Helping Students with Emotional Regulation

Lori McDonald
Lori McDonald
Elementary school teacher; Ed.D. in School Leadership/Administration
A teacher comforts a crying student in the classroom.

Emotional regulation is critically important for students for so many reasons, making this is an important part of an educator’s job to help them with. Little Zalen in first grade, came to school every single day with an intense frown on his face. It seemed that nothing could be done to get a smile out of him. He had very little to no interaction with peers.

Any interaction he did have was negative. Other students avoided him due to his general unpleasantness. Anything and everything that happened to him was a catastrophe, and he responded as such.

There were too many outbursts to count. Exclamations of “he’s looking at me” or “I dropped my pencil” were very frequent and usually followed by fits of yelling, screaming, and crying. And if he happened to fall and scrape his knee, the intensity of the outburst increased exponentially. He would proclaim that he would die over the simplest of incidents. Teachers, including myself, were tempted to believe that Zalen was just a very difficult and unpleasant child.

However, for those willing to get to know him, it was soon discovered that many factors, such as being abandoned by mother and living in a verbally and emotionally abusive home, had cumulatively led to the serious problems that he had with emotional regulation.

While “Zalen” is a pseudonym, most teachers that have been in the field for any number of years can almost certainly think of several of their own “Zalens.” Unfortunately, the number of students that struggle with emotional regulation seems to be steadily increases.

What is Emotional Regulation?

Put simply, emotional regulation is the ability to control your emotions and to prevent those emotions from driving you to action. This is a skill that all of us struggle with from time to time. Of course, some struggle more than others.

Emotional regulation is not a skill that we often think of as something that children need. Children cry; children become upset at times and shout. Sometimes excitement takes over, and those emotions erupt as well. Anything beyond those typical types of reactions and we often consider the cause to be a lack of discipline, negative child-rearing, or serious emotional difficulties. The one thing we must remember is that, more often than not, this is not the case.

More and more children are experiencing difficult home lives and less explicit teaching of coping skills. Teachers today must be aware of this. There are so many factors that contribute to this. For example, because of the increase in use of electronic devices and screen time, by both parents and children, there is far less social interaction, both in the home and outside. Less interactions of these types mean that students often have less experience learning to regulate emotions.

Why is Emotional Regulation Important?

Emotional regulation allows students to understand how they feel and how to control their reactions. Emotional regulation also decreases stress levels. Lower stress levels are associated with better mental health and less anxiety and depression.

Children that can regulate their own emotions can soothe themselves. This means that difficulties are easier to handle. These are skills that are critically important in adulthood as well. Also, children, and adults for that matter, that can regulate their emotions form stronger relationships, remain calmer in stressful situations, perform better in school or at work, have fewer negative emotions and even get sick less often. This is all related to a decrease in student’s stress.

As teachers, our first thought is that we want students to be able to control their emotions so that they can function and perform well academically, as this is the job we are tasked with.

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There are other important reasons that children need guidance in learning to regulate emotions. Most importantly, we want our students to be happy, well-adjusted, and emotionally stable individuals that grow up to be equally stable and productive adults.

Strategies for Educators Helping Students Manage Emotions

Although there is very little we can do to change the types of home lives that many of our students have, there are ways that we can help them learn to cope by regulating their own emotions. Here are just a few emotional regulation strategies that teachers can do to help support students with their emotions.

Prevention

As Benjamin Franklin once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” If you try to truly know your students, you can begin to see the signs and anticipate the outbursts. It is much easier to redirect and prevent the difficulty than to try to de-escalate a student in a full-blown meltdown.

Listening

Many students need a sympathetic ear when struggling. Often, just letting them talk will help immensely. Sometimes, taking a walk with the child and listening while they vent will help them regain composure and regulate their emotions.

Calming

Calming corners or calming rooms have also become an effective tool in helping students regulate emotions. In our school, we have a calming room. It is a very small room with soft lighting, quiet, soothing music, bean bags, pillows, and soft toys for emotional regulation activities. Students can go here when feeling upset and it helps them to gain control of their emotions.

Explicit Instruction

Assuming that students will naturally know how to control their emotions is a huge mistake. It’s just not the case. By talking and teaching about emotions and discussing how we react to situations, students are better able to understand themselves.

Further Support

When necessary, teachers can always recruit help from school counselors and even social workers when the situation is serious enough that such help is warranted.

Relationship, Relationship, Relationship

Much like the mantra of the real estate is “location, location, location”, if this teacher is asked the three most important things to remember in teaching, it would be “relationship, relationship, relationship!” In knowing your students, you are so much better equipped to help them both emotionally and academically.

By using these strategies, we can help our students learn emotional regulation skills and cope with the challenges they face. It is most important, however, to work to develop meaningful relationships with students by investing time with them regularly and by truly listening to their thoughts and concerns. Through this interaction, students can be guided through navigating and regulating their emotions.

Teachers never stop learning; check out our available graduate degree programs in teaching to hone your skills and promote lifelong learning and academic excellence.

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