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In classrooms nationally, we are seeing extreme rates of teacher stress and burnout, children navigating anxiety and trauma, behavioral issues, conflicts with peers, and a significant decrease in empathy and prosocial skills. Teachers feel unable to manage their own heightened emotions let alone redirect children’s behaviors or support their big feelings.
What all these pieces of the current reality have in common is a glaring need for strategies and tools to support emotional regulation and problem-solving – two incredibly important skills that connect and build off each other to set children (and adults) up for success in school and their everyday lives.
In this blog, we will define emotional regulation, explain the connection between emotions, learning, and problem-solving, and provide strategies, tools, and suggestions for educators and caregivers to support the development of these important skills in children. Be sure to download the MakePeace Kit to support conflict resolution in Preschoolers and up.
Emotional regulation is one of the four quadrants of emotional intelligence, which includes emotional identification, understanding, expression, and regulation. It refers to our ability to manage and cope with heightened emotions, both positive and negative.
Starting from birth, children need adult guidance, modeling, and support to foster each of the skills of emotional intelligence. When it comes to emotional regulation, this process begins as co-regulation. In the heat of an emotional moment, co-regulation from a trusted adult can look like:
Over time, the modeling and guidance that adults provide from co-regulation will eventually lead to children’s development of self-regulation, making it easier for them to reach for tools and strategies to calm their bodies and minds during emotional moments independently.
The Connection Between Emotions & Learning
Our emotions and our ability to learn and problem-solve are deeply interconnected. When the amygdala (the “feeling” part of the brain) is overwhelmed with intense emotions, the prefrontal cortex (the “thinking” part of the brain) cannot function properly.
This means that when a child is emotionally dysregulated, the emotion takes control, making executive functions like learning new things, processing information, following instructions, communicating, and problem-solving impossible.
If we put this information into the context of our current reality, what we are seeing in classrooms all over starts to make a lot more sense. Stress, trauma, and anxiety from the pandemic, socio-economic hardship, and navigating death, loss, and family changes are all things that can contribute to emotional dysregulation. Without the skills of emotional regulation, children cannot move past their emotions in the heat of the moment.
The result? Children express their heightened emotions in inappropriate ways or the only ways they know how: hitting, biting, yelling, meltdowns, and social withdrawal.
As caregivers and educators of young children, it is our responsibility to introduce, model, and guide children through strategies to help them manage and cope with their heightened emotions from their earliest years so those emotions don’t take over.
Practice Emotional Identification. Using visual tools like Our Emotions Cards each and every day can help children better identify and understand what they are feeling. Keeping tools like this in your home or classroom means they can also be used in the heat of the moment to help children label whatever overwhelming emotion they may be feeling. Once the emotion can be identified, it becomes much easier to manage.
Create a Calm Down Corner. When our emotions feel out of control, having a safe and quiet space with tools to help us calm down can make a huge difference. Find a space in your classroom or home that is away from high-traffic areas. Include comfort items like a soft rug, pillows, and a blanket along with a basket for family photos, tissues, and squeeze toys. Encourage children to visit this space whenever they are experiencing big feelings and guide them to talk about what they are feeling once they are ready.
Regulation tools like a Calm Down Bottle can help children focus their attention on something to relieve anxiety, shake out excess energy, or count to 5 while taking deep breaths. You can also use bubbles to practice taking deep breaths with children both in and out of the heat of the moment!
Participate in Regulation Activities Every Day. Taking deep breaths is just the first step towards feeling better, and there are so many other ways to make regulation fun! Try calming yoga poses, listening to gentle music, turning off the lights, and sharing what helps you feel calm.
When it comes to supporting children’s problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills, it’s hard to know where to start.
Modeling and guiding problem-solving strategies (both in and out of the heat of the moment) and narrating the feelings and choices of everyone involved will be incredibly helpful.
Applying these strategies to support a conflict between children is what we call a MakePeace Corner.
When a conflict arises between children, teachers can support their emotional regulation and conflict-resolution skills by holding a MakePeace Corner in a calm area away from what is causing the conflict and following the MakePeace Process:
Conflicts can cause heightened feelings of anger, sadness, and frustration. Before children can begin problem-solving, their minds and bodies need to be calm. This is the emotional regulation piece that is so critical to problem-solving and conflict resolution.
Guide children in taking big belly breaths together with you. Offer additional choices to encourage emotional regulation if needed, such as squeezing a pillow or stress toy, taking a sip of water, looking at a family photo, or getting a hug from a teacher:
“Uh-oh! I see there is a problem happening with my friends in the block center. Let’s pause what we are doing and walk over to the cozy corner to talk about it. I can see that you are feeling so upset. Let's take a few deep breaths together so we can talk about what happened.”
Once children are calm, move on to Step 2.
What happened? If children are able to talk about what happened on their own, guide them to share by asking open-ended questions. For younger children or children who need some help, support them by sharing what you observed:
“Can you tell me about what happened in the block center with your friend?”
“I saw you both fighting over the triangle block and grabbing it from each other in the block center. Grabbing is not okay. Let’s talk about what that made you feel.”
Once all children involved understand what the problem is, move on to Step 3.
Next is connecting what happened to children’s emotions to support children’s emotional understanding and reinforce understanding of cause and effect. Invite both children to take turns sharing the emotions they feel as a result of the problem or conflict. If children need support identifying their emotions, narrate what you observe about their facial expressions and body language, and use visual representations of different emotions to help (see begin to MakePeace Table):
“You and your friend were fighting over the block. What did that make you feel?”
“I can see tears in your eyes, clenched fists, and a big frown on your face. Did the fight over the block make you feel angry? Let’s find the picture of “angry” together.”
Once both children have shared what they feel, move on to Step 4.
A big part of finding a solution to a problem is ensuring that everyone involved feels heard. Step 4 of the MakePeace process allows each child to share their own experience of what the problem is and their own feelings. Teachers can guide children to listen to others and repeat children’s words if necessary to encourage perspective-taking.
“Your friend shared that he felt sad because you wouldn’t share the block with him. If someone wasn’t sharing with you, what would that make you feel?”
“When you grabbed the block away from your friend, it made him feel angry. If someone grabbed something from your hands, what would that make you feel?”
Once each child is given the opportunity to share, listen, and better understand, move on to Step 5.
Depending on the ages and abilities of the children in your care, this step can happen in different ways:
For children who need more support: offer two choices that could resolve the conflict and give children agency by asking them to choose: “Okay, we can either choose to set a timer and take turns using the triangle block, or the two of you can work together on building a structure with all the blocks! What is your choice?”
For children who don't need as much support: Ask children open-ended questions, prompt them to take turns thinking of ideas, and talk about how each plan would work: “How do you think we can solve this problem? What would you and your friend need to do for this idea to work? Does this seem like a fair idea for both of you?”
Once children have had the chance to make a choice or brainstorm ideas with your support, move on to Step 6.
Time to make a choice! Encourage children to choose the best plan that you discussed in Step 5. Then, move on to Step 7.
This is an important step because it shows children that our feelings change, and prickly feelings that can arise during a conflict don’t last forever. In fact, talking through a problem can often help us feel better!
Invite both children to take turns sharing the emotions they feel after solving the problem or conflict. If children need support identifying their emotions, narrate what you observe about their facial expressions and body language, and use visual representations of different emotions to help (see begin to MakePeace Table):
“What do you feel now that we have made a choice and solved the problem? Are your feelings different than before?”
“I noticed you are no longer clenching your fists or frowning! Are you feeling less angry than before? What are you feeling now?”
It is important to remember that the end goal of the MakePeace Process is not for everyone to feel happy. Solving a problem doesn’t always mean that everyone gets their way, and this may not lead to feeling happy – but that’s okay! As long as everyone has a chance to feel heard, it is okay to leave feeling less sad or less angry than before.
Leaving the MakePeace Corner does not mean the problem is over! Following through on the agreed-upon plan is just as important as finding a solution. Teachers can remind children about the plan, ask what they are doing to make sure the plan happens, and even return to the MakePeace Corner if the plan didn’t work.
The begin to MakePeace Table is a unique ECSEL tool that brings children together and guides them through the 8-step MakePeace Process. It provides a safe space for children (ages 2.5+) to regulate heightened emotions and begin to solve problems and resolve conflicts. Through consistent use of this table, children can learn to develop important skills including regulation, perspective-taking, constructive communication, negotiation, and compromise.
When a conflict arises between children, adults can guide children over to the table to begin calming down and talking about what happened. At the MakePeace Table, children are able to share what they are feeling by selecting the emotion card that matches their feeling. Children place the cards on a Feelings Thermometer to indicate the intensity of their feelings in child-friendly language: tiny, small, medium, big, and ginormous.
From there, children are led through the rest of the MakePeace Process by a caregiver or teacher until a solution is found. Teachers are encouraged to check in with children after leaving the table to make sure they have followed through with the agreed-upon plan.
We invite you to share your experiences and tips for teaching emotional regulation and problem-solving in the comments section below. Your insight could inspire other educators and caregivers on their emotional intelligence journey! Additionally, please explore our resources related to emotional regulation and problem-solving skills to further enrich your toolkit for shaping young minds. Together, we can make a positive impact on future generations.