Helping students become better at regulating their own emotions is becoming more and more of a priority for school counselors. But how do you teach emotional regulation? What does that look like? It’s a pretty meaty topic! Let me break it down for you.
Lots of times, kids learn how to regulate their emotions through the co-regulation process between them and their caregiver(s). Having emotional regulation consistently modeled for them is huge, also. And a huge piece of emotional regulation comes from the adults around a child listening to, accepting, and validating a child’s emotions. Sometimes though, those things haven’t happened, or the kiddo just needs extra support. What does a student need to be able to do in order to regulate their own feelings?
Well, emotional regulation isn’t just one skill but actually a set of skills that a kiddo needs to acquire somewhat in order. Lots of students you work with that need help with emotional regulation won’t need you to help them with all of these steps. When you’re thinking about a specific student or group of students, consider what emotional skills they already have and start working with them on the next one!
1. Understand Different Feelings
At the most basic level, students need to be able to understand different emotions. What are comfortable vs. uncomfortable feelings? Can we have more than one feeling at a time? What words do we use for feelings? Are there different amounts of feelings? These are the things our students need to understand in order to understand feelings. Books are one of the easiest and best ways to do it. I wrote a whole post about must have feelings books.
Centers can also be a fun way to help students start to develop their emotional intelligence. One I used was all about “double dip feelings” where students thought about the different feelings someone might have in a situation.
In small groups, we’ve talked about shades of feelings and expanded our feelings vocab by sorting out feelings words by category and then scaling them.
2. Identify Emotions in Self
Once students understand feelings, they need to be able to recognize them in themselves. Students can’t take care of their feelings if they don’t know what they’re experiencing. Have you heard the phrase “name it to tame it” by Dan Siegel? This is it! I think the best way to help students with this is through modeling and reflecting. Students (and my own kiddos) could often hear me name my own feelings. And pretty much all day long I reflect the feelings of others.
It’s also important for students to be able recognize physical cues in their body about feelings. The books Listening to My Body and My Incredible Talking Body are both great stories to help introduce this concept (affiliate links). A few years ago, I started using little visuals with Velcro and a felt body outline to help students identify the physical sensations with feelings.
3. Accept Their Emotion
For lots of different reasons, our students might not think it’s totally okay to have their feelings. Maybe feelings aren’t talked about at home, or they only think about feelings as “good” and “bad”. Or maybe they associate their worry and anger with times they’ve gotten into trouble or felt out of control, so they are uncomfortable acknowledging them. The way that we adults at school talk to our students about feelings plays a huge role here. Explicitly adding “and that’s okay” when we reflect their feelings (eg. “You’re really frustrated right now and that’s okay.”) is one way. Explaining the why behind feelings: telling students how fear keeps us safe and anger helps us know when something wrong is happening, is another way.
If students are struggling to accept their emotions or seem to feel shame over their emotional dysregulation, it is super empowering to help them understand what it means to “flip their lid”. When students can see their emotional reactions as the result of their guard dog amygdala trying to keep them safe, instead of them being a “bad kid”, they are more open to taking steps to take care of those feelings.
4. Express Their Feelings
Sometimes simply expressing a feeling, verbally or otherwise, can help to regulate one’s emotions. One way to help students practice this is through I-statements. Another would be with color/number coded questions and a game where students express when they have or have had different feelings.
5. Use Regulation or Coping Skills
Here’s the biggy – the coping skills! We need to break this down a bit, though, because there’s a lot to this step.
- Students learn about and understand how to use/do different regulation/coping tools/skills.
- Practice using them.
- Decide which one(s) they think are helpful.
- Students actually use the tools/skills when they are emotionally dysregulated.
Whew! It’s a lot, but the whole process is actually really natural. And fun! I’ve written a couple times before (here and here) about doing all of this when introducing students to a classroom peace corner or calm corner. One on one, it might look like helping students create an emotional regulation “plan”.
Depending on the student(s) you’re working with, you might hand-pick some specific strategies to teach one at a time, like self-talk or using a stress ball. Or, you might use a coping game to practice a few at once.