How To Help Pupils Manage 'Big Emotions'

How To Help Pupils Manage 'Big Emotions'

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Ever wondered why children (and adults) lose self-control when faced with big emotions, such as anger and anxiety?

In this School Behaviour Secrets episode, we share one simple strategy that you can use right away to help pupils understand and manage their emotions.

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Show notes / transcription

Emma Shackleton  0:00  

All we're trying to do here without any judgement or any coaching is just help the child to recognise, where do you feel that emotion in your body? And what does it feel like for you? Because if you can crack that, then you've got a hope of deploying a strategy at the right time. Because when you recognise those symptoms in your body, you can think right, this is anger, and I know a strategy about anger.

Simon Currigan  0:29  

Hi there. My name is Simon Currigan and welcome to another episode of school behaviour secrets. And true fact. Nothing offends me more than an inefficiently stacked dishwasher. So if you're loading up the dishes, it should be like a game of pottery Tetris in there. I'm joined today by my co host, Emma Shackleton. Hi, Emma. 

Emma Shackleton  1:27  

Hi, Simon.

Simon Currigan  1:28  

Emma, it's the start of a new year. Any new year's resolutions you'd like to share?

Emma Shackleton  1:33  

Oh I'm not too good with new year's resolutions to be honest. I think like most people, I don't tend to stick to them beyond the second week of January, drinking more water has been a recurring theme. I suppose I could give that a go again. What about you? Have you got a New Year's resolution?

Simon Currigan  1:50  

Don't really do them so much. Because like you don't really stick to them. But I think if anything, it would be trying to enjoy the moment more when I'm sort of with my family and with my kids or went through a phase A few years ago. You know, you get to see them at primary school concerts. And then everyone's looking at the action through a screen trying to record everything. And I reached a point where I thought I'm not actually watching what's going on here. I'm just trying to record it. And I made a conscious decision to stop recording them and start enjoying them in the moment. But when I'm with my kids and my family, sometimes I'm thinking about work and the next day and the next thing and not just enjoying the time we have so maybe that's my resolution this year. Did that get a bit deep?

Emma Shackleton  2:23  

You went from stacking the dishwasher to living in the moment?

Simon Currigan  2:28  

I normally go for reassuringly shallow, but I think I've just revealed too much.

Emma Shackleton  2:32  

Okay, so how are our new year's resolutions related to today's episode?

Simon Currigan  2:37  

They aren't really it's just chit chat. But if they were, the link would be that we're going to look at one simple change to make during the year that will help your students more effectively manage big emotions like anger, or anxiety. And it's to do with how we as the adults approach teaching kids to self regulate, and what might be a more effective approach.

Emma Shackleton  3:01  

Oh, that sounds good. But just before we get into the detail, I'd like to ask a quick favour of our listeners. Small actions can have a big ripple effect. So if you're finding the information that you hear in our podcasts helpful or useful, please consider sharing with a couple of your friends or colleagues in education. That way, you'll be helping us on our mission to reach other like minded individuals who also want to do their very best for the kids that they work with. And that will make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside I'm sure

Simon Currigan  3:34  

it certainly will. Now that said, it's time to hungrily reach into the fruit bowl, lick our lips, and carefully peel back the skin of the overripe banana we call behaviour. So when people think about helping kids control or manage their emotions, they usually think about the term regulation. But today, we're going to ask you to forget all that we're going to ask you to think about pro regulation, which full disclosure is a completely made up word, you won't find it in the textbooks. But it's a very powerful concept. And you can apply the idea of pro regulation to any big emotion, whether that's anger, or anxiety. But today, what we're going to do is we're going to focus on anger. But let's start with the basics. Let's look at the difference between self control and self regulation. And then we'll share what pro regulation is.

Emma Shackleton  4:28  

Okay, so let's talk about self control. This concept is trying to manage your emotions once you get angry. And if you think about it, it's a terrible strategy, but it's one which is most commonly known and accepted by the general public. So you'll hear comments like that child needs to control themselves or that child has poor self control. If you think about it in class, for example, when a child's getting frustrated, maybe they feel like they can't do the work. They're becoming more and more angry. And when they hand their work in, if they've got lots of answers wrong, then there's going to be that explosion. So the child finds themselves in a really emotionally charged situation. And then they try to use the muscle of self control to dampen down those feelings. Now, we're not saying that that isn't possible, it can be done. But it does require a lot of emotional resources, you burn a lot of calories. And there are some problems with trying to squash down the feeling once you're feeling overwhelmed by that emotion. 

Simon Currigan  5:43  

Yeah, absolutely. And the first of those is essentially that we have limited reserves of self control. And there are lots of experiments that show that self control runs out very quickly. There's even a word for it in psychology called ego depletion. And there's a classic experiment by Roy Baumeister in the 90s, where he took in groups of people and asked them to sit in a waiting room. And in the waiting room on a couple of tables were servings of different foods. Now, on one side of the room, there are some high sugar snacks like delicious cookies, and sugary treats. And on the other side, were some healthy virtuous foods, things like radishes and celery, the things we know we should eat, but perhaps don't always enjoy as much. And the subjects of the experiment, were told they're allowed to eat from one table, but not both. So they had to lock into either the sugary snacks or the healthy foods. And the idea is that people would have to use lots of willpower and self control to avoid the cookies and eat the radishes. So after our participants had eaten their food, they were given a very difficult puzzle to complete. In fact, the puzzle was impossible to finish. And what the researchers were actually interested in was how long the participants would persist with this impossible puzzle. How long would they keep grinding away and trying to find a solution and use their self control to keep going with the puzzle? And they discovered that participants who had used up their stocks of willpower resisting the cookies tended to give up quicker on the impossible task.

Emma Shackleton  7:19  

Ah, so the secret is to eat junk food. Yeah? 

Simon Currigan  7:23  


Emma Shackleton  7:24  

Actually, though, in real life, you do see this effect. For lots of people after a few days of being on a diet, for example, people's self control tends to wane. And then they either over indulge and have a massive binge and eat all the stuff that they've been resisting. Or they tend to slip back into their old habits and just go back to what they were eating before. In fact, the research on diets is terrible, by the way, they just don't work. And the very fact that there's a multibillion dollar dieting industry, tells us that self control is a terrible way to manage your eating, let alone strong emotions.

Simon Currigan  8:03  

Yeah, the more you try and use your self control, the quicker it runs out. And interestingly, there are even experiments to show that using self control is very expensive in terms of calories, when you're engaged in a task that needs a lot of willpower. If you take someone's blood sample, if you take someone's blood sample before and after, you will actually find that their blood glucose has dropped. Now there are some arguments about ego depletion and how it works and whether the research is 100% valid, but it does seem to be true, that the more we exert our self control, the quicker we get tired, and that willpower just runs out.

Emma Shackleton  8:41  

I don't know about you, Simon. But the minute I tried to restrict something, I just want it more.

Simon Currigan  8:46  

Absolutely. The more I try and cut down on my drinking, the more I drink. It's just a terrible way of trying to manage behaviour, the more you try and tamp down that emotion or tamp down that desire, the more it seems to bubble up

Emma Shackleton  8:58  

Absolutely. And another flaw with self control, which I guess is linked is trying to push down strong emotions doesn't actually work. So if you think of your emotions, like say, a beach ball, if you take one into a swimming pool or into the sea, you can try and push the beach ball down under the water. But if it's full of air, it's going to keep pushing back up and trying to get to the surface. And when you finally let go, the ball is coming back to the surface with force. And it's a bit like that with our feelings. pushing them down might work in the short term, but they can't be squashed down forever. They've got to go somewhere. This makes sense, doesn't it? Our emotions are our body's way of telling us to act under stress. Anger and anxiety, for example, two of the most powerful emotions are a message telling us to do something our body at a subconscious level is telling us that we're in a threat situation. And we need to do something about that. This is a mechanism that's evolved to keep us safe in life or death situations 10s of 1000s of years ago, so we can't just push that down and ignore it.

Simon Currigan  10:14  

And by the way, it is school behaviour secrets mandatory policy here to mention Sabre toothed Tigers at this point. So here we go. A caveman walks out of a cave and sees a sabre toothed Tiger, right, that's a life or death situation. And that cave man's body reacts to this dangerous situation with very strong emotions and those emotions are screaming, act now or die. And for that caveman trying to ignore or squash those emotions won't work for long, because their body will not be happy until the threat has been dealt with. That could be running away. It could be fighting a tiger. But it involves taking some form of action, your body will be causing the stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol in that state, getting you ready for a physical confrontation. Now, our students getting their work wrong, obviously isn't a life or death situation. But that doesn't matter. Their brain at an ancient level has identified that the situation they're in is a serious threat. And for that caveman, or for that child trying to use self control in that situation and pretend that their body isn't coursing with those chemicals isn't feeling under pressure, using self control, right, that's going to run out pretty fast, because we're asking our bodies to react in a completely unnatural way.

Emma Shackleton  11:37  

Yeah, so the result is that self control eventually runs out, the child can no longer damp down their emotions, and then we get that explosion in the classroom. And of course, the explosion might not happen immediately, they might be able to hold it in for a little while. But eventually, the reserves of self control run out. The other problem here is that self control is reactive. It's like driving a car, seeing some roadworks up ahead, driving your car down into a hole crashing, the car sets on fire. And then you ask yourself now I'm in this situation, what am I going to do about it? Truth is, it's too late to have any good options. Now you're too far into it. 

Okay, so we spent 10 minutes rubbishing self control, let's move on to regulation and self regulation. So what do we actually mean by regulation, this is a term that gets misused. Sometimes the regulation is recognising that you're in a heightened state, and then using positive strategies to try and manage and regulate those emotions. This requires you to recognise the physical signs and signals from your body, that you're becoming angry or anxious, say.

And these signs are different for different emotions. It's very subtle, and it's also felt differently from person to person. So when we're working with children, the very first thing that we need to do is to help them to identify where in their body they feel different emotions, and what it feels like for them. So for example, anger could be felt like a tensing in the muscles, anxiety might be more like a stomachache. And these physical sensations are called biofeedback. So we experienced changes in our body. And we notice physical sensations associated with those. And we put labels to them, like anger, or anxiety. Some children find this really difficult. So they just don't recognise the changes and sensations in themselves, they don't spot the early warning signs that they're reaching a heightened state. And then of course, because they haven't realised that the emotion is coming, they get taken over by that emotion like a big wave. So they don't realise that the feeling is coming, recognise that they need to take action and put a strategy in place, they just get completely engulfed by the feeling, and then they act purely driven by emotion. So a great way to help children to understand and locate feelings in their body is to do a body map. This is a really simple technique. I've used this with lots of children, all different ages. And basically you need a pen and paper and each of you draws an outline of your body. Now, it's not a drawing competition. So make it really clear that we're literally drawing Heads, shoulders, arms, torso, legs, and that's it. It can even be like a gingerbreads person shape. What we do then is think about a strong emotion that is pertinent to them. So maybe we go for anger, and we think about when you feel anger, how do you feel feel that anger in each part of your body? And I like to work at the top and go down. So we'll talk about our heads. How do we feel in our heads when we get angry? Now, children are sometimes brilliant at this, they will draw lightning bolts coming out of their head, they'll draw clouds, they'll draw steam coming out of their ears, they'll draw pointy teeth, they'll draw wrinkles and stress on their heads and their faces, then we might move down to our neck and shoulders. How do they feel when we feel angry? So again, they might indicate tension by drawing them all bunched up or drawing arrows or lightning, we talk about hands and fists. Some people when they feel angry, bunch up their hands and they feel tension in their arms. We talk about hearts and chests, some children will draw a beating heart or a broken heart. Incidentally, as you're working your way down the body, some children will literally have no clue what you're talking about. When you ask them. Where do you feel emotions in your body? How does each part of your body feel when you're experiencing a big emotion? For some, they just do not know. And that's okay. But that's the starting point for them. So you work your way down, you think about your heart in your chest, you think about your tummy. Lots of people feel strong emotions in their tummy. Children sometimes say they've got a headache in their tummy. Or they'll draw a big swirl or a scribble. Or they'll say that their tummy feels like a washing machine. Or they might draw butterflies flying away from their tummies. And then we work our way down to legs and feet. When some people feel angry, they get frozen. They feel like a statue, their legs feel heavy, other people want to run and that's the flight response. And other people might want to kick or destroy things with their feeds. And all we're trying to do here without any judgement or any coaching is just help the child to recognise Where do you feel that emotion in your body? And what does it feel like for you? Because if you can crack that, then you've got a hope of deploying a strategy at the right time. Because when you recognise those symptoms in your body, you can think right, this is anger. And I know a strategy about anger.

Simon Currigan  17:29  

Just picking up on something you said there, as a society when we talk about emotions, in books, and in films, people talk about the heart. But it's all about the stomach, isn't it largely?

Emma Shackleton  17:40  

Often it is, it is isn't it? Yeah. But it's different for different people, isn't it? 

Simon Currigan  17:44  

Yeah, absolutely. So if a child can begin to put labels and recognise those physical sensations, that's the first step, the next step is that they have to then recognise and notice those changes on a moment by moment basis. And kids who have difficulty managing their emotions often simply aren't as in tune with those feelings, they don't notice them coming and going, they might be able to link physical sensations to a changing emotional state, but they just don't have that moment by moment awareness of them. And that can make it difficult for them to act. However, those key problems aside, if we can get those things right, if they can label those emotions and recognise them when they happen, then regulation is all about noticing that you're becoming angry, you've reached a heightened state, and then using a strategy to manage those emotions. So that might be some deep breathing, it might be taking a timeout, it might be starfish breathing, it might be some physical exercise, the thing is, we're all different, and you have to use what ever works for the child. Now the problem is the part of the brain we need to think all this through logically is the prefrontal cortex. And the more stressed or the more anxious or the more angry we become, our brain starts to take that prefrontal cortex offline, it stops listening to it. So the very part of our brain that we need to access this information about recognising emotions and taking actions on strategies, it stopped working the part of the brain that logically looks and monitors the changes and thinks to itself, I know what I need to do in this situation to be successful isn't available to us. And that means kids, when they're calm, can talk through what the feeling of anger feels like. And they can tell you what they should do when they start to feel that emotion. But when they're actually in it when in that situation. It's too late. They're already drowned by their emotions, and the parts of their brain that need to take action simply isn't online to them. 

Emma Shackleton  19:52  

And we know that this is true because frequently I've worked with children who have had an explosive outburst. For example,  and then afterwards, they've been very clearly able to articulate what they've been taught to do when they get angry, they can say, I should have walked away, I should have told the teacher I should have had a drink of water, I should have taken some deep breaths, but they just weren't able to do it, because they didn't realise quickly enough that the anger was coming. So because they didn't recognise the emotion quickly enough, they weren't able to deploy the strategy in time. It's a bit like driving a car towards the roadworks noticing the hole in the road five feet ahead and swerving at the very last minute, but it's just too late, you're still going to end up crashing the car. 

So let's talk now then about pro regulation. We're going to introduce you to this and again, it is a completely made up word, but it does the job it does what it says on the tin. This is what we want you to think about and teach your students when helping them to manage strong emotions. So what we do here is we keep all of the good stuff we know from regulation, recognising feelings and bodily sensations, linking them to labels like anxiety or anger, improving them moment by moment, awareness of emotions, and finding a productive way of dealing with that emotion. That's all good. But here's the change. Usually, when we teach pupils to manage strong emotions, we say something like this, when you get angry, use this strategy. But as we've already said, at that point, it's already too late. Your behaviour is driven by pure emotion and not by logic.

Simon Currigan  21:42  

So here's the pivot. Here's the change. In Pro regulation, we tell the child to act much, much earlier, we don't wait until the child's in an anger state, we get them to notice when they becoming annoyed, or irritated or frustrated when that sensation is building, but hasn't reached anger. Or if you're thinking about anxiety, we get them to take action when they're concerned or worried rather than overwhelmed. Why? Because in this state, when there are far fewer stress chemicals in their body, they still have access to their smart, logical prefrontal cortex, it hasn't been taken offline yet. And that part of their brain can notice these changes are happening and take action much earlier. It can take evasive action, it can tell the child to start using their strategies now before things go too far, or get them to ask for help or tell them to get away from the thing that's making that ancient brain feel threatened. Now, before it's too late, before those emotions rise any further. This is all about taking early action. When emotions are much, much lower. The analogy for pro regulation will be this, we're driving our car down the road. Again, we're paying attention not just to the tarmac in front of us, but we're looking much further down the road we're looking way ahead. And when we can see the roadworks and the big hole in the road from 500 yards away, we don't just keep driving, what we do is we turn off and take a side road now. So we never have to deal with the danger. Or for our child in class finding his work difficult and he's worried about getting things wrong. For him. It means recognising earlier on that he's getting frustrated or worried and not waiting to complete the entire page of something getting them all wrong. Before seeing the teacher and getting help or trying to take a timeout. He never reaches that anger state. So he doesn't have to try to regulate that big emotion or use diminishing levels of self control to deal with it. And that's the difference between pro regulation, regulation and self control. Pro regulation means avoiding the hole in the road way, way earlier. When you see it coming up in the distance. It's a much more powerful strategy.

Emma Shackleton  24:09  

Brilliant. So if you want some help with this pro regulation approach, we've got a free download that can help. It's called How to help children manage anger and other strong emotions. And it will take you through our approach to teaching those techniques to the kids in your school. You even get resources to print out and use with the students themselves. All you need to do to get your guide is visit, click on the free resources section near the top and you'll find the free resource pack near the top of the page. Remember, it's called How to help children manage anger and other strong emotions

Simon Currigan  24:51  

And we'll drop a direct link to that resource in the show notes. If you found this episode helpful and you haven't already, then now's the time to subscribe so you don't miss future episodes. Simply open up your podcast app, click on the subscribe button, and your app will automatically download each and every episode as it's released. It's completely free. There's absolutely nothing to pay. Subscribing also feels great. You'll feel as pumped up as the Michelin man pulling somersaults on a bouncy castle, whose motor is being overcharged by a freak electrical surge. That's a lot of pomp.

Emma Shackleton  25:28  

And with that load of hot air, I'd like to say thank you for listening to the show and to wish you a brilliant week and a brilliant new year. In fact, we both look forward to seeing you on the next episode of school behaviour secrets. Bye for now.

Simon Currigan  25:42  


(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)