Helping Students Peacefully Engage with Emotions - ASCD
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October 24, 2019

Helping Students Peacefully Engage with Emotions

Social-emotional learning

For today's kids, who face an unending barrage of digital stimuli, authentic forms of communication and emotional connection have some steep competition. Building a classroom community that focuses on healthy social and emotional development for children of all ages starts with the commitment of a classroom teacher who understands that children are not simply "little adults." Children at every level of development need support, encouragement, and opportunities to practice managing their emotions.

Research shows that when classroom teachers embed social and emotional learning into everyday learning, young people can understand that feelings are normal and practice strategies and reflection to manage them. This routine supports healthy development for children of all ages. One strategy that supports emotional regulation is a "PeacePlace," a nonpunitive area in a classroom that allows students to step away when they feel angry, stressed, or sad and incorporates strategies for reflection. It's also a place for a restorative chat with the teacher without punishment, which allows kids to understand their own emotions separate from any consequences that may connect to inappropriate behavior.

As a principal, I led schoolwide implementation of a PeacePlace strategy. We built in professional development, coaching, and practice over two years to support both teachers and students with emotional regulation. That work grew into an initiative with Peaceful Schools. Now, I work with 10 schools to create peaceful classrooms that work for a community's specific needs.

Creating a PeacePlace

The purpose of the PeacePlace—to reflect and process an emotional situation—reduces the time it takes to return to the classroom community and restore relationships. When implementing a PeacePlace as a schoolwide strategy, it is important to support teachers in developing a toolbox that includes strategies for restorative chats without judgement and gives them opportunities to practice using de-escalation, reflection, and other strategies.

I pulled from a variety of resources in developing the capacity of our teachers in the building I led, including the books Circle Forward by Carolyn Boyes-Watson and Kay Pranis and Getting Classroom Management Right by Carol Miller Lieber. We also empowered teachers to share successes and areas for improvement so they could problem-solve with their colleagues.

Each PeacePlace can look different, as long as it provides children with a positive and supportive space away from the emotion or conflict. Calming strategies, such a calm-down bottles (an interactive tool that offers a visual and tactile way to practice breathing and de-escalation) or mandalas, allow children to calm down enough to process their emotions alone or with a supportive adult.

Include items like a bean bag or soft pillows or a comfy chair to make sure it is inviting. Books, kinetic sand, 3D puzzles, or other sensory items move students from the emotional part of their brain to the rational side of their brain. Because each student is different, what works will vary. If a child is struggling with emotional regulation (responding to a range of experiences in acceptable ways), he might practice Figure 8 Breathing (tracing a figure 8 on a card while breathing slowly in and out) or he might draw a picture before talking with the teacher. For a child struggling with self-regulation (controlling behavior or thoughts), using meditation to increase focus or kinetic sand to help “downshift” from extreme anxiety may provide relief.

To try this strategy in your own classroom, keep in mind the following acronym:

Practice skills before asking students to use independently.Emotional regulation can be improved with practice and support.Age-appropriate strategies and materials that support de-escalation are available.Comfortable space that is not punitive.Engage positively with the student when they are ready to chat.PLACE for reflection and time to regroup.

Practice, Rehearsal, and Reflection

Adults accept cussing, venting, drinking, or stress eating as acceptable ways to process our feelings. We are less willing to allow kids those same opportunities because their expression can be a distraction, especially in school. But just like adults, kids need to feel safe in order to reflect on and learn from emotional experiences. They also can't manage extreme reactions to their emotions at the same time they are learning these skills.

That's why teaching strategies for emotional regulation, like de-escalation, breathing, meditation, using I-language, and even writing or drawing about feelings, must all be taught separately from an emotional experience before students can use a PeacePlace for independent practice. I'd suggest teaching one strategy at a time and having students practice identifying their feelings, such as during morning meeting or circle time. As students begin to master the skills, they can be moved into the PeacePlace.

In one elementary classroom, a student was frustrated with not being the focus of the teacher’s attention during small-group reading instruction. The teacher kept an eye on the student but chose not to engage with her antics for attention. At the end of small groups, the teacher suggested that the student take a few minutes in the PeacePlace and they could talk after she had a few minutes to regroup.

When the teacher came over a few minutes later, the student had drawn a picture of needing help and not being heard. By having an open discussion and tools, the student was able to share and return to the learning. Taking the extra time for students to feel comfortable with these strategies will ensure they master the skills to use them independently.

The time you invest at the beginning of the year to teach routines, procedures, and strategies that support a PeacePlace in your classroom develops healthy habits so kids can flourish as they learn and grow.

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