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Teaching Students to Self-Regulate


What does engagement mean? Well, the obvious answer means keeping students engaged in learning. For many teachers this means ramping up the WOW factor. It might mean costumes, balloons and confetti for math–but imagine if it could be something so much simpler?

How are you feeling today?

Imagine all  you might learn from your students with a simple question as they enter the room in the morning.

Being able to identify, express and regulate emotions is a difficult skill in a society that aims for happy HaPpY HAPPY! Thanks to a little Pixar movie, parents are starting to warm up to the idea that sadness is not a villain.

Everyone needs to be able to feel, express and control their emotions and as teachers we are on the front line.  To be clear-controlling emotions does not mean stopping them.  It means finding ways to deal with them.

Little Janie is angry.  She rips up her math book, throws it on the floor and stomps out of the room.

What do you say?

From a distance one of us said in very calm voice, “Janie, I can see you are angry. When you are calmer, we can talk about it.”  Walk away.  Let the student learn to calm. Do not threaten, punish, shame or engage with negative behavior.  (Also ensure the child is safe before leaving them alone). There will be time to sort out the reasons later.

In the meantime, we had asked the class to ignore the behavior and be supportive and kind when Little Janie returns. She did, about five minutes later, and we let her take her place in the class not pointing out or discussing what had happened, but welcoming her back instead.

A little while later we moved to a quieter space without an audience and asked, “How are you feeling?”

She spilled the beans so we let her get it all out, reminding in a calm quiet voice that we were listening. Kids will spill it, and no matter how irrational their reasons are-validate their feelings. She felt angry and frustrated and we responded with, “Yes, you were very angry, but we cannot rip books and slam doors no matter how angry we get.  What can you do differently when you get angry next time?”

Come up with a plan.

We use code words to allow students to take a frustration break. We have a calm box (a post on this will come).  We have arrangements with other teachers to let students walk it off. Little Janie has an EFP (Emergency Frustration Plan).

As for discipline, it depends if the reason. It turns out in this situation Little Janie was frustrated because she didn’t understand how to do division. She just needed help expressing her frustration. She cannot be punished for not understanding division. Correct the behavior, but punishing her in this case will only result in more issues with division later.

And all of that is great, but what if students could self-regulate on their own. This video by Julie Bayer Salzman and Josh Salzman highlights the importance of just breathing. Take a breath…everyone.


Once students can trust you (and their classmates) with their feelings, the behaviors tend to go away (well, many of them).Self-Regulation

We developed a set of lessons to teach students to emotionally regulate and for teachers to learn how to create a culture of managing emotions.  You can find it at our Teachers Pay Teachers store.


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