It’s test day and emotions are running high in the classroom. Joe hasn’t stopped fidgeting all morning. He notices that his teacher is about to pass out the test and panics. He hops out of his seat, runs around the classroom and pushes pencils off the desks of his peers.
As a teacher, what would you do? Yell at him to sit down? Remove him from the classroom? It’s likely that your instinct is to punish Joe. But it’s clearly the test that is fueling his anxiety—so is that a reason to punish?
According to Educational and Licensed School Psychologist Lori Jackson, MS, CAGS, the answer is a resounding “no.” Jackson, along with Severe Special Needs Teacher Steven Peck, M.Ed, co-founded The Connections Model, where they develop technologies and teaching strategies to assist students in learning about and managing their emotions. This includes the KidConnect app, which helps students identify and manage their emotions as they’re occurring.
While most adults manage their feelings throughout the day by taking a walk or deep breaths, many kids don’t have those coping skills. “That management, known as emotional regulation, takes place deep inside the emotional center of your brain. When it’s working, you can go smoothly from one event to another, managing the different emotions that arise,” explains Jackson.
“When you can’t manage your emotions, each event or activity can bring difficulties and challenges. That’s called emotional dysregulation. For kids, dysregulation makes life challenging, friendships difficult and most significantly, it can make learning impossible.” To curb that, emotion regulation needs to be taught in the classroom so kids can realize that they’re in control of their feelings and subsequent actions. Here’s how to make those skills a staple in your classroom.
1. Ask questions that make the connection between emotions and behavior.
Talking about emotions in the classroom hasn’t really become mainstream. It can feel uncomfortable to awkwardly ask students, “How do you feel?” Instead, we need to be asking how an event—such as a looming test—makes the child feel and how that subsequent emotion makes them behave.
“Teaching emotions and how emotions drive behavior is a positive approach,” explains Jackson. “You need students to connect emotions to behavior. Making these connections is critical, and it needs to be done frequently and consistently as this is a main driver to change the way kids think.”
Teacher: “Hey everyone, we have a test today! Who is anxious? Excited? Nervous?”
Joe: “I’m anxious.”
Teacher: “Joe, when you have a test, you tell me you feel anxious. That’s great to know. What do you do when you feel anxious?”
Joe: “I run around the classroom pushing people’s pencils off the desks.”
Teacher: “OK, thank you, Joe. So Joe, do you see that when you’re feeling anxious about a test, you do something that isn’t part of our classroom rules? I understand that you’re feeling anxious and that being anxious makes you feel you need to run around. Instead of running and pushing pencils off the desks, what if you went and ran around the gym once or got a drink of water?”
Joe: “I can try that if you will let me. I hate tests.”
2. Be patient.
The kids who have the most difficulty managing their behavior are often the ones who are falling behind or have gaps in their academic knowledge.
“Most of the time, the negative behavior patterns are ingrained in them due to years of behaviors fueled by their emotions,” explains Jackson. “No one has ever gotten to the bottom of their issues. No one has helped them to learn how to manage their emotions, and as a result, in addition to the environment, these kids have self-reinforced their negative behaviors.”
So, not only is it important to get to the core of the issues by teaching emotions, but doing so with patience is key. “It will take time to reorient, but the good news is that the brain can be repaired. New neural pathways can be developed, with time and consistency,” says Jackson.
3. Set the tone first thing in the morning.
Begin the school day by asking your students about things that might be bothering them. “Ask your students about their homework or what they ate for breakfast. Ask if anyone fought with their brother or sister,” suggests Jackson. “The idea is to discuss any event that likely elicited a feeling and have everyone share. This sets the tone for the day, giving you the heads up on who might have a tough day and why.”
Some kids, particularly the ones with regulation issues, perseverate on things. If the event is still playing in the student’s head, it’s likely the emotion is still festering. You can also go over the day’s schedule and tie it to emotions. “If you know that Billy has difficulty with math, let’s help Billy identify the emotion tied to math, and then pre-identify a strategy to use when Billy feels it during math time,” suggests Jackson.
4. Help students understand emotions in real time.
The big goal is getting kids to a place where they’re able to recognize their emotions as they’re happening. And that’s where the KidConnect app comes in. “Teachers open KidConnect and hand the iPad to a student immediately following an incident. The student then completes a short route on the iPad,” explains Jackson.
“Because it’s used in the moment, kids are able to make immediate connections between events, emotions and their behavior. The outcome is behavior change, but the process is learning to regulate their emotions.”
Teacher Caroline Burkard saw the difference KidConnect made after unsuccessfully trying several different behavior and incentive plans with one student who was severely hurting himself. “Now when he gets angry or frustrated, he takes deep breaths instead of hurting himself. He knows that if he gets angry, he has to calm down and reflect on what the real problem is,” she explains. “This has not only benefited the classroom, it has truly benefited my student’s well-being.”
5. Check in all day long.
It’s beneficial to stop throughout the day for quick regulation checks. This way kids can vocalize if there are any lingering emotions from an activity that’s already been completed.
“We also suggest a minute of mindfulness. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, just a minute of quiet, breathing—‘clear the head and clear the brain time,’” says Jackson. You can alternate with movement breaks for those students who do better by burning off some energy.
6. Build a “word wall.”
Build your students’ emotional vocabulary by giving them direct access to those words and feelings. Lauren Ross, LCSW and school social worker for the Cherry Creek School District in Denver, Colorado, suggests creating a “word wall” filled with “feelings” words or hanging a poster in the room with “feelings” faces.
7. Designate a “calm-down spot.”
As teachers, you have the power to create an emotionally safe classroom in which all feelings are OK, and it’s reinforced that taking care of yourself is normalized and respected. “A ‘calm-down spot’ in the classroom is a great way to do that,” says Ross.
“I usually recommend a pillow or beanbag, feelings poster, a couple of calm-down strategies such as a stress ball or Theraputty to squeeze, books about emotions, and a timer.” Once it’s set up, make your kids aware of what it’s for and how to use it.
8. Take the pressure off academic success.
You can give students tons of extra academic support, but if they’re not taught the skills needed to regulate their emotions, you’re not likely to see improvement.
“I’ve seen it so often. Teachers say, ‘Sally gets so much extra help but she still isn’t really making steady progress. We don’t know what to do to help her. She seems so unhappy, so sad …,’” says Peck. “Stop cramming the academics until you’ve taught them emotional regulation. Rebalance the students’ tasks until they’ve learned some strategies to manage their emotions. Then go back to academics.”
Teaching kids how to manage their emotions will result in increased attention, which transforms them into students who are ready to learn!
9. Share your own feelings.
Don’t be afraid to share your own emotions as they occur throughout the day. You’re not superhuman, so of course a crazy day when the printer jams, your students have asked the same question 15 different ways and you forgot about a mandatory faculty meeting after school will rattle you.
Share your feelings with your students—it’s a surefire way to help them understand the connection between feelings and behavior. “Teachers are the absolute best examples of emotional regulation,” says Jackson.
“When these situations occur, ask yourself what your emotion was in the situation and what you did to manage it. Then share that with your kids.”