Teaching and Modeling Self-Regulation Skills in the Classroom

Children are entering school with less developed self-regulation skills than in decades past.  More children have experienced trauma, are emotionally fragile, and may be unable to control their emotional responses and act out in physical ways when they are upset. The good news is that through recent brain science research, we understand the physiology of strong emotion and have discovered that self-regulation skills can be learned at any age.

Self-regulation is the ability to recognize, manage and modulate one’s own emotions and emotional responses and behaviors. This set of skills may be the most important tools your students learn. Recent studies find that a child’s emotional intelligence, or “EQ”, is more important than their “IQ” for future success and happiness. We know that our classrooms run more smoothly when our students are regulated and have the ability to self-regulate when they begin to feel overly excited, stressed or disappointed. And, studies show that kids learn more easily when they are regulated, so it is empowering to know that we can teach them these skills!

Understand “Flipped Lids”. When humans feel strong emotions like anger or fear, the amygdala sends out a signal in the form of a neurochemical that throws our brains into survival mode. The higher level thinking part of our brains goes “offline”; reasoning, logic, the ability to plan, choose, or empathize all become inaccessible in that moment. Daniel Siegel calls this “Flipping your lid’. You can teach your students his model of “brain in the palm of the hand”.

Recognize the power of mirror neurons. Humans are hard wired to mirror what we see. If we teachers are trying to problem solve with kids who have “flipped their lids”, we may end up becoming “flipped” ourselves. If we can notice that the student’s lid is flipped, and can practice our own self-calming strategies, the student can co-regulate from our calm, which is their best chance to reconnect with their “thinking brain.”

Build Emotional Vocabulary: Books are great mediums to teach about emotions.  Wonder aloud and discuss the feelings of characters in the books you read. Collect synonyms for our main emotions of sad, mad, glad and scared, which will inspire better writing and a more nuanced ability for students to name their own emotions. The ability to name our emotions is proven to calm our brains.

 Exercise Self-regulation muscles: Teach activities that help children to sustain and regain calmness.  Practice them again and again each day at regular intervals and when your classroom seems dysregulated.  Remember that some of these should be active: walking, rhythms, jumping and cross body movement while others can be more meditative. Check out our self-regulation card pack – we’ve compiled 60 ideas in handy format.

Create a “Cool Down Space”: In some classrooms it is called Antarctica or the freezer…a place to “chill out”.  Whatever your class decides to name it, it is a quiet refuge in your room with tools to help kids self-regulate.  It is important that your class designs it, so that they feel ownership of this space. Your students may decide to include mindfulness books, soft pillows, stuffed animals, coloring pages or other tools. The cool down space is not used as a punishment, this corner is a place that a student can go to “regroup” and a place you might offer as a choice when you see that a student beginning to “flip”. 

Relationship, relationship, relationship.  We got into teaching because we wanted to make a difference. We care deeply!  This is hard work, and sometimes, especially when we are stressed, our message of caring is not perceived by our students. Students need to know that you are on their side…even when they are struggling.  Fostering caring relationships with your students, and among your students, is a powerful way to inspire the development of self-regulation skills. When we have a deep connection with another person, it releases oxytocin in our brains, promoting calm, closeness and openness. This is the state where students are best able to learn.