Have you ever heard the quote, “You’ve gotta Maslow before you Bloom?” The idea of ensuring we are addressing a student’s basic needs, including physical and mental well-being, before we stretch their brains with the rigorous learning levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy is something all educators can certainly agree on. While we know students who are hungry or tired may not be able to learn their best, we also now know that emotional dysregulation or inability to cope with emotions can also have a significant impact on learning. Especially amidst a pandemic, ensuring time is dedicated to social-emotional learning and staying mindful of potential traumas for students is essential to our success.

What is Emotional Regulation?

Emotional regulation is a person’s ability to identify their own emotions, identify the emotions of others, and use strategies to address those emotions to return to a more balanced state. The state of dysregulation is having emotions that you are not equipped to handle in an adaptive way and, in turn, do things that may create larger problems.

For students in school, this could look like a child being frustrated by a task that is too hard for them and feeling anger that they can’t do what others in the class are doing. Instead of using adaptive strategies like asking a teacher for help, checking the board for directions, or re-reading the task for information they recognize, they may rip their paper, make loud noises, shut down and freeze, or even become violent.

CASEL, a national professional group of licensed clinicians (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning), have identified the five areas of emotional regulation to target during social-emotional learning for students. Self-awareness, Self-management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision-Making are five core concepts for us to frame our instruction around emotional regulation, and they don’t always go in a hierarchical order. Working on self-awareness skills usually comes before self-management, but awareness of other students and how to foster positive relationships should be infused throughout a learning sequence on emotional regulation.

Why is Emotional Regulation Important?

Obviously if students are behaving in such maladaptive ways in response to emotions they cannot manage, it’s important we dedicate time in our day to explicitly teaching these skills. Schools are dedicating more professional learning time than ever to trauma-informed practices, recognizing that one in four of our students may be coming to school with some experience that can lead to trauma (known as ACEs). Students are not able to learn their best when they are impacted by emotional dysregulation caused by trauma, and thus, we must ensure this component to our learners is meaningfully addressed in the classroom.

When students have the skills to manage their emotions, they can tackle challenges in the classroom both academically and socially, promoting the desired growth and development we seek to foster. Long term, teaching to the emotional competencies identified by CASEL can promote cooperative learning, resistance to peer pressure, positive community contributions, and the ability to manage stress. It’s undeniable that these outcomes are critical to the success of our students, and thus teaching emotional regulation strategies are of the utmost importance in our classrooms as young as pre-K!

Strategies for Teaching Emotional Regulation

Dedicating time in your week to social-emotional learning is critical to ensuring it not only is explicitly taught but then also gets applied by students over time in authentic ways. Consider some of the following resources and ideas for teaching emotional regulation:

  • Color-labeled emotion programs like the Zones of Regulation or the Ruler Strategy out of Yale. Helping young students identify their emotions by color through either of these rich programs gives developmentally appropriate terms and tools for students to identify their emotions in order to handle them. While these programs come with a cost, having a universal methodology within one grade level or school building is invaluable to its wider success.
  • Read alouds about emotional regulation to prompt discourse about identifying and handling emotions, like Grumpy Monkey, The Color Monster, Today I Feel Silly, and other titles. As you read, have students share or record what may trigger certain emotions for them and what they currently do when they have those emotions. Discussing if their responses are safe/unsafe is an important next step so they can be more mindful of how they are responding when in certain emotional states.
  • Video and picture models provide students a removed example that can prompt rich discussion around how characters are feeling and what they are doing to handle those emotions. Holding up or showing these visuals and having students identify the emotions they observe help students develop the ability to first identify emotions and then put into practice adaptive strategies to cope with the different emotions.
  • Role play! Students love acting out preferred and non-preferred emotional responses. Give students scenarios and require them to demonstrate different types of reactions. Require students to identify the emotions of the various characters in the scenario and recommended strategies for coping with emotions.
  • Check in with your students with something like a mood meter or morning reflection grounded in the emotional-regulation framework you’ve decided to use. Having students reflect on what emotion they are feeling to start their day can pay dividends on the success of the rest of the day. Recognizing that missing the bus may make one feel uneasy or frustrated at the beginning of the day gives the student awareness and acceptance of why they are feeling a certain way, and that metacognition contributes to more productive response behaviors. Consider offering an optional “I need to check in with the teacher” checkbox so you can know if the student needs to process an emotion with you before it becomes too late.

Looking for more resources? Check out the book Permission to Feel by Mark Brackett out of Yale University that explains the research behind teaching emotional regulation in classrooms and across environments. Also on the recommendation list is Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in our All-About-Me World by Dr. Michelle Borba, highlighting the myriad benefits to explicitly teaching empathy as a skill and competency.