Did you know it takes about 25 years before we can fully regulate our own emotions? Still, you can get started right now with simple, nurturing strategies that have been shown to help children practice and develop emotional regulation over time. Whether you are planning ahead to create a positive learning environment, or looking for ways to address difficult emotions and behaviors, keep in mind these 6 Innovageous recommendations for supporting children with emotional regulation and development. Along with the steps below, these Innovageous resources and our virtual trainings help families, educators, and school leaders support children with age-appropriate emotional development.
1. Start with you
Before you can help children regulate their emotions, you as the adult must model emotional regulation. To do this, start with awareness. Ask yourself, “What makes me mad, sad, excited, or anxious?” and “What helps me calm down?” It’s best to not only think about these answers, but also to write them down and reflect on them. Once you have identified your triggers and your go-to calming strategies, name them when they happen in front of your children. Children learn when ideas and emotions are pointed out to them explicitly. For example, during a stressful moment you might say, “I am frustrated right now. This technology keeps freezing on me and I need it to work.” Then, follow it up with, “I am going to close my eyes, take 3 deep breaths, and then try again when I am calmer.”
2. Learn about age-appropriate expectations
It’s important to understand what to expect (and not expect) from babies, toddlers, pre-schoolers, school-age children, and teenagers, and how you can support them appropriately. Knowing what to expect, and what is unrealistic, will help you anticipate challenges, avoid situations that are too difficult, and regulate your own frustration when interacting with your students and children.
Emotional Regulation Skills
What does Adult Support Look Like?
2 to 3 Years
Expressing Emotions: At this age, children experiment with how and when they express their feelings. A wide range is expected and “normal”, including tantrums, drawing, retelling a scary story over and over, hiding, hitting, and more.
Co-Regulating Emotions: Since children ages 3 to 5 are starting to enter into more complex social situations that come with school (sharing, taking turns, listening, cooperative play, etc.), they can learn simple regulation strategies with step-by-step guidance from adults.
Starting to Self-Regulate: In elementary school, children can start self-regulating their emotions in peer situations, especially aggressive impulses, such as hitting, kicking, spitting, throwing.
Regulating Emotions with Peer Groups: In addition to the elementary school skills, pre-teens can name and understand the idea of having “mixed” emotions, as well as regulate their emotions in peer group situations.
Connecting Emotions to Decision-Making: During the teenage years, the brain is just starting to connect emotional regulation to decision-making. For this reason, teens take more risks than adults with more developed emotional regulation skills because their actions and impulses are more influenced by emotions and social pressure.
3. Identify emotions regularly
A simple way to get started helping children manage their emotions is to give them the language to identify them. Point out to children when you see them happy, sad, excited, angry, worried, frustrated, confused, proud, hurt, or even more complex emotions for older children. Talk about how characters in books, TV shows, and movies feel, and how you know. Use kid-friendly visuals they can think about to share their emotions, such as a thermometer or colors.
4. Create a safe space for all feelings
Try not to use words that shame, blame, or judge emotions. Instead, name and validate all emotions. For example, say, “I see that you’re feeling angry because they took the color you were going to use,” or “Yes, that is disappointing! I get disappointed when plans change, too.” Don’t say, “Uh oh, you’re feeling angry. That’s not good,” or “Don’t be sad.” When children are safe to feel their emotions fully without judgment, they are more likely to admit those feelings and develop healthy regulation strategies.
5. Make a plan
Be proactive and have conversations with your students or children before they get mad, sad, or anxious. Talk about and write down their triggers, as well as appropriate ways to express their feelings. Make a drawing, poster, or other visual reminder of their plan that includes how they are feeling and a few options for what they can do when these situations arise.
6. Celebrate the positive
Don’t forget to give praise and encouragement, both in times when children regulate their emotions independently, and when they make small steps towards self-regulation. Remember it takes well into adulthood for our brains to be fully developed, and perfection is not the goal. Notice when children turn things around from a difficult situation, and share how proud you are of them when they are successful.
Innovageous is here to help! Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Innovageous website to learn more about our interactive professional learning for PK-12 teachers, family sessions and toolkits for caregivers, and coaching and thought-partnership for leaders related to supporting social and emotional learning for children.