- About Us
- What We Do
- Programs & Solutions
- Blogs & News
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and to set the tone for the season and beyond, this blog is going to focus on an important part of our own mental health and well-being and the mental health and well-being of children: emotional regulation.
Many children are currently navigating emotional meltdowns, social conflicts, chaotic transitions, and difficulty focusing or paying attention at school. At home, parents and caregivers have shared that children are also dealing with the emotions that come with sibling relationships, tantrums while getting ready for bedtime, refusing to leave the house for school, and attention needs that result in frequent clinging to family members.
If this sounds anything like your own experience, you are certainly not alone, and all of these behaviors can be tied back to emotional regulation (or lack thereof). That’s why teaching emotional regulation skills (like being able to manage emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, impulse control, and persevering in the face of challenges) is so important for children’s overall mental health and well-being. These skills lay the foundation for children to better navigate life’s ups and downs.
But how do we meet children where they are now and support children’s mental health through emotional regulation? Why is it so important to do this? What strategies can we use? Keep reading for the answers to these questions and some fun emotional regulation activities you can start doing with children right away!
Emotional regulation is our ability to cope with and manage our heightened emotions, both positive (e.g., excitement) and negative (e.g., anger). It is one of the four quadrants of emotional intelligence and an important skill that also affects children’s ability to learn, problem-solve, and understand both their own emotions and those of others.
Let’s break down the science behind emotional regulation and how it is both related and important to mental health and learning. In our brains, the amygdala is responsible for our emotions – this is the “feeling” part of the brain. The amygdala communicates emotional meaning to the “thinking” part of our brain, known as the prefrontal cortex, which helps to regulate our emotional responses.
These two parts of our brains are deeply interconnected, which means that when we experience positive emotional experiences, we are helping to strengthen our cognition and ability to learn. This also means that when we are emotionally dysregulated, we are unable to access the part of our brain responsible for executive functioning skills like thinking clearly, listening, paying attention, and focusing on learning.
This is why when we give children the support and strategies they need to regulate their emotions, we are setting them up for mental health and well-being from their earliest years. Strengthening emotional regulation skills means children are more likely to persist in the face of disappointment or frustration through problem-solving, will have more mental space available for learning new things, and will have strategies in place to calm down when emotions escalate. We can start to support children’s emotional regulation through co-regulation with the eventual goal being self-regulation.
Co-regulation means guiding young children through their emotional experiences and helping them calm down or return to a regulated state. Co-regulation happens within the context of responsive relationships, which means caregivers meet children where they are with a calm tone of voice, soothing touch, and letting them know they are seen and safe.
For example, say you are a toddler teacher and it’s time to clean up. You see a few children cleaning up blocks in the block area, and as one child reaches for the triangle block to put away, another child picks it up and puts it on the shelf. Disaster has struck, because that first child really wanted to put that particular block away, and the result is a completely dysregulated meltdown. As the teacher, what do you do?
You walk over calmly, get down on the child’s level, and acknowledge what just happened in a gentle voice:
“Oh no, I can see you are feeling so angry and sad because you wanted to put that block away.”
As you validate the child’s feelings, you can offer physical support to help them start to calm down. Have them sit on your lap, offer a hug, rub their back, or even walk them to a quieter area of the room. Model taking deep breaths and encourage them to do the same. Let them know you are here to listen to their words once they are calm and don’t rush the process. That is co-regulation.
During this process, children are looking to trusted adults for what to do next. Heightened emotions can be so overwhelming, and children may feel out of control without any idea how to calm down. The way you respond, the strategies you use, and how you guide them through these experiences will teach them important skills on their way to developing self-regulation.
Self-regulation is one's ability to manage their own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. It is an outgrowth of co-regulation, meaning that children learn their own emotional regulation skills by observing the gentle guidance of responsive adults during emotional moments. An important part of supporting children in developing self-regulation skills is making sure that we as adults, caregivers, and educators have our own self-regulation strategies in place first. It’s impossible to give to others when our own buckets are empty.
We now know that learning new things, paying attention, and listening are that much more challenging to do when we are dysregulated. Therefore, the best time for teaching children regulation strategies is not in the heat of the moment, but rather during calm moments when they are more open to learning.
This teaching can happen in many different ways! One way is to intentionally plan or create an activity specifically around regulation strategies like deep breathing, mindfulness, sensory exploration, and movement. But remember, young children are like sponges – the way you act, react, and respond are also all teachable moments, which is why having your own strategies in place is so important.
The next time you are feeling dysregulated, model your favorite calm-down strategy for children. For example:
|“I am feeling so overwhelmed right now and I have too much energy in my body. I need to take three deep breaths to feel better. Can you all do that with me?”|
It may not seem like much, but the more you do this in front of children, the more likely it will be that they use those same strategies on their own when they feel overwhelmed, upset, or dysregulated.
When it comes to emotional regulation, consistency is key. No matter what strategies you use, children need to trust that someone or something will be there to help them when they are dysregulated. The more you build these strategies into your everyday routine, the more likely it is that children will eventually start to seek them out on their own.
When children are dysregulated, keeping them in the space or environment that is causing the dysregulation can make matters worse. In a classroom, that can be compounded by other children playing, making noise, or walking around the child who needs support. Having an area in your home or classroom that is specifically dedicated to calming down can make a huge difference. This does not need to be an entire room or large section of the classroom, but something that we like to call a “cozy corner” or “calm-down corner.”
A cozy corner should be just that – cozy! Include items like pillows, a blanket, or even a favorite lovey or stuffed animal that children can seek comfort in. This space should also be away from any busy or high-traffic areas in your classroom or home so it can be as quiet and calm as possible. You can also choose to include a music player or speakers to play soothing music or sounds, a box of tissues for tears and runny noses and a comfy chair or couch to sit or lay down on.
A calm-down kit can live in your cozy corner to support children in regulating their big feelings, but it can also come in handy if you do not have the space for a full cozy corner. A calm-down kit can include items such as:
A Calm Down Bottle or sensory bottle – perfect for something to hold, shake, or focus on visually while taking deep breaths.
Family photos – to comfort children when they are missing someone while they are at school or an unfamiliar place
Comfort items – a blanket, stuffed animal, or lovey that is special
Books about feelings – to read to children and help them better identify and understand their own emotions
Transitions are a breeding ground for emotional dysregulation. Whether it’s a clean-up transition and children do not want to stop playing, moving from one activity to the next when they don’t want to, or trying to get out the door in the morning to go to school, it’s hard to predict how children will respond. To get in front of this, we can practice those challenging transitions out of the heat of the moment and incorporate helpful tools to make transitions easier.
Visual schedules are an amazing tool that can work for your entire classroom or one child who needs a reminder about what comes next. A visual schedule uses pictures of different parts of your day that can be arranged and rearranged to meet the needs of children. During calm moments, bring out the visual schedule to remind children when the next transition is. You can even put children in charge of changing the visual schedule once the transition is complete!
Be sure to follow our Youtube for more educational resources!
Sand timers or digital timers are great tools to help with transitions and mitigate anxiety. Asking children to clean up right away without warning can escalate emotions quickly. Letting children know that they have “five more minutes” not only cues them to be aware that a transition will be happening soon, but they will also have a visual reminder of time passing with the timer.
are games that can help children’s emotional regulation. Games like these challenge children to control their impulses, wait their turn, and follow instructions – skills that exercise both the “thinking” and “feeling” parts of our brains! Playing these games can help children practice regulating their excitement and big feelings, waiting, and transitioning to new tasks.
Regulation is never one-size-fits-all. Different children will have different needs when they are emotionally dysregulated, so it’s a good idea to have a variety of choices for these moments. Some children respond really well to guided deep breathing, while others may need to move their bodies, take space, or engage in a different sensory experience. Take a look at some of our favorite emotional regulation and mindfulness activities for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, Pre-K students, and up!
Deep Belly Breaths - With this mindful movement activity, teachers and caregivers can support children in beginning to learn how to take deep breaths. Guide children to find their bellies and use visual props of flowers and candles to demonstrate what our bodies do when we breathe in and out.
Calm Down Bottler Exploration - This music and movement activity utilizes mirrors, Calm Down Bottles, and Our Emotions Cards – ECSEL tools designed to help children begin to identify, understand, and regulate their emotions. Play different songs about emotions while children are in front of the mirror and model different facial expressions in the songs for children to practice. Use the Calm Down Bottle as an additional sensory element for children to explore with their emerging fine and gross motor skills.
ABC Breathing - This activity combines story time and mindfulness techniques to help young children begin to understand self-regulation. While reading Breathe, Baby, Breathe: An ABC Guide to Mindfulness by Amanda Lynch, teachers and caregivers can identify different emotions in the story for children’s early social-emotional skills, prompt children to express the different feelings, and introduce the mindfulness techniques in the story as strategies children can use on their own!
Dinosaur Yoga - Let’s channel our inner-dinosaur feelings into mindful dinosaur movements! Support children in taking a mindful moment to stretch like dinosaurs and identify their feelings while introducing yoga and deep breathing as regulation strategies.
Shake Your Sillies Out - This activity uses music and movement to help children better understand what our bodies do when we feel happy, sad, angry, and scared, and how we can “shake it out” to feel better when our feelings get too big. Support children in practicing how to shake their sillies out in different ways when they need to calm down.
Deep Breath Paintings - Learning how to take deep breaths in and out is an important first step when teaching children about self-regulation. When our bodies are calm, we are better able to talk about our feelings! With this creative art activity, guide children to practice deep breathing as a regulation technique, then use this same technique to move paint around paper and create unique works of art.
Deep Breaths Pom-Pom Maze - Taking deep breaths is a great strategy to help calm our bodies and begin to manage any overwhelming or heightened emotions. This activity combines deep breathing with creativity, engineering, and teamwork to help children strengthen their emotional regulation while practicing problem-solving and prosocial skills to get a pom-pom through their own mazes.
Rainforest Yoga - Yoga is an incredible outlet for both physical and mental health. This yoga activity focuses on different rainforest animal poses for children to practice as a way to move mindfully and calm down. Throughout the activity, teachers and caregivers are prompted to check in with children’s feelings so they can see how feelings change after using a regulation strategy like yoga.
Ocean Calm Down Stations - Regulation is never one-size-fits-all, and with this activity, you can set up different stations to show children that there are different things we can do when we need to calm our bodies. This ocean-themed activity can be adapted to be centered on anything children are interested in (e.g., animals, dinosaurs, vehicles), and includes calm-down choices like sensory bin exploration, stretching and breathing, cozy reading time, and watercolor painting.
Mindfulness Nature Adventure - Practicing mindfulness can help us feel centered, more present, and more in touch with our feelings and emotions. What better way to feel more attuned to ourselves than by going out into nature? Get outside and guide children to channel their energy through their senses, express their feelings appropriately, and learn a regulation strategy with this calming mindfulness activity.