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September 6, 2018
Vol. 14
No. 1

Managing the Classroom by Teaching Emotional Regulation

    Classroom Management
      In study after study, we see the important link between emotional regulation and learning:
      • In 2007, researchers stated, "Our findings suggest that children who have difficulty regulating their emotions have trouble learning in the classroom and are less productive and accurate when completing assignments," (Graziano, Reavis, Keane, & Calkins, 2007).
      • "The emotional brain, the limbic system, has the power to open or close access to learning, memory, and the ability to make novel connections," (<LINK URL="https://www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/the-role-of-emotions-in-learning/" LINKTARGET="_blank">Vail, 2017</LINK>).
      • "The ability to regulate emotions is an essential prerequisite for adaptive development and behavior" (<LINK URL="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259563853_EMOTION_REGULATION_ADAPTIVE_LEARNING_STRATEGIES_IN_PORTUGUESE_ADOLESCENTS_A_STUDY_WITH_THE_REGULATION_EMOTION_QUESTIONNAIRE-2" LINKTARGET="_blank">Sousa Machado &amp; Pardal, 2013</LINK>).
      More simply, our emotions drive our behaviors. As educators, we must teach emotional regulation to our students for them to achieve goal-directed and purposeful behavior. We must equip our students with the ability to self-identify and manage their emotions so that they can make good choices if we expect a positive classroom environment.
      Many years ago, we worked with a student who cried multiple times per day, every day, in his classroom. Regardless of the activity, time, or location, his response to any situation was to cry. His emotional outbursts affected everyone around him—he literally stopped students' learning. As a result, he was often removed from the classroom to work in a separate setting. Really, this just masked the situation because his frequent moves continued to cause a stop in momentum. In addition, other students began to act out. It was a huge issue. We needed to institute a change in how we were managing the entire classroom. It was clear that the traditional system of behavior management was not sufficient. Behavior plans and incentives weren't enough and often weren't effective.
      To address this issue, it was time for a classroom management overhaul.
      Since then, we've designed and developed classroom-friendly ways to teach kids about their emotions and to learn to pair their emotions with their behavior. This refocusing on teaching skills versus monitoring behavior results creates lasting change. Students have become their own emotional managers. We have developed students who are empowered to drive their own learning and show resilience in times of challenge.
      When students have gained understanding of their emotions and learned to manage them, they can focus on learning. How do we develop students who can manage their emotions and be ready to learn? It's a process of changing the focus to address the underlying emotions driving the behavior instead of just focusing on the observed behavior. By focusing on the emotions driving the behavior, students are able to understand the source of their actions and choose new, on-target behavior for the situation. This puts the power of change with the student.
      The first step is looking at the classroom as a whole. Start by observing, identifying, and recording the challenges in your classroom. Are there certain times when behavior is the most difficult? Certain students? Subjects? Begin keeping a record of incidents; even small items can help. Spotting trends, identifying potential causes, and sharing data with your team makes a big difference.
      In addition, there are easy things teachers can do to help manage the environment that will bring about change. A few minutes of purposeful activity can help kids move their rational brains into gear. Plan regular desk rearrangements to mix students with different personalities and working styles. Build in some time for kids to move around. Their increased focus will more than offset the few minutes of time dedicated to these activities. We also suggest a minute of mindfulness at least once a day (a quick 30–60 seconds of deep, calm breathing). All of these can help keep the tone of your room calm and keep everyone's emotions in check.
      That said, you are likely to have a few students who show the most difficulty managing their behavior and often affect other students. This is your next focus. Identify a few students who really need a makeover. The big change is that now, instead of rewarding behavior, reward kids for identifying their emotions and associated behaviors.
      Start the journey of teaching emotional regulation by modeling to the class: "I'm feeling frustrated this morning because I got stuck in traffic. So, I couldn't get to finish a project I needed to finish, and so I yelled at Mrs. Smith when she asked me for my project."
      Remember, when modeling, it is important to make sure that you're explicitly identifying your emotion and linked behavior. Next show them how to manage the emotion (frustration) in a more classroom-appropriate way. Everyone will have different strategies. Some may count to 10, do a school job, or get a drink of water.
      Over time and with practice, these strategies will begin to allow students to manage their emotions. Behavior doesn't change overnight, but when you give kids the steps, the language, and the replacement strategies to do it, good things will happen.
      Developing the foundational life skills that enable emotional regulation is the key to student-driven classroom management. With a few changes in the way we look at behavior and when we emphasize teaching kids to identify and manage their emotions, we can make significant changes to everyone's behavior in the classroom. The goal is students who are ready to learn and can drive their own future. The next time you see a student balling up a piece of paper and throwing it to the ground, don't address the paper. Teach the student to understand the emotion behind the action, and you will change the behavior for good.
      References

      Graziano, P. A., Reavis, R. D., Keane, S. P., &amp; Calkins, S. D. (2007). The role of emotion regulation and children's early academic success. Journal of School Psychology, 45(1), 3–19.

      Vail, P. L. (2017). The role of emotions in learning. Retrieved from https://www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/the-role-of-emotions-in-learning/

      Sousa Machado, T., &amp; Pardal, A. (2013). Emotion regulation and adaptive learning strategies in Portuguese adolescents: A study with the regulation emotion questionnaire-2 [conference paper]. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259563853_EMOTION_REGULATION_ADAPTIVE_LEARNING_STRATEGIES_IN_PORTUGUESE_ADOLESCENTS_A_STUDY_WITH_THE_REGULATION_EMOTION_QUESTIONNAIRE-2

      Lori Jackson is a contributing writer for ASCD.

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