“Personal health is related to self-control and to the worship of life in all its natural beauty – control bringing with it happiness, renewed youth, and long life.” ~ Maria Montessori
Polly, a middle school student, came to my office one afternoon crying. I had heard her described as emotional by her teacher. When I asked Polly what had happened, she explained that her two best friends no longer liked her, and that the situation was irreconcilable. I listened. She felt it was beyond hope and she was certain that she would be alone for the rest of the year. By the end of her explanation, Polly was sobbing uncontrollably. I explained to her that I wanted to help her, and that had a very important email to return (I stretched the truth). I asked her to take 20 deep breaths into her belly while she waited for me to finish writing my email. I then returned to my computer screen to “finish what I was doing.” When I finished, I turned back to Polly and asked her how she was feeling. Polly said, “Wow, the breathing trick really worked.” I asked her if she would like some help with solving her problem with her friends. She said, “No thanks, I think I figured it out,” and she left my office. True story.
What is Dysregulation?
The Australian Institute of Family Studies defines dysregulation in this way: “Emotional dysregulation is when a child experiences difficulty with registering emotions, responding with emotions appropriate to context and regulating emotional responses in social situations (i.e., suppressing emotions or presenting with overly dramatic and excessive emotional responses).” (McClean, 2023).
Anecdotally, I heard from hundreds of teachers over the last few years that dysregulation is one of the most frequent behavioral concerns in their classrooms. It has been communicated and described in many ways: temper tantrums, explosiveness, uncontrollable crying, withdrawal, aggression, etc. Does this sound familiar? For those of us who work with children, understanding how to support and address a child who is not able to control his emotional responses is critical. Children who are able to self-regulate consistently show more success in school, academically and socially. (Rademacher, 2022). In this article I’ll take some time to explore how the brain works when children become dysregulated, and how to help them develop the skills to self-regulate.
How the Brain Works
When we are angry, hurt or afraid, there are powerful neurological forces at work that make it impossible to regulate our emotions. If you’ve ever felt out of control when you were upset, it’s because you were. When we are angry, afraid, or under stress, the limbic system, or primitive brain, may trigger our fight, flight or freeze response. This happens involuntarily if our brain interprets a situation as threatening. The threat may be real or perceived but either way, it creates a surge of hormones rushing through the brain. When this happens, the brain becomes dis-integrated, and we lose the ability to access our prefrontal cortex, or rational brain. The prefrontal cortex helps us interpret the behavior of others rationally, control our emotions, and solve problems. So, when we lose the ability to access this part of our brain, we lose our ability to think or act rationally. It can take up to 20 minutes after the hormone surge for the brain to reintegrate, to cool down, and to regain our ability to solve problems rationally. In Positive Discipline we refer to this loss of control as a “flipped lid.” You may remember cartoons from your childhood when a character got so angry their hat and hair flew off their head. They had “flipped their lid.”
Here is a true expert, Daniel Segal, explaining how the brain works when it is disintegrated: https://drdansiegel.com/hand-model-of-the-brain/ You can see a more simplified version to present to children in our book, Positive Discipline in the Montessori Classroom, and you can also view Jane giving this lesson in this video: https://youtu.be/FmdnamW_208?si=B0PYyRmU_ulNFQuD
There are methods, which are discussed below that can shorten this process. When Polly came to my office, she did not have the ability to see her problem with perspective, let alone problem solve. If I had asked her to calm down or problem solve at that moment, she would have likely gotten even more upset. However, after she cooled down, Polly’s prefrontal cortex was reintegrated, and she was able to gain perspective and problem solve without my help.
Here are some strategies for helping children learn to self-regulate, including the one I used with Polly:
Teach Children About the Brain – Show children how the brain works using Daniel Segal’s model using your hand. You can adjust this presentation to meet the needs of all age groups. See Positive Discipline in the Montessori Classroom for a detailed lesson.
Connect – Neuroscientists are now finding more and more evidence about the importance of human connection in brain function. Children who experience connection have a greater faculty to develop self-regulation and cooperation. “Children develop self-regulation through warm and responsive relationships. They also develop it by watching the adults around them.” (Raising Children Network, 2019) There is strong evidence that the adult’s role in a child’s development of their self-regulation skills is very significant.
Simply taking a moment to read with a child who is getting upset waiting for snack, showing affection to a child who is having a hard time concentrating can help a child calm down and feel cared for and connected. These experiences of human connection promote integration of the child’s brain, giving them access to their prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for emotional self-regulation.
Adults often confuse interaction time with connection time. If a child is having difficulties regulating their emotions, teachers spend a lot of time with that student. This is stressful because other children in the class need the teachers time and attention, also. But, responding to a child who is already dysregulated does not always equate to a sense of connection for the child, or the teacher. Proactive connection can be incredibly effective. Consider looking for opportunities to connect with this child when they are not dysregulated. Schedule special time with the child (fill their bucket before they lose control), have snack with them, read with them, or take time to ask them about their family or their interests when they are already calm. Sometimes correction is not needed if connection is done well. And when correction is needed, a connected child is much more likely to respond positively when they know the adults are on their side.
Positive time-out. In a Positive Discipline classroom, we help facilitate the process of reintegrating the brain, or cooling down, by creating a designated space for children to go when they are upset. We call this space a Positive Time-Out area. (However, we suggest naming the area something without the term “time-out” included, as many children associate “time-out” with a punishment). When children feel angry, hurt, overwhelmed or sad, they can choose to go to the Positive Time-Out area and stay until they have regained perspective and emotional control. Once they are feeling better, they emerge with the ability to connect with others and problem-solve. Positive Time-Out is a concrete tool to help children develop the critical life skills of self-awareness, self-regulation and problem-solving. Be sure to let your students help create the area. This will give them a sense of ownership and foster a positive association with the area.
Wheel of Choice. Teaching and practicing social skills are foundational components of Positive Discipline. The Wheel of Choice is a tool used to help teach children and adolescents how to solve common social problems independently, by focusing on solutions. The Wheel of Choice is simply a list of suggestions, developed by the classroom community, that can be used by students when they need help solving a problem. That list is then transcribed onto a pie chart, with each suggestion occupying a “slice of the pie.” When children run into difficulty they can consult the Wheel of Choice for ideas to solve their problem. Most often, the wheel contains common Positive Discipline tools; Positive Time-Out, Peace Table, I Language, etc. Teachers can make an individual Wheel of Choice with children who are having difficulty with self-regulation. To make an individual Wheel of Choice, the teacher and child can together brainstorm solutions for the child’s personal wheel. Those solutions are then practiced with the child, proactively, as a “fire drill.” Remember, when a child is dysregulated, they cannot access the problem-solving part of their brain! If the child becomes dysregulated, they can be redirected with their own Wheel of Choice, which contains solutions that they have chosen and have already practiced. These factors help support cooperation and independence while helping the child to maintain their dignity in a difficult situation.
Naming Emotions – Identifying feelings and naming them helps children to re-engage the thinking part of the brain. A poster with “feelings faces” posted in the Positive Time-Out area can help prompt a child to identify what they are feeling. A study at the UCLA found that the act of naming emotions changes how our brain is responding (Wopert, 2007). Using written or verbal words to describe or name how we are feeling engages the prefrontal cortex, allowing us to start to move toward problem-solving and self-regulation.
Deep Breathing – Breathing deeply into your abdomen brings oxygen to the brain. It helps synchronize your heart rate and breathing rate, and this stimulates the brain to release endorphins, which produce a calming effect (NeroPeak Pro, 2019). A breathing ball can be placed in the Positive Time-Out area to help children practice deep breathing. This is the tool that I taught to Polly.
Mindfulness Practices – Researchers have found that mindfulness practices trigger a relaxation response in the brain. Mindfulness exercises have been linked to increased frontal brain activity and reduced fearful and anxious responses. (Powell, 2018). A simple chart of mindfulness activities posted in the Positive Time-Out area can be useful to help promote these tools for self-regulation. Consider creating a poster with “cool down tools” for the Positive Time-Out area to prompt students to use mindfulness practices. Like the Wheel of Choice, practicing the skills proactively will help develop independence and self-regulation.
Reflective Listening is a very powerful way to help someone cool down and feel connected. People feel a sense of belonging and safety when someone truly listens to them, without judgement, and validates their feelings. Here is a simple reflective listening model:
“It sounds like you’re feeling _______, because_______, and you wish _________. Did I get that right?”
You will have to be an interpreter. A child who is dysregulated will likely not be naming their feelings without prompting. This can help them. Repeat this until the child has shared everything they need to share. Once they have cooled down, suggest they look at their Wheel of Choice.
Isolate the Isolated Difficulty – Small Steps – Children who are easily discouraged, or who become dysregulated when they cannot do something perfectly can test the patience of any adult. But underneath their behavior they may be saying, “I’m overwhelmed.” Children need to experience a sense of “I can do it” to develop confidence in their ability to overcome obstacles and complete multi-step tasks. A child who is easily overwhelmed may need smaller, and more concrete steps to accomplish a task or make a transition. So, a task that may take another child 4 isolated steps, may need to be broken down into 8 for the easily discouraged child. Consider ideas like routine charts, breaking a lesson into two parts, and including the child in problem-solving in areas of difficulty.
Let Routines be the Boss – These last few years (post-pandemic) have thrown many families and schools into semi-chaos. Routines and traditions have been disrupted. Children need predictability to develop self-regulation, otherwise they are dependent upon those with more agency. It’s quite impossible to regulate our emotions if we don’t have some idea of what might be coming next therefor robbing you of autonomy. Children thrive on consistent routines, and it is a necessary component to building a healthy sense of independence. Be sure to be confident that your routines are tight and consistent. This small detail will pay big dividends over time.
Show Faith – A temptation when supporting a child who has difficulty regulating their emotions is to rescue them. This often makes matters worse (in that very moment, or over time), and then the adult becomes discouraged. The next step is often the opposite side of the same coin. The adult withdraws and lets the child “cry it out.” Of course, now the child is likely to feel abandoned, and this compounds the problem and erodes trust. There is a middle ground. Comforting while showing faith in the child to overcome the real or perceived difficulty can change the dynamic between the adult and child significantly. Showing faith while comforting might sound like this, “I am really sorry that you are so sad right now.”
Developing self-regulation is a process for all children. Children who need more support may take longer to develop these skills than their peers. When adults understand the problem and can help the child through a difficult time what could have caused a divide in the relationship becomes a means of greater connection and the way for a child to achieve the sense of belonging and significance they’ve been missing.
Until next time…
Montessori, M. (1992). Education and peace. Clio Press.
Raising Children Network. (2019). Self-regulation in young children. https://raisingchildren.net.au/
McClean, S. (2023). Emotional dysregulation in children who have experienced adversity. https://aifs.gov.au/resources/practice-guides/developmental-differences-children-who-have-experienced-adversity-guide no1#:~:text=Emotional%20dysregulation%20is%20when%20a,dramatic%20and%20excessive%20emotional%20responses).
Rademacher, A. (2022). The longitudinal influence of self-regulation on school performance and behavior problems from preschool to elementary school. The Journal of Research in Early Childhood Education, v.36.
Wopert, S. (2007). Putting feelings into words produces therapeutic effects in the brain. UCLA Newsroom. http://Newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/Putting-Feelings-Into-Words-Produces-8047.
NeuroPeak Pro. (2019). Does deep breathing really do anything? https://neuropeakpro.com/does-deep-breathing-really-do-anything/.
Powell, A. (2018). When science meets mindfulness. The Harvard Gazette, April 9, 2018.