Regulating our Emotions in the Classroom: Practical Tips for Educators

12 September 2023
Dr. Lori Desautels
Teacher and students smiling

In many cases, being trauma-informed emphasises social and emotional strategies to help students regulate their emotions—especially when our biology makes that challenging.

Awareness can help us as adults calm our stress responses and overcome our emotional impulses. By regulating our own emotions, we put ourselves in a better position to maintain stability in our classrooms, create a more effective learning environment for our students, and model the same mindfulness we encourage them to use.

Awareness, however, doesn’t happen accidentally. Like many things we learn throughout our teaching career, it’s a skill we need to practice and develop over time.

Fortunately, once we’ve developed that skill, it’s more likely to become second nature—easily restoring balance in circumstances that might otherwise escalate.

Here, I’ve included five simple strategies that you can use to get started managing your emotions in the classroom.

1. Identify your stress responses:

Mindfulness begins by monitoring our own body’s signals. Before we have an emotional response, our autonomic nervous system begins sending physical sensations that show our body is preparing us to fight, fly or shut down.

Maybe you feel hot, sweaty, dizzy or lightheaded. Maybe your heart begins to race, or you feel a lump in your throat. While these sensations manifest differently from person to person, we all feel something when triggered by stress or trauma. Next time you find yourself in a stressful situation, monitor what is physically happening to you.

This is the first step to regulating your emotional response.

2. Use a sensory regulatory practice:

While our reactions to stress can be physical, so can our responses to regain calm. We can actually use movement and sensory practices to help calm our nervous system.
For example, taking a few deep breaths is one common strategy.

You can also try chewing gum or eating a crunchy snack, giving yourself a hand massage, fidgeting with a small toy, smelling something pleasant, or texting someone you trust.

No matter what action you choose, deliberately making that choice gives you a moment to pause, collect your thoughts and respond to stress in a less reactive way.

3. Reframe your thoughts:

Another way to regulate our emotions is by reframing our thoughts. Our immediate reactions are often coloured by our own biases, filling our bodies with anxiety, whether or not it’s an appropriate response. In many cases, trauma or stress causes us to respond irrationally.

As you begin to regulate, take a moment to tap into your cortex. Think objectively about what is occurring, and what choices you can make to help de-escalate the situation for everyone. The graphic below shows some examples of what may occur in our adult thoughts versus what is actually happening.

Adult nervous system chart

4. Use Focused-Attention Practices:

Like sensory regulation practices, focused-attention practices can help us when we’re dysregulated. They can also be used to energise us, helping us focus and pay attention in the present moment.

Use focused-attention practices at the beginning of your day, throughout the day, and anytime you need closure and a reset. They’re also great to share with students. This resource I’ve developed offers 100 different focused attention practices to help promote mindfulness in your classroom.

5. Continue to Practice Awareness—Every Day:

As I mentioned earlier, mindfulness is a skill that we develop over time. It’s important to implement these practices even when we’re not feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Doing so puts us in a better position to regulate our emotions in critical moments.
Creating a positive classroom environment is something you can work toward, every day.

I also recommend reading the Top 10 De-escalation Tips to learn everyday practices that can help contribute to a calmer learning environment.

Of course, CPI offers many training programs that focus on the Care, Welfare, Safety, and SecuritySM of all students and staff. Their evidence-based, trauma-informed behaviour management and crisis prevention approaches are useful strategies that schools can use to create consistency and a stronger culture of trauma awareness.

As educators, it’s our responsibility to create a stable and supportive learning environment. While our students’ trauma and emotional responses may be out of our control, using our cortex—the rational part of our brains—to be more mindful of our own responses can break the trauma cycle. Modelling such practices can keep students regulated and receptive to the information we have to share, setting them up for a more successful future.

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Visit our pages for more information on our Classroom Culture programme, our Hearts & Minds INSET, or how your school can get a Behaviour Health Check.

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 creates webinars for educators, clinicians, and administrators illustrating how educators and students alike must understand their neuroanatomy to regulate behaviour and calm the brain.