Emotion Regulation Skills

The Intervention

Emotion regulation skills are tools that students can use to help them effectively communicate and manage their emotions when they are feeling overwhelmed. These skills can be taught and practiced in the whole class setting or in individual contexts. Emotion regulation skills and adult support can help de-escalate situations in which a student’s emotions become extreme or beyond what would be considered an appropriate response to a given event or situation. In addition, many of these skills can also be used proactively to reduce the likelihood of future escalations. Strategies that teachers can use to help students create an emotion regulation plan include: a) developing a shared language with students so they can communicate about emotions, b) teaching, monitoring, reinforcing, and practicing coping skills, and c) creating a safe cool down space where coping strategies can be applied if the student cannot apply them in their own space.  

Because all students can benefit from learning about emotions and emotion regulation skills, below are guidelines for creating and implementing emotion regulation strategies with your entire classroom, followed by guidelines for creating a targeted intervention and using de-escalation strategies with students who need more individualized support.

Implementation of emotion regulation skills will look different in every classroom because they should meet your unique needs and fit within the classroom context. Below are some general guidelines for creating and implementing emotion regulation strategies in your classroom.

  1. Develop a shared language for communicating about emotions in your classroom. This may include having a poster or picture wall that includes examples of a range of emotional expressions paired with developmentally appropriate emotion words. Many young children struggle to define or label their emotions, so explicitly teaching and practicing emotion labeling can be an important first step. You may want to begin your day or class period with having students label their emotion or emotion category/level to help you know which students may need extra support with emotional management strategies.
  2. Create a list of coping skills to teach and practice with the student. These could include deep breathing, counting to ten, squeezing and releasing of muscles, imagery of an enjoyable or calming place, writing in a journal, engaging in light stretching or coloring or drawing. You may want to create a written list to share with the student.  See Materials for a list of coping skills. Encourage the student to try several different coping skills to learn which ones work best for them.
  3. Create a “take a break” and/or “cool down space” in your classroom. This should be an area away from the main student workspace, reducing stimulation and physical proximity to other students. You may want to consider the types of materials that are present in the area and try to reduce objects that could be dangerous during an escalation. You will also want to come up with a name for this area (e.g., cool down zone, get calm corner, chill out space, take a break space).

  1. Students who struggle with emotion regulation could benefit from support and practice of emotion regulation skills. It may be useful to work collaboratively with the student and the school mental health professional (SMHP) to develop an emotion regulation plan.
  2. If the student is already receiving emotion management training from the SMHP, we also recommend that you collaborate with the SMHP to ensure that both you and the SMPH are helping the student develop the same skills. Teachers can provide more frequent prompts and reminders for these students to apply the skills at the first signs of emotion dysregulation and praise students for their efforts toward applying the skills.
  3. Meet with the student to discuss your ideas and further collaborate on emotion regulation strategies that can be used in the classroom. Allow the student to have input about what the cool down space is called and how they would like to inform you if they need to utilize that space. You can also begin talking about coping strategies and a plan for practicing them over the upcoming week.
  4. Have your student try out various emotion regulation skills (e.g. deep breathing, counting to ten, squeezing and releasing of muscles, imagery of an enjoyable or calming place, writing in a journal, engaging in light stretching or coloring or drawing) and discuss which skills they like and do not like. They may find that some skills are useful in certain situations and not useful in other situations.
  5. When talking to the student it can also be helpful to discuss the different triggers and signs that they might need to use the take a break space or practice other coping strategies.
  6. It is also recommended that you to talk to the student’s parents about the emotion regulation plan. These strategies often work best when they are used consistently and practiced in various settings. If able and willing, the parents can model the skills, encourage practice, and possibly even implement a similar system for emotional escalation at home.

The Escalation/De-Escalation Cycle

The chart below illustrates the phases of the escalation and de-escalation cycle with strategies that teachers can use in each.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Escalation-De-escalation-Cycle-1024x535.png

The information below also provides some skills and examples that the teacher can use to help de-escalate a situation and allow the child to regulate their emotions. These skills should be used during the “triggers”, “agitation”, and “peak stage”.

Help the student label or name the emotion:

    • Help the student name or label the emotion by asking them what they are feeling (ask them to say the word or point to a face). If the student struggles, name the emotion you think they are feeling, understand their emotions and reactions by saying to the student that you understand that they are (angry, sad, disappointed or any other emotion). Telling the student that you understand their emotion not only helps them label it, but the statement also conveys to the student that you are concerned, understand why they are upset, and are interested in helping them. It can also be helpful to use an emotion chart or wheel if a student is struggling to identify their emotion.
        • Example 1: Tommy, it looks like you are sad. I understand that it makes you sad when other students do not want to play with you.”

        • Example 2: “It seems like you are frustrated about your grade on this assignment. It is understandable to be frustrated when your score is not what you wanted”  

Verbally validate and normalize their feelings

    • Acknowledge the emotion that your student is experiencing and let them know that you are there for them. You may want to let them know that it is okay to feel their emotions and that what they are feeling is normal.   To the extent possible, reflecting some degree of agreement can also be validating to the student’s experience.
        • Example 1: “I see that you are feeling very angry right now, how can I help you?”

        • Example 2: “I can tell that you are feeling sad right now, it is okay to feel sad sometimes

        • Example 3: “I would be upset if that happened to me too.”

        • Example 4: “I also wish we could do [x], but that is not an option right now

        • Example 5: “I would be angry if someone had said that to me too; What he said was hurtful.”

Empathetic listening

    • Make sure the student knows that you hear them and that you are aware they are experiencing an emotional outburst. To show your student that you are listening, make sure you are facing your student and that your body language shows you are open to hearing them
        • Leaning in, bending down or sitting at their level, uncrossing your arms, and nodding along.

Be non-judgmental

    • Whether or not you think that your student’s emotions are justified in that moment, it is helpful to put that judgment aside and hear them out without dismissing their feelings.

Provide privacy

    • It may be helpful to move to the back or corner of the room for a more private conversation with them rather than having a discussion with them in front of classmates. This may make them feel more comfortable to disclose their feelings and ensure that they do not feel embarrassed about the situation. This may be an appropriate time to allow them to go to a “calm down corner” if you have one set up in your classroom.

Find common ground; Give student choices

    • Use your empathetic and active listening skills to help identify what you want or need of your student and acknowledge that. You may both have the same goals in the situation and can use this common ground to help find a solution. Offer two acceptable choices, as making a decision can help offer the student a sense of control
        • Example 1: “I want you to get a good grade on the assignment too. Maybe we can come up with some ideas together to make that happen”

        • Example 2: “I don’t want you to be mad at your friends either, how can I help you?”

        • Example 3: “Do you want to rejoin the group now or take 5 more minutes to cool down”.

Recovery

    • Once your student has calmed down and become more regulated, you can give your student options for how to return to class or programming. For example, you can offer five minutes of alone time or the option to go back to the activity right away. You also may want to find a time to debrief the situation with the student to brainstorm strategies to check-in and prevent a similar situation in the future.

  • A shared emotion regulation language can occur at the whole class level or between you and the most at-risk students. If you choose a more universal approach, the intervention can still be tailored based on individual needs. For example, some students may need more practice with relaxation strategies and more reminders to use them when experiencing triggers
  • It is helpful for students to practice relaxation or coping skills when they are feeling calm. Having more experience with the skills will make it easier to remember and implement during periods of emotional arousal.
  • Not all strategies will work for every individual. Having a variety of coping skills in your toolbox will allow the student to try different things. In the end, the goal is to do something that works to regulate emotion. This will be an individualized approach.
  • Depending on the unique needs of the student, it can be fun and effective to create a personal coping box. The student could fill it with coping resources such as colored pencils, a stress ball, pleasant smelling lotions, pictures of their favorite places or people, or reminders of self-soothing statements. When the student experiences a trigger or begins to escalate, they can utilize the resources in their personal coping box.
  • Remember that triggers may be related to something outside of school. Students may face a variety of stressors at home, in their communities, or at school. Try to be someone they can count on for support, even when they are having a difficult time.
  • Working with students with severe behavior problems and emotional outbursts can be very frustrating, even for the best teachers. Practicing these emotion regulation strategies alongside the student can allow you space to manage your own emotional experience, while also serving as a positive model for the student.
  • If you need help implementing or evaluating this intervention, it may be helpful to seek out consultation from your school mental health professional or intervention team leader.

Materials

Intervention Scorecard

This intervention is recommended for the following presenting problems.

Select an age group:

Recommended

Other suitable presenting problems

Contents