Educators, Practice Your Emotional Regulation Skills

February 9, 2020
Dr. Lori Desautels

One of the richest forms of assessment is being mindful of our own reactions to a student. Unknowingly, they often make us feel the way they may have felt. We might begin to think about ourselves in the ways our students think about themselves. This is called relational contagion, and we can unintentionally pick up on each other’s feelings and experiences in the absence of emotional regulation.

Why it’s Important to Practice Emotional Regulation

One of the things I wish I’d known as a young mom and educator is that behavior management is about me! My nervous system drives how I sense, feel, think, perceive, and behave as those around me are always paying attention and attuning to our mood, disposition, and therefore our nervous system. When we are disciplining or struggling with challenging behaviors in our classrooms and schools, a child or adolescent’s nervous system can’t process language, words, redirection, or rewards when they are stressed and reactions are originating from survival brain states (fight, flight, or shut down). We too struggle with clear thinking, being logical, and emotional regulation when our stress response systems are activated.

Much like our students, when we’re in that stress response state we lack those emotional regulation skills, leaving us feeling scattered and impulsive with difficulty focusing. We also can feel immobilized, shut down and therefore hopeless. In this immobilized or shut-down state, our nervous system is conserving energy because we feel too overwhelmed to fight or run. As educators, we need to know that behaviors are only signals indicating what’s happening inside our nervous system. The question we want to ask ourselves is what is beneath my behavior that is creating agitation, irritation, anxiety, worry or anger?

As previously stated, when human beings are anxious or worried, we’re not thinking clearly or logically. The way we think, feel, perceive time, and even hear sound changes. Survival replaces emotional regulation as our number one priority. We’re all about keeping ourselves safe and attuned to the threat or perceived danger.

Attending to Our Nervous Systems

What can we do to attend to our own nervous systems? First, make sure we are calm. It takes a calm adult to calm a child. When I’m intentional about regulating my nervous system before I speak a word or ask a question, then my students will feel or experience my sense of felt safety. A dysregulated adult cannot calm a dysregulated child.

Emotional regulation equips us to model the behaviors we want to see and pay very close attention to our tone and delivery of the words we want to share.

Some of the newest research from the Polyvagal Theory reports that a tiny ear muscle, the stapedius muscle, expands when we are functioning from fight, flight, and immobilization or shut-down survival states. Only when we begin to recover from a stressor and our stress response systems return to a balanced state does this ear muscle change, becoming taut so that we can focus on redirecting, problem-solving, or joining in on a discussion or conversation. This muscle expands to protect us when we’re stressed for our safety, so we can listen to everything around us that feels threatening. When that muscle constricts, we can pay attention and focus once again. This is true for both adults and youth.

When we find ourselves being critical, punitive, or highly anxious, our nervous system is telling us what it needs!

Educator nervous system states direct how we develop relationships with our students, implement discipline, engage, and co-regulate one another. Our brain tissue is malleable and develops from embodied lived experiences. We have two systems within our brains and bodies that correlate to stress and resilience.

Hormones Have a Say

Cortisol and oxytocin are hormones that play key roles in our nervous system state. The first, cortisol, is a steroid hormone that is produced in the adrenal glands and helps govern our stress response systems. Cortisol affects a wide variety of tissues in the body along with regulating blood pressure, reducing inflammation, and keeping our heart and blood vessels functioning normally.

When our stress response is overwhelmed and there are little to no emotional buffers originating from relationships with others, we produce more cortisol, which increases our heart rate and triggers our “fight or flight” response. Our limbic system — the structures in our brain related to processing emotion and memory — is negatively impacted. Emotional regulation is compromised, along with our ability to adequately teach, learn, plan, and problem-solve.

The good news is that we have a system for resiliency within our nervous system. When we reach out to others, our bodies and brains produce oxytocin, a hormone produced in the hypothalamus and secreted through the pituitary gland, that impacts social affiliation and can create the biological basis for resilience. Social psychologist Shelley E. Taylor, PhD, has labeled the oxytocin response “tend and befriend” as opposed to the “fight or flight” response of cortisol. In other words, our nervous systems require an acknowledgment or recognition of how we are feeling!

The goal is not to always be in a state of emotional regulation, but to recognize when we are not!

Don’t Create Your Own Stress

Our self-talk can add to the stressors we are facing because our nervous systems hold a negative bias. When we enter survival states, our brains become protective and begin to scan the environment for any type of threat, unfamiliarity, or danger. What we say to ourselves is often stemming from our past adversities and trauma based on lived experiences. This adult nervous system chart depicts how we might be feeling and sensing our experiences in this time, contrasted by a reframing of what is happening in the present moment and the repair that is possible following ruptures and conflicts with students, colleagues, family and from our own nervous systems. In addition, this list of sensory practices can help us hone our emotional regulation skills and find a sense of balance and calm. Share and model these practices with and for your students!

Dr. Lori Desautels is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. Lori was also an assistant professor at Marian University in Indianapolis, where she founded the Educational Neuroscience Symposium, now sponsored by Butler University. Lori has created webinars for educators, clinicians, and administrators illustrating how educators and students alike must understand their neuroanatomy to regulate behavior and calm the brain. You can learn more about her work at Revelations In Education.

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