Read This to Discover a Powerful Method to Teach Children Emotional Regulation

This past week I worked with my 5th-grade students on developing coping strategies when they “flip their lids.” Child psychiatrist and author of Hindsight and Brainstorm Daniel Siegel describe the process that leads to explosive anger as “flipping your lid” and something that occurs when individuals haven’t yet learned how to regulate their emotions effectively.

When our students (or we) are overwhelmed by emotions, especially fear and anger, our brains turn off the thinking part, and our natural primal impulses will cause us to “flip our lids” in the form of fight, flee, or freeze. If humans are in danger, automatically responding without thinking is helpful because taking action could be life-saving, like in the event of a fire. However, if the threat isn’t real, such as worry over a pop quiz or forgotten homework, responding as though it were a real threat could be problematic and even dangerous.  

Teach students how their brain functions and how they can learn to control their impulses. 

I worked with my students on how to turn the thinking brain back when they feel threatened by something that isn’t dangerous so that they can make the best choices that will serve them in the long-term. I used the “Flipping a Lid” lesson plan developed by The Responsive Counselor and found it well worth the money spent. The lesson explains why we respond so intensely to perceived threats and provides strategies for calming down.     

Help students learn to keep their “lids” on and stay calm. 

It is always best to try to help your students calm their bodies before they actually “flip their lid.” I have used several printed and laminated cards over the years to serve as an early warning system for my students who are likely to have an outburst when they become frustrated or angry. My students are given a calm down card and are then asked to present this card to their teacher or put it on their desk as they make their way to the specially designated chill zone when they notice they are becoming upset. I teach my students how to recognize the tightness in their chests, the speed of their breathing, or the way they are clenching their fists as signs that they are becoming agitated and need to remove themselves from the situation before they create a disruption. The card speaks for the student when they are unable to speak for themselves. 

Provide a safe space for students to regroup and regain their composure. 

Most of the teachers I have worked with over the years have been receptive to the calm down cards because they would rather a student take a short break to cool down than to become so agitated they flip a desk or threaten their classmates. Our school has a lot of the features of a trauma-informed school, specifically our “chill zones,” which are dedicated zones in the classroom for students to use and calm their bodies. When students go to our “chill zones,” they are asked to think through the choices they made, how they felt (using feeling faces provided), and what might be a better choice the next time this issue occurs. One of the best resources I have found to support problem-solving, and a thoughtful and reflective environment is “The Cool Down Spot,” created by Once Upon a Learning Adventure.       

Provide resources for parents and teachers.

I believe all parents want the best for their children, even if that doesn’t seem like the case. Some parents don’t have the skills needed (yet) to bring out the best in their children. Following each lesson, I send an email to each of my parents to enhance their learning on each particular subject I’ve taught their students so that they can reinforce the same concepts at home. While a tad arduous to do this after each lesson, I have found that parents respond well to information and often feel more connected to me as a counselor and are more apt to seek me out because they are receiving regular communication from me. Following this lesson, I found an article by Karen young called Building Resilience in Children-20 Practical, Powerful Strategies (Backed by Science) in which she helps families build resilience at home that might be worth sharing with your parents. 

Strategies you can share with parents and teachers to help their child turn their brains back on and calm down.

  • Give space and allow children time to process their emotions safely.
  • Remind students to breathe slowly and deliberately (4 seconds in 4 seconds out x 6).
  • Help them notice specific objects in the room (How many green objects do you see? What do you hear?) will help them “ground” to the room.  
  • Encourage students to talk to someone about how they feel.