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Self-Regulation and Controlling Emotions

By Cultures Of Dignity | August 19, 2022

What is Self-Regulation

Self-regulation, also known as emotional regulation, is the process of consciously managing how we feel about certain emotions, thoughts, events, experiences or behaviors. In other words, self-regulation allows us to practice emotional intelligence and allows us to not let our feelings overwhelm us.

For example, practicing self-regulation can help us stop and pause when we are upset at a friend or family member, and not say something heated that we may not mean in the moment. Self-regulation can also include the practices of self-reflection, and meditation, and allows us to understand the reason behind negative emotional states like anxiety or anger.

Those that are well-versed in self-regulation are good at finding places to take a break from work, physical activity, and emotionally charged conversations in order to preserve their control over how they feel. Strong emotional regulation typically leads to better health outcomes and better academic performance, so it is critical for educators to provide students with guidance in these skills early and often4.

Conversely, low self-regulation (or poor self-regulation) can lead to unhealthy behaviors, such as fighting with friends, self-harm, or use of substances as a coping mechanism for negative emotions and thoughts. These types of behaviors typically provide immediate emotional relief but cause widespread harm in the long term, and can be hard habits to reverse. Navigating self-regulation can be challenging, so teachers and trusted adults should be prepared with a set of tools to help students work through their feelings and thoughts.

How Dignity and Social and Emotional Learning Help with Self-Regulation

Using a framework of Dignity, teachers can implement lesson plans and teachable moments to guide students through self-regulation techniques and skills. Additionally, self and emotional regulations are core components of a strong SEL program, and these processes take time to learn as a young person. Teachers that are familiar with Social and Emotional Learning can apply concepts like self-awareness, conflict resolution, and improved relationship-building to further improve students’ self-regulation. Through practice and consistency, students can improve their self-regulation and stabilize their moods, improve their academic performance, and maintain better relationships4. To best implement these strategies, it’s important to understand how our emotions affect us.

How do Emotions and Thoughts Affect Us?

As we experience emotions and feelings, our bodies react accordingly. For example, when we are happy we may either feel body sensations like excitement and energy, or relaxation of our muscles and a reduction in overall stress. On the other hand, when we experience negative emotions, such as extreme stress, we may lose our appetite and suffer from headaches, and when we experience anxiety we may tense up our muscles, and our breath becomes shallower and faster in anticipation of the perceived danger (which may be more mental in nature such as the threat of failure, not being “good enough”, or negative peer pressure). Physical feelings of our emotions can contribute to emotional outbursts or negative feelings. In other words, our bodies respond to poorly regulated emotions negatively, which, in turn, contributes to worsening our emotional states.

Younger students are particularly vulnerable to overwhelming emotions and outbursts, partially due to how their brains work and develop. Children and teenagers typically do not have a fully developed prefrontal cortex, a brain area that contributes to self-regulation by providing the ability to exercise cognitive control2. Cognitive control is a set of abilities that humans have to think and direct behavior toward actions that are specific and relevant to a given situation2. For example, we respond differently and appropriately when we are criticized by a teacher as compared to a peer, the latter will be more formal and respectful, while the former may not be. Since young people’s prefrontal cortex is not fully developed they are susceptible to poor cognitive control. If the prefrontal cortex is not engaged fully as children develop, they can have worse overall cognitive control abilities as they age and poor self-regulation2. Worse self-regulation can lead to poorer academic performance, inability to form good relationships, and mental health issues such as depression or anxiety1,3,4.

For example, anxiety at about an upcoming test can lead to extreme stress, leading to elevated heart rate and blood pressure and worsened sleep. These effects of stress can compound over time — as the student gets less sleep and feels physically worse, they lose focus when studying and completing assignments, which leads to performing poorly on the very test that they were stressed about! Instead of worrying the appropriate amount and being motivated to study in a consistent and thorough manner, the student instead may perform poorly on the test and engage in self-deprecating negative behaviors (e.g., worthlessness). These thoughts then trigger another negative cycle of emotions, and these emotions can lead to subdued behavior towards others, or emotional outbursts of frustration towards others. For example, the student may become quiet with their friends during lunch and between classes as they ruminate on their poor performance, or may become angry and start a verbal or physical fight with friends or their parents due to frustration stemming from their negative emotions. Essentially, poor self (or emotional) regulation leads to negative emotions, which consequently leads to more poor self (or emotional) regulation.

In addition to negative feelings and outbursts, low self-regulation can lead to unhealthy, impulsive behaviors in students. An inability to manage impulses can lead to students making poor decisions about their mental, physical and social health. In extreme cases, this can lead to substance abuse or self-harm as a way to distract oneself from the turmoil of emotional cycles in their head. Although unregulated emotions and feelings can negatively impact the lives of students, teachers can demonstrate and reinforce a positive relationship with emotions through the lens of Dignity and social and emotional learning where students feel empowered and able to control their outward behaviors and inward thoughts around their feelings.

Self-Regulation Examples and Activities

Using a base of Dignity and Social and Emotional Learning, we can deepen our own and our students’ understandings of what it means to be practiced in self-regulation. School days are full of teachable moments to reinforce positive thoughts, behaviors, and emotional states that contribute to developing self-regulation. By having clear action steps for identifying, understanding, and managing emotions, students can increase their agency and power over how they feel.

Below are some specific examples and actions that we can take to implement these ideas and strategies:

Expressing Feelings

There are many societal and generational pressures to not show emotions outwardly that come from our parents, peers, and pop culture. Holding in emotions with no outlet can lead to negative thinking cycles that can increase depression and anxiety. Not expressing emotions properly can also negatively impact relationships with friends, classmates, teachers and family.

Teachers can help students by creating a safe space in the classroom to share feelings with one another and make sure that each student is treated with Dignity. Whether it’s setting up specific times and group activities to share feelings with one another, or finding teachable moments for social emotional learning throughout the day, teachers can facilitate healthy emotional sharing habits (e.g., encourage students to discuss and share their feelings after an argument). If students do not feel comfortable sharing with a group, teachers can be trusted listeners to talk to. Teachers may also be trusted supporters in helping students come up with a plan to talk about their feelings with their parents or other adults. By creating a safe space, teachers actively encourage expressing feelings, allowing students to increase their awareness around self-regulation.

Putting a Name to Emotions

One effective Social Emotional Learning tactic for students to understand and overcome their own emotions is putting a name to what they are feeling. Once students can assign names to their emotions, feelings become easier to recognize, manage and control. Naming emotions helps the student understand why they are feeling the way that they are. For example, a student who is sad may be able to understand that they are missing their parents who are out of town, and that sadness is causing them to act withdrawn and unengaged. This connection can allow them to understand the “why” behind their behaviors, and allow them to express their feelings while moving past them.

To practice naming emotions, teachers can facilitate a few different exercises. Students can brainstorm a long list of different emotions, and then see which ones match with the way that they are currently feeling. Teachers can also ask students how they are feeling privately, set up a time where all students can verbally check in with themselves or others, or set up a private space in the classroom where students can write down their current feelings. When students consistently practice these activities, they develop self-awareness and habits that provide lasting improvements to self-regulation and overall mental health.

Writing About Emotions

After students develop their ability to name emotions, they can practice writing about them in more detail. Writing about emotions in the context of a situation or story can also be an outlet to let the emotion go, which can be a great relief compared to holding emotions in.

When it comes to writing down emotions, teachers can again set aside dedicated time to group or individual activities, that can be as simple as a 20 minute daily check-in to write about feelings. A group activity could look like a worksheet that has a story with a plot where the main character goes through situations that would cause them to feel a certain way, and students would identify what emotions the character could be feeling and why.

Another great use of emotional writing is in literacy or language lessons. Encouraging students to use the words that they have collectively or individually brainstormed in their every day assignments can help apply Social and Emotional Learning to a multitude of situations, and improve the depth and detail of their writing abilities. Students will better be able to understand the motives of characters in stories, the point of view of others, and most importantly, will better understand how they interpret the words that they assign to emotions and feelings, all leading to better self-regulation.

In addition to writing words to describe emotions, it can be helpful to encourage students to draw what their feelings might look like. This could include the use of colors and shapes, or the students drawing out a situation that commonly goes along with a particular emotion. Incorporating writing and drawing exercises into the day can help students define their emotions, and in turn, make them easier to manage, improving their self-regulation abilities.

Using Self-Regulation to Solve Conflict

Conflicts that arise during the school day offer a dynamic teachable moment for learning self-regulation strategies. Examples include excluding a student from his or her group of friends (social exclusion), threatening to stop talking to a friend as a form of hurtfulness and manipulation (the ”silent treatment”), or causing a verbal argument or physical fight by aggravating another student. These situations can be heated and emotionally charged, often arising from negative emotions. When we can take a second to pause and think about what the conflict is about and how we can better communicate, we are both practicing self-regulation and learning how to deal with conflict. We recommend using SEAL for conflict resolution:

  1. Stop – Ask the students involved to pause before dealing with the conflict — make sure the environment is a safe place where the two or more sides will be heard by each other.
  2. Explain what the exact situation is that’s making you upset. Help students with their self-reflection and communication skills in order to clearly address the specific conflict.
  3. Acknowledge what you did and own up.
  4. Lock In (or Lock Out) and take a break from the relationship after the Conflict Resolution. Let the words exchanged between the two or more parties in the conflict set in and gently pull away from friendships that aren’t healthy in the moment.

Using SEAL, students can become more self-aware of how their emotions can create and exacerbate conflict. Teachers can use SEAL to help students learn regulated and measured responses in the face of conflict, increasing their self-regulation abilities and empowering them to have control over their own emotions.

Goal and Expectation Settings and Healthy Habits

Teachers can help students develop healthy habits to deal with stress without being overwhelmed by negative physical and mental side-effects. For example, students that set reasonable expectations about academic performance will have an easier time reaching their goals and not being disappointed with the results of a particular grade. By setting a goal ahead of time and working towards meeting that goal, a student can break down what needs to be done into smaller, manageable action steps throughout the day, week, month or term. This results in effective stress management and stops the cycle of anxiety and stress that can arise from a project deadline or test.

Additionally, setting reasonable expectations can soften the impact of a disappointing event, like a poor score on a test, not making an athletic team, or missing out on a friend’s birthday party due to a family emergency. Softening this emotional impact makes it easier to control any emotions and negative thoughts associated with the disappointment, and allows students to engage their self-regulation skills without spiraling into an emotional outburst.

How can Teachers Benefit from Self-Regulation?

Teachers practicing self-regulation can benefit from improved mental health, and provide an example for students to look up to in the classroom. For example, learning to “check your baggage” before a lesson is an example of consciously regulating your feelings and not letting them affect others negatively. Sharing your feelings with fellow teachers and administrators, your friends, and your loved ones can put you in a better spot to focus on teaching and guiding your students. Taking a second to pause and collect your thoughts if a class session gets out of control can also ensure that your outward communication with your students is not impacted by your internal emotional state, especially if it is negative (e.g., frustration or anger). Teachers who practice self-regulation can be role models for students while improving their own health outcomes, freeing up time and energy for what matters the most to them.

How to Stay in the Loop — Dignity, Social Emotional Learning, and Self-Regulation

The team at Cultures of Dignity are experts on Dignity, Social Emotional Learning, and self-regulation and are happy to help you with your journey to improve your skillsets in these critical emotional and self regulation areas. Follow our free newsletter for the latest on these educational topics, and check out our blog for more deep dives on teachable moments and lesson plans for your students. Reach out to us at any time to learn more about what we do and how we can work with you to meet your goals as an educator!

Works Cited

  1. Kitsantas, A., Winsler, A., & Huie, F. (2008). Self-Regulation and Ability Predictors
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    THROUGH ADOLESCENCE. Advances in Child Development and Behavior, 37, 233–278.
  3. McClelland, M. M., & Cameron, C. E. (2011). Self-regulation and academic
    achievement in elementary school children. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 2011(133), 29–44.
  4. Thierry, K. L., Bryant, H. L., Nobles, S. S., & Norris, K. S. (2016). Two-Year Impact of
    a Mindfulness-Based Program on Preschoolers’ Self-Regulation and Academic Performance. Early Education and Development, 27(6), 805–821.

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