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How to Teach Emotional Regulation


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.

emotional regulation visual of a stoplight

Emotional regulation visual of a red, yellow, and green stoplight with strategies for dealing with emotions written next to them.

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.

Emotional regulation flip book visual

Emotional regulation flip book with emotions on one side and calming activities on the other.

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.

emotional regulation visual with choices

Emotional regulation visual with choices.

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!

9 thoughts on “How to Teach Emotional Regulation”

  1. Pingback: 4 Strategies To Reduce Holiday Stress - How to ABA

  2. Victoria Sigurthorsson

    HI! I’m excited to incorporate tihs in to some client’s programing. do yall have any research or other resources for implementation with lower functioning students?

    1. Berkovits, L., Eisenhower, A., & Blacher, J. (2017). Emotion regulation in young children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47(1), 68-79.

      Laurent, A. C., & Gorman, K. (2018). Development of emotion self-regulation among young children with autism spectrum disorders: The role of parents. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 48(4), 1249-1260.

      Zantinge, G., van Rijn, S., Stockmann, L., & Swaab, H. (2017). Physiological arousal and emotion regulation strategies in young children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 47(9), 2648-2657.

      These may provide you with more information.
      Remember, the student may need to have some pre-requisite skills before a successful program can be implemented.

  3. This tip is super helpful! It’s all about making sure kids really get what we mean when we talk about feelings. Using pictures, like a stoplight with colors for different emotions, is a smart idea. It makes things clear and works for kids of different ages. And if they can read, putting words next to the colors helps even more. Simple tricks like these make teaching about feelings way easier! I have seen this technique of using visuals to bring emotional regulation being used at a centre where I did my placement. They use 3 zones of colours green, yellow and red to pinpoint how a learner is doing emotionally each day. When the learner says they’re feeling like they’re in the yellow or red zones, the therapist asks them what are some things that they can do to reach the green zone, and what they can do to keep staying within the green zone. This helps the instructor assist the child in calming down

  4. HI,

    How is this different than the Zone of Regulation? To me, this program look very similar as something already published since 2011?

    1. It’s similar, although zones has a “blue zone” for under-stimulated. We often use this 3-point scale with the teaching program to break it down and have a data sheet to go along with it.

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