Executive functions consist of goal setting, organizing, retaining and manipulating of knowledge along with planning and prioritizing of information (Meltzer, 2010). Emotional self-regulation is considered an important component of executive functions that allow students to modify and direct their emotions toward positive applications. Unfortunately, approximately 17% of students with learning, emotional, and behavioral disorders in the United States have difficulties regulating their emotions (O’Connell, Boat, & Warner, 2009). This inability to modulate their emotions has a devastating impact on their academic performance in reading, writing and mathematics (Meltzer, 2010). Moreover, even students without disabilities when confronted with environmental stressors, such as parental divorce or family discord, social isolation or academic difficulties will experience emotional upheaval that can easily deteriorate into an academic and/or social problem for the school environment. Therefore, students’ ability to manage their emotions and direct them toward productive behaviors is an essential component of classroom management that contributes toward effective learning in that setting.
Why is emotional self-regulation important?
Excessive emotional reactions to a situation can negatively impact student learning. Overly controlled or excessive displays of emotions have deleterious effects on the learning process by impairing student and peer interactions along with student-teacher communication (Meltzer, 2010). For example, slight to moderate levels of anxiety when taking an exam or performing an oral presentation have been shown to actually increase student performance. On the other hand, higher levels of anxiety have clear negative implications that often impair concentration, memory retrieval, language usage and impulse control (Meltzer, 2010). Moreover, a general negative affect such as being in a “bad mood,” can disrupt academic and social performance. In addition, both positive and negative emotional states and reactions have a significant impact on cognitive functioning particularly in the areas of executive functions, such as shifting of attention, planning, organizing and choosing the correct course of action to achieve a constructive goal. Therefore, students require specific self-knowledge of their emotional state along with the flexible ability to modulate and self-regulate when emotional reactions impede their success in achieving a desired outcome. For example, competent emotional self-regulators are more adept at recognizing and avoiding negatively triggering situations, such as criticism or harmful remarks by peers. When confronted by material that is not understood, competent emotional self-regulators have more adaptive ways to problem solve so that the negative situations can be overcome.
Helpful tips for teachers in promoting effective self-regulating strategies (Melzer, 2010)
There are system-wide, developmentally sequenced programs that can be implemented in a school setting to promote emotional self-regulation, such as the Open Circle curriculum (Meltzer, 2010). These programs have been supported by empirical evidence in improving students’ social-emotional competence. Nevertheless, even if no formal, structured and developmentally sequenced program is currently available in a teacher’s school setting, there are still many things teachers can implement in the classroom as a means to promote optimal emotional development.
1) Help students by accepting and not banishing emotions. This can be done by active listening and reflecting back of students’ feelings when they are distressed. This demonstrates true empathy with the student’s plight that can often be helpful in defusing a stressful situation.
2) Help students by sharing of relevant information that might provide a context for a student’s distress, such as indicating to a student that the test was a difficult one and the highest grade in the class was an 80.
3) Help students by providing important directions and coaching through a distressful situation, such as directing them to take a break from a classroom assignment by going to get a drink of water or prompting students to use a specific strategy that was discussed previously when dealing with this particular problem.
4) Practicing impulse control through role-playing. When rules are established in the classroom, the teacher should first model how the rule should be implemented and then have the entire class practice it. Afterwards, the teacher can reinforce the rule and give corrective feedback through the use of role-playing that involves student practice. For example, if the rule being taught is to refrain from criticizing other people’s ideas, the teacher can discuss how inappropriate criticism or name calling has a negative impact on others and ask students to take the perspective of the students who are ridiculed and ask how this would make them feel.
5) Instructing, demonstrating and providing feedback to students when employing self-talk as a means of directing their own behavior during a distressful situation. Students are guided to create a list of proactive self-statements to address a maladaptive emotional response that will help them to get back on the right track along with reinforcing adaptive emotional responses when engaging in self-talk that promotes a positive outcome.
6) Promoting impulse control strategy called the “turtle technique.” This technique teaches students:
a) To become more aware of their physiological responses to anger, such as clenching of their fists, feeling warm in the face along with other signs of anger.
b) Stop what they are doing and think.
c) “Retract” into their shell by taking several deep breaths, and thinking about things that calm them down.
d) Leave the shell when calm and problem solve to resolve the issue.
Implications for the classroom
Emotional self-regulation is often thought of as something that someone has or does not have. However, it is a skill that just like any other skill needs to be systematically modeled, taught and practiced. The real question is how is this to be achieved? Therefore, it is incumbent upon teachers to instruct students in developing good self-regulating emotional skills and not assume that they are automatically acquired without any specific formal instruction.
Meltzer, L. (2010). Promoting executive function in the classroom. New York: Guilford Press.
O’Connell, M., Boat, T., & Warner, K. (Eds.). (2009). Preventing mental, emotional and
behavioral disorders among young people: Progress and possibilities. Washington, DC: National Academics Press.
Michael David Benhar, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Social Sciences Department at Suffolk County Community College. Dr. Michael David Benhar teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Developmental Psychology, Exceptional Child, Classroom Management, and Assessment. He has co-authored a chapter on students with disabilities. In addition, he has worked as a school psychologist in a preschool for children with special needs. Contact Dr. Michael Benhar at firstname.lastname@example.org.