Emotional Intelligence, Part 2: Helping Students Learn to Regulate Emotions
This article is part two of a three-part series on Emotional Intelligence. Click here to read part one which focuses on naming emotions.
“Too often we look for strategies to shift ourselves and our children out of negative emotional spaces. We’re told to think positively or be grateful. But that’s not always possible. During difficult times, sometimes we just need to be there for each other” -Marc Brackett
Teachers, have you ever had a physical AND emotionally draining day at school and then when you get home a spouse, child, emotionally needy dog requires your attention? With your tank completely empty you are short with your spouse, snap at your son who you’ve already told where his iPad is three times, and yell at the dog you keep tripping over? Glad it's not just me.
Any job that requires being emotionally available to an audience or individual is draining and requires a high degree of regulating those emotions to avoid negative offloading on either the audience, our loved ones or on some rough days both. Here’s the added kicker, when the victims of our emotional offloading are students or children, they begin to learn that this behavior is a perfectly fine way to regulate emotions. All this said, our students, children and even we teachers need more education around emotional regulation.
What is Emotional Regulation?
What is emotional regulation exactly? It is the ability to know what we are feeling as we are feeling it and addressing them in a healthy way. It is paying attention to the space between when your son has asked you where his iPad is a third time and you deciding how you’re going to react.
Stimulus → Emotion → Regulation of that Emotion → Reaction.
Why is Emotional Regulation Important? An Activity for Students
Ask your students to fill in the blank: “It is hard for me to learn/concentrate when I’m feeling _______” (Poll Everywhere is great for making a word cloud for this kind of activity). Maybe even use the emotion wheel mentioned in Part One of this series to help give students ideas. Start a conversation with your class, picking out an emotion and asking:
When you feel _____ where do you feel it in your body? What kind of physical reaction do you have when you’re in the middle of it?
How does _____ make it harder for you to focus? What thoughts does it lead to?
You might even notice students having a hard time focusing on this discussion as feelings bubble up in the course of this discussion. Ask them about that experience as a way of practicing emotional regulation in real time. If the thought of wading into this discussion sounds daunting, especially if your worried students might bring in a response that you don’t know what to do with, re-read the quote at the beginning of this article. Sometimes we just need to be there for each other, our students especially. Students come into our classroom with the feelings they are feeling whether or not we as teachers address them. If we engage with students in those emotions, as hard as they may be, at least we know more about what they are bringing to class and adjust accordingly and make the classroom a safer space for them.
Making Time for Emotional Regulation
To return to the Marc Brackett quote listed above, sometimes when we ourselves or others are feeling really big feelings in reaction to a stimulus, we want a solution in the moment. There are plenty of breathing exercises to help address the moment itself but effective emotional regulation requires not just an approach for the moment but preemptive practices as well.
In Marc Brackett’s book Permission to Feel he provides a helpful list of how to practice emotional regulation that should be on display in every classroom:
Breathe Mindfully - taking time to give your body the breathe it needs to think more clearly
Practice Self-care - get at least 8 hours of sleep, eat healthy, move your body for at least 20 minutes each day
Healthy Relationships - surround yourself with people who are calming, positive and make you feel loved
Managing Your Thoughts - move from negative to positive self-talk
Manage Your Life - have a routine, set regular goals for yourself, stay productive
Enjoy Yourself - make time for the things that bring you joy
Forgiveness - have more compassion for yourself and the people around you
You can see right away that six of those are actions we need to practice outside of a stressful moment, habits we need to build into our routine and not a quick fix when things get difficult.
Try presenting this list to your students and have them do an inventory with each step: on a scale from 1 (never) to 10 (often) how often do you practice these in a given week? Which are the hardest for you to practice? What would making more time for these in your life look like? After you’ve discussed the responses for a while, have your students set a tangible and measurable goal for themselves to practice one or more of these in the following week. Example: I’m going to set my alarm 5 minutes early and set an intention for each day. Each day I’m going to check in with a friend who means a lot to me and see how they are doing. Have them write down their goal, decorate it and place it somewhere either in the classroom or at home where they will see it regularly. Check in with them after a week and see how they did and the impact it made on them.
Try a “Breathe Mindfully” Activity
Box breathing is one of the most widely used breathing exercises in a variety of professions from counseling to professional athletes to Navy Seals to calm one’s body and narrow their focus. Breathe in for four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, hold for four seconds and repeat the cycle again.
Another exercise, one that I practice with my son, yes the one still looking for his iPad, is to pretend you are holding a flower, close your eyes and breath in through your nose as if to smell it. Hold the breath for a few seconds and then exhale long as if you are blowing out a candle, repeating several times.
I’m sure it is easy to look back on the last three years of pandemic teaching and find no shortage of physically and emotionally exhausting days. As the pandemic surged after its initial outbreak, teachers everywhere dug deep to find the strength and perseverance to reach their students which worked for awhile. Yet this emergency reservoir isn’t sustainable, for both teachers and students, which is why emotional education and especially emotional regulation is a necessary skill that needs to be taught and regularly practiced in our classrooms because “During difficult times, sometimes we just need to be there for each other.”