requires much coordination. My favorite is to keep a balloon around, and to ask them to bop the balloon in the air and keep it up for at last 10 iterations. This helps their mind focus and clear, while also giving them an opportunity for safe movement. If something more aggressive is needed, students could try ripping up a pile of junk mail paper.
5-4-3-2-1 Grounding: For children who struggle with anxiety, it can be helpful to teach them grounding activities. 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding is a method in which you use all your senses to ground yourself in the moment. Ask students to list:
5 things they can see
4 things they can touch
3 things they can hear
2 things they can smell
and 1 thing they can taste
Here is a graphic you could use while practicing.
Accomplishments Box: Celebrating accomplishments can help build confidence, self esteem and optimism, all of which are helpful to staying regulated. Here is a fun activity for building an accomplishments box, which will help keep students motivated as well.
Finding Humor: Humor is often the secret key to help students return to a state of calm. Keep some joke books, comics, or even comedic audiobooks handy for when a child needs a pick-me-up.