When children have extreme reactions or temper-tantrums, it can be extremely overwhelming for teachers to handle day after day. Teachers need to know how to react in the moment, as well as the best ways for helping children regulate their emotions to help with future issues. In this blog post we will talk about both.
Helping a child regulate emotions in the moment
Teachers must remain calm on the outside when a child is having a big reaction. The more escalated you get, the more escalated the child gets. Remaining calm is definitely tricky, but it is so necessary to help the child deescalate. The teacher should speak as simply as possible, because when a child is dysregulated, they won’t be able to process too many directions.
Let’s say a child is having a tantrum because they want to play another game, but it is clean-up time. Maybe they are throwing the toys around or yelling. Your first job is to keep everyone safe. All classrooms should have a spot where children can go when they are upset. Tell the child to go to this calm corner. Leave the child in this spot while they calm down, and when they are more regulated, you can debrief the situation with them. If they were throwing toys, they should be expected to clean up the toys after they have calmed down.
Sending a child to the calm corner, or control spot as I call it, won’t be a magic fix if they don’t know how to use it or how to calm down. You need to teach about this space, it’s tools, and strategies for self-regulation, and you can’t do that at the moment. When a child is dysregulated, they can’t learn new strategies for calming down. So, take the opportunities when the child is calm to teach them strategies for self-regulation.
Proactive teaching for helping a child regulate their emotions
Teach to identify feelings
The first thing you need to teach students is to identify emotions. I won’t go into too much detail because there is a whole blog post on this! Once children know how to identify how they are feeling and are able to verbalize it, they are well on their way to self-regulating!
Feelings and Emotions
Teach deep breathing
Deep breathing is the best way to self-regulate when we are upset and dysregulated. Not every deep breathing strategy works for every child so we need to teach our students many different deep breathing strategies. I think that the ones that tell a story or have a visual are the most meaningful to young children. Here are some of my favorites.
There are two tools in my control spot, or calm corner, that help the students with deep breathing. The first is the breathing ball. You can get it in my Amazon store. The children expand the ball to breathe in and as they push the ball back together, they breathe out. It’s a great visual for what their lungs are doing.
The second tool is the glitter jar. I talk about how the glitter represents what our brain is doing when we get upset. When we are upset, it’s hard to think straight and see clearly and make decisions and our neurons are flying all over the place, just like the glitter. When we stop and take deep breaths, we can see the glitter start to settle on the bottom of the jar. This is what happens with our brains too. When we take deep breaths, we can start to think and make decisions and see clearly again!
Teach reacting to size of problem
Children that struggle with dysregulation, need to be taught about reacting to the size of the problem. Often, they have big reactions to seemingly small problems. You can learn more about problem-solving here and how I teach identifying the problem size. When you see children start to become upset over a small problem, you can ask them, “is this a small problem or a big problem?”. Over time, you can teach them strategies for solving small problems vs. solving big problems. This proactive teaching can definitely help students struggling in the moment.
Teach other calming strategies
Children need other strategies for calming down besides just deep breathing. Many of the strategies that would work for students with anxiety would work for children that struggle with dysregulation too. You can read about these strategies here. For my students in the past, I have taught them to recognize when they are starting to feel frustrated or upset and encouraged them to use one of the following strategies. Some children just need to get up and walk away from the problem. They might benefit from a walk around the school. We have a sensory path in one of the hallways, and that was always a great distraction to them. Speaking of distractions, cognitive distractors are also a great strategy. For some students, they might like doing word searches or mazes or find-the-differences activities. Those I Spy books are great for this! Additionally, coloring or reading a book for a few minutes can also help greatly.
When helping children regulate emotions, teachers need to know how to react in the moment and how to proactively teach the child strategies to help with self-regulation. Teachers must remain calm in the moment of crisis in order to best support the dysregulated child. Teachers also should teach many different strategies for self-regulation so the child can find the strategy that works best for them.