We can’t ignore that children have emotions. As behaviorists, we are trained in behavior that is observable and measurable – not private events like thoughts and feelings. But, how can we ignore that some of the students we work with are struggling with managing how they’re feeling? We need to allow our students to have these emotions, but it’s also important to teach them coping strategies and emotional regulation techniques. In terms of social significance, this is a big one!
Yes, as Behavior Analysts, we only implement strategies and programs that are evidence-based. And we need to be able to describe these behaviors in ways that are observable and measurable. Yes, we need to continuously take data and analyze the data to make any necessary changes.
5 Strategies for Emotional Regulation
So, how can we teach emotional regulation strategies in a behavior-analytic way? Let’s go over 5 of our favorite strategies.
1. Teach Using Visuals
Don’t assume that a child knows what “anxious” or “frustrated” mean. When teaching about an abstract concept such as feelings, it’s important to use visuals. There are different ways to do this depending on the age and skill of the learner. You can use a visual of a stoplight with red, yellow, and green corresponding to different emotional states. If the student can read, the strategies can be written right beside the colors.
For younger students, we’ve used a simple flip book with small circles corresponding to different emotional states. On the front of the circles is a picture of the emotion and on the back are pictures of different calming strategies. With prompting and fading, the student can learn to flip to the color that they are feeling and then engage in calming activities.
2. Model Labeling Behaviors
Model labeling your own behavior and your student’s behavior. When something happens to frustrate you, say something like, “I’m feeling so frustrated, I need to take some deep breaths to calm down.” If a student sits calmly, say, “I like how calmly you’re sitting. You look like you’re feeling green.” Or if they are upset, say, “Your shoulders are raised, it seems like you’re heading towards yellow and feeling upset.”
At this point, there’s no demand on the student other than to tolerate you making the comments. With proper shaping and prompt fading, the student should eventually be able to identify and label their behavior receptively and then expressively.
3. Role-Play Emotional Regulating Behaviors
When the student is calm, role-play the behaviors that will help regulate their emotions. Practice engaging in behaviors such as “taking deep breaths”, “counting to 5”, “going for a walk”, etc. These may need to be tweaked as you figure out what actually calms the student.
4. Give Feedback
Give the student feedback on how they’re doing. Reinforce behaviors such as “using calming strategies” or “letting others know how you feel”. It’s important that praise is not given for being calm. The message should be that it is okay to feel those other emotions, it’s just not okay to act out when you have those feelings. If there is an explosive episode where the regulation strategies weren’t used, debrief on that too. When the student is calm, review the incident and talk about how they can make it better next time.
5. Generalize to the Environment
Set up practice situations in novel environments and with novel people so that the student can practice using the strategies and accessing reinforcement for the behaviors they’re displaying.
Make sure you have visuals while you’re practicing. Download our emotional regulation visual for free below!
Emotional Regulation Techniques
Make sure to use these strategies when the student is calm. I don’t know about you, but when I’m very upset, it only makes me feel worse when someone tells me to “calm down” or “relax”. During the heat of the moment, we’re not thinking straight. Find a moment when the student is calm and make this into a positive experience.
Data collection is also an important component of teaching emotional regulation. You should take data on things like:
- Level of independence with identifying their emotional state
- Level of independence with engaging in a calming down routine
- Ability to generalize to novel environment and people
How to Teach Emotional Regulation
We want to use these strategies to teach our students that it’s okay to have these feelings. We want to help them understand them, express them, and then manage them. With successful teaching and practice, students can become masters of their own behavior!
Interested in learning more about how to teach emotional regulation? We have a full program that includes detailed teaching steps, graphs, and data collection available for members in the Bx Resource!
And don’t forget to download our emotional regulation visual!