Positive Discipline in the Classroom: Calm Down Strategies

This post is part of a series on the skills children learn in a Positive Discipline classroom, and how parents can support their children in using these skills outside of school. For more background on this series, read Positive Discipline in The Classroom: Bringing The Skills Home.

If you are in the Pacific Northwest, check out Sound Discipline to learn more about bringing Positive Discipline to your school or community.

What Children Learn:

In both schools and parenting classes, one of the earliest tools we teach is how to calm down when emotions are high. Regulating emotions is one of the most important skills we can develop, as without it, we would rarely be able to solve the problem that upset us in the first place.

Using the hand as a model of the brain, children learn how the human brain works when experiencing big emotions. The Brain In Hand model comes from Dr. Dan Siegel, Professor of Neuropsychiatry at UCLA, and easily highlights why we need to focus on calming down before problem solving. The biggest take away is that we are pretty ineffective problem solvers when our lids are flipped. This is true for both adults and kids. You can watch a short video of the hand model to see what the children learned.

After learning about the brain, students created a list of calm down strategies and posted it on the wall. This is a great activity to do at home as well. Be sure to include your own ideas on what helps you calm down. It can be hard to remember those strategies when we are upset, so it is helpful post the list where everyone can see it.

Why It’s Important:

When emotions are high, we act from our primitive (reptilian) brain structures, in a sense cutting off communication with our more advanced brain functions. The primitive brain is very important when we are in real danger because it gets us ready for fight or flight. However, when we are in that mode, we temporarily lose our ability to learn, solve problems, communicate effectively, listen, show empathy, and many other critical skills that come from our prefrontal cortex. If our child is melting down and we are trying to explain, teach, or problem solve, we are likely wasting out time. Our children are actually not able learn at that moment and our noise is likely to further escalate the situation. The same goes with our partners and coworkers. If we wait until we are calm, many more ways to solve problems become available, and we are less likely to damage the relationship in the process.

How Parents Can Support Use At Home:

We can support our children in emotional regulation most effectively by learning to regulate our own emotions. Put simply, we need to stop working against our brains and wait to problem solve when everyone is calm. This is challenging because our instincts are to resolve the situation right then. Just being around someone experiencing big emotions can trigger our brain into fight or flight too, losing our own problem solving skills.

Our fear and anxiety can frequently get in our way as well. We think that if we don't deal with the behavior right then, we are letting our children, our students, and our partners get away with something. We may believe that if we don't react right now, the other person will just continue to do whatever it is that is upsetting us. Those thoughts and beliefs are powerful, but they often stem from our own anxiety, and that is our own to manage.

Time and time again, we have waited to discuss problems until our kids are really calm, and the outcome is amazing. We needed to wait three days to talk about a problem that occurred at a slumber party with our older child. When we sat down to talk about it, she said to us all the things we planned to say to her, including an apology and a request to take a break from sleepovers until she was a little bit older. We remind ourselves of this time when we feel that urge to react quickly.

The next step is to refer back to your list of calm down strategies and put them in to practice. Your use of them is important, as it lets our kids know that emotions are normal and we experience them too. Instead of sending kids away for time outs, its helpful if we take a time out ourselves by saying, “I need to calm down before we talk about this. I am going to my room to take some deep breaths (or whatever helps you calm down).” When kids see us doing this, they learn that taking a break is not a punishment, but a healthy way to deal with our emotions. As our children see us respond to problems from calm instead of reacting in the moment, they build trust in our ability to regulate our own emotions. This is critical if we want them to be able to come to us with hard conversations as they grow.