How to Help Kids Regulate

Sometimes, even when we have worked proactively with a student, they still need adult support to work through their emotions. These situations can be equally as challenging for the adult as they are for the child, especially when verbal validation isn’t quite enough to help the child regulate. For those moments, we need to have a few other strategies in our back pockets! 

Dr. Bruce Perry developed a powerful model that is helpful for adults to remember when working with a dysregulated child: Regulate-Relate-Reason. Why does this work? Research tells us that how a child feels can either promote learning, or inhibit it by blocking important cognitive processes. These important cognitive processes, like response inhibition, decision-making, and planning, are not accessible to a dysregulated child due to the activation of the amygdala and the impaired access to their still-developing prefrontal cortex. Therefore, we must regulate the emotional response before the child will be able to access their ability to reason!

Regulate: In order to do this, you might try some of these strategies WITH the child, or co-regulate. Co-regulation is when we, as the caring adult in the situation, use our presence, tone of voice, and body language to model appropriate behaviors that can help modulate the intensity of what the child is feeling and experiencing. We know through research that children’s independent ability to regulate negative emotions, decrease amygdala activity, and increase activity in the prefrontal cortex develops with age. Because they aren’t yet ready to use them on their own, co-regulation helps to provide their developing mind with a safe, supportive environment to learn these important self-regulation skills. Some of the strategies you can try with a student include: 

toolbox with regulation strategies
  • Hand Squeezes: Squeezing something can be helpful when students are feeling frustrated, angry, annoyed, etc. and have tension in their bodies. There are a few ways to do this. You might hold their hands and squeeze gently in different patterns and have them copy that pattern by squeezing back. If they do not feel comfortable holding hands, they can squeeze a stress ball, pillow, stuffed animal, etc.
  • Ball Bounce: If you have the space, bouncing a ball back and forth on the floor can be a great option. The rhythm of this activity can be soothing, and it also encourages safe movement and connection.
  • Breathing: We know breathing can help to calm the nervous system, but making it engaging by doing mirrored breathing, finger touch breathing, butterfly breaths, blowing bubbles, or using a Hoberman sphere can make it more interactive and engaging for students.
  • Turn it Around/Upside Down: Another way to calm the nervous system is by quite literally, turning it around or upside down. I might have a student do this by spinning around in circles or doing some cartwheels (all in a safe, controlled fashion). Not only is it fun, but it also provides some vestibular input that aids regulation.
  • Weighted Blanket/Lap Pad: Applying deep pressure is known to reduce the effects of stress or arousal in children. In a school setting, we may be able to provide this relief through weighted objects like blankets, lap pads, or stuffed animals, or a hug (depending on your school policies around this).
  • Sing a song: Singing stimulates creativity and the vagus nerve which helps settle the fight/flight response. Added bonus, sometimes it can help to bring some levity to the moment if you start to sing along too!
  • Temperature: A common DBT strategy is to change the temperature in moments of dysregulation. Colder temperatures reduce the intensity of the emotions quickly by decreasing the heart rate. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system which helps to calm. Doing this also encourages mindfulness because the student is focused on the bodily sensation of the cold rather than the big feeling. You can use ice cubs or ice packs, or simply have the student splash some cold water on their face.
  • Lighting: Sometimes the lights are harsh and overly stimulating to kiddos in a dysregulated state. Try shutting off the lights, or dimming them, to bring the energy down.

Relate: Once they are calm, you can reconnect with the student; remind them they are safe, validate their feelings, and offer support. This can be done through words, and actions (eye contact, appropriate proximity, etc.)

  • “I notice you are feeling…angry/upset/frustrated/disappointed/annoyed/worried/etc.”
  • “It’s okay that you are feeling sad about this.”
  • “I understand you want to go home right now.”

Reason: The final step is to reason with the student. This should always be last because the thinking part of the brain cannot be accessed when we are dysregulated. During this stage, you are helping the child reflect on what happened and learn from it. Often, this is most effective later and not in the immediate aftermath of the stressor. This might sound like,

  • “Earlier today we worked through a pretty big feeling about recess together. I’m wondering if we can talk about that now that we are calm. What can we do next time we have indoor recess because of the weather?”
  • “You were really upset with your friend earlier today, but I can’t allow you to use your body to express that feeling because it is not safe. How can we tell a friend we are upset with them in a safe way?”
As school counselors, we do a tremendous amount of work to proactively build children’s regulation toolboxes. However, we know that sometimes what they have learned and the in-the-moment validation we provide isn’t quite enough. For those moments, I hope this post provided you with a few strategies for your toolbox, too!

Research references

Lönn, M., Aili, K., Svedberg, P., Nygren, J., Jarbin, H., & Larsson, I. (2023). Experiences of Using Weighted Blankets among Children with ADHD and Sleeping Difficulties. Occupational Therapy International.

Martin, R.E. & Ochsner K.N. (2016). The Neuroscience of Emotion Regulation Development: Implications for Education. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 10, 142–148.

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Hello, I’m Sara!

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