You know firsthand how chaotic a classroom can get and how crucial self-calming strategies for students can be. Noise levels can quickly elevate with kids running around, grabbing school supplies and generally creating a disruptive experience. There are some days when you just need to walk outside for a few minutes to calm down from the overstimulation.
Here’s the thing: your students need this too. While some might thrive in loud and rambunctious classrooms, others feel overwhelmed. They are anxious and irritable because of the noise and confusion.
Every student, regardless of age or personality, can benefit from self-management tools. There comes a point in everyone’s life when they need to step back from an uncomfortable situation. Follow this guide to help your students thrive, no matter how stressful the school year gets.
Discuss Stress and Self-Management
Giving names to feelings is powerful. Younger students only know that they feel bad. They might not have the skills yet to explain that they are stressed, angry, jealous, scared or annoyed. Even if they can name these emotions, many might not be able to explain where they came from.
Start your year off by talking about mental health. Introduce your students to the concepts of stress and anxiety before you dive into coping mechanisms for these feelings.
“There is not one way to feel and respond to anxiety,” write Michelle Garcia Winner and Pamela Crooke, Ph.D., at SocialThinking. “Responses can be highly predictable or highly unpredictable. One student may get loud and disruptive in class, another may start cracking a lot of jokes, and another kid may appear spaced out or withdraw from interactions.”
There also might not be a single trigger that sets off the anxiety a student or teacher feels. The stress can build over time.
Anxiety can sometimes develop into panic attacks. These experiences are distressing for adults and can be equally traumatizing for students.
“Imagine being ten years old and suddenly, without warning, experiencing a fear so intense that you feel like you’re going to pass out,” says Margaret Jaworski at Psycom. “Your heart is pounding. You are terrified and feel out of control. You may experience shortness of breath and chest pain. That’s a panic attack.”
Once again, by placing a name to a feeling, students can take steps to self-regulate. While panic attacks are serious, not knowing what they are can make matters worse.
As your students become more comfortable with the concepts of stress and anxiety, they can start to learn tools and strategies to reduce the effects of these emotions.
“Self-management is the ability for a person to regulate their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in various situations,” writes elementary teacher Jodi Durgin, founder of the Clutter-Free Classroom. “Self-management is also the ability to set and work toward both academic and personal goals. Understanding the emotions that you are feeling happens during self-awareness, and what you do about your feelings happens during self-management.”
These tools won’t make your students completely stress-free. Many adults struggle with self-regulation and self-management in their day-to-day lives. However, you can introduce some coping mechanisms to make smaller issues easier to handle.
Step Away From Stressful Situations
One of the first things to teach your students in developing self-calming techniques is to step away from bad situations. This is easier said than done when a student is getting frustrated by a project or a group activity.
Ellen Paxton, director and chief learning officer at the Professional Learning Board, encourages teachers to allow breaks when students are working on challenging assignments. Teachers can create “break cards” in the same way they have bathroom and water passes. During the break, students can walk around for a few minutes, talk to an adult if they are frustrated or look out the window. This break can prevent the student from getting overwhelmed by the situation.
Authorized breaks can also prevent students from becoming distractions to others. Just make sure you are clear about your “break card” rules, like how long they can be and whether they can be used during a test.
If possible, identify someone that your students can talk to when they need a break. This could be a teaching assistant or school counselor.
“Identify a safe adult to whom the child can go to during times of stress,” writes school psychologist Rachel Wise. “This adult should speak to the child with empathy, being understanding of their feelings. However, they should encourage the child to return to their class or activity once they are calm.”
The goal isn’t for students to run away from the situation, but rather to collect themselves before returning to the task at hand.
Create a Calming Corner
Look into creating a calming corner in your classroom or see if it’s possible to have a calming room in your school.
The team at the Alexander Youth Network describe a calming room as a space where students can get away from excessive stimuli to feel safe and take control. Many kids (and adults) can benefit from having a space like this – and it’s particularly useful for large classrooms that can easily get noisy and overwhelming.
Sarah Kellett, a school counselor, describes how she helped develop a calming space in her school. Called the “brave room,” students can visit when they need help with coping strategies or sensory overload.
All students visit the “brave room” as part of orientation during the first week of school. Students learn how to use the sensory tools appropriately and what the time expectations are for using the space. The room is never for punishment or isolation; it is solely a place where students can take back control of their emotions.
Elementary school principal Marcie Griffith introduced her students to “the retreat” last fall, a calming room with plants in each corner, blankets, yoga mats and soft lighting. This space is meant to contrast the experiences of the normal school day, which are often filled with loud noises and harsh lighting.
“Stress is a normal part of life, and sometimes everybody needs a little extra bit of help in dealing with that,” Griffith told the students when they toured the area. “This is a special room to help us find our peace.”
Develop Self-Calming Strategies for Students
The best time to teach kids about calming behaviors is when they are already calm. That approach allows your students to take action the next time they feel like they are losing control.
“Since children who lack self-control often decide in the moment, helping them understand how their actions impact others is a key part of facilitating regulation,” writes psychological consultant Gabriella Lancia.
She describes a worksheet called Ups and Downs that students can use to weigh the consequences of their actions by listing the Ups (things that make a decision good in their eyes) and Downs (drawbacks of doing something). For example, refusing to play with others might feel safe (Up) but it can also be lonely (Down).
The team at Your Therapy Source created a Calm-O-Meter printable that you can download for your class. The chart has activities kids can do to calm down. Ask your students to rate how certain activities make them feel about the self-calming activity ideas. One student might benefit from taking a walk while another prefers to do yoga or read.
Sanya Pelini, Ph.D., a researcher in education, gives multiple breathing activities that students can do when they feel overwhelmed. For example, kids can blow on a pinwheel to watch it spin or blow a feather across a table, taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly each time. You can also introduce the “breathing buddy” exercise, where a child puts a stuffed animal on their stomach and moves it up and down by breathing in and out.
Help your students learn that while some stimuli can disrupt them (like a screaming peer) other stimuli can calm them (like a soothing scent or quiet sounds).
“I love using calming music with my little learners,” says autism coach Alix Strickland Frénoy. “I love playing soft and soothing classical music in the background and have noticed a significant change in the kids’ behavior when it’s playing during other activities.”
Resources to Develop Self-Management Lesson Plans
As you discuss self-management in the classroom, consider tying social-emotional learning to other core concepts, like reading and science.
The duo of Carly and Adam share a list of read-aloud books you can use in your classroom, along with STEM activities that pair with them. For example, “Fergal is Fuming” is about a dragon who gets very angry when he is told what to do. Students can read the book and create their own “hot air” balloon by blowing up a balloon — a process that actually helps them cool down.
Teacher Christopher Olson shares several lesson plans to teach self-regulation. If you are interested in making self-management a semester-long concept, consider downloading the Mood Calendar template. With this sheet, students mark how they feel each day with different colors.
The Mood Calendar can be as simple as green for good days and red for bad days, or it can use more colors to describe different emotions. Over time, students can see how their moods change and what they do when faced with a mood-altering situation.
Lara Fredrick at Panorama Education shares a discussion about an “inner compass” or a gut feeling that drives students to make decisions. The discussion examples she includes are meant to help students walk through their experiences when they felt something and it guided their decision-making. Students can learn to tap into this gut feeling more often and use it for self-regulation.
Every adult has their own method to cope with stress. Some people turn to healthy means like exercise, journaling, talking with a therapist or gardening. Other adults have less-than-healthy coping mechanisms. When you introduce self-calming strategies for students, they’ve got skills they can use for decades.
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