Harvard Graduate School of Education Logo

Use Your Words, Not Your Hands

Emotional regulation strategies to avoid outbursts

April 1, 2022
Bright abstract painting of child's profile

Hollywood has once again presented educators and parents with a chance to talk about how to handle emotions. In an article published on Usable Knowledge from 2015, researchers Rebecca Bailey and Sophie Barnes, both members of Professor Stephanie Jones’ EASEL Lab, explored key takeaways about emotions from the Pixar move, Inside Out, and presented a series of strategies taken from a school-based intervention called SECURe, developed by Jones and her team, to help build social-emotional skills.

After the outburst at the Academy Awards ceremony this week, we’re resharing these strategies to help caregivers and educators start conversations with kids and help them draw connections between their own feelings and behavior. Talking about feelings helps to validate both positive and negative feelings, such as pride for one's efforts, as well as frustration or anger at injustice. When children are encouraged to share their feelings and all types of feelings are accepted as OK, it's easier for children (and adults) to express those emotions through words rather than bottle them up inside — which tends to lead to explosions or reactions that can cause harm to the self or others.

Develop an Emotion Vocabulary

Building a sophisticated emotions vocabulary helps children identify and communicate different types of feelings, which in turn helps them manage emotions in productive ways, instead of hitting, acting out, or withdrawing.

  • Strategy:
    Create a "Feelings Tree" on the wall of your classroom or living room where you can post feelings-related words (“feelings leaves”) as they arise in conversations, in books or movies, or through other classroom activities. Start with basic emotions like happy, sad, mad, and scared, and see how many new words you can add throughout the month, like jealous, embarrassed, anxious, and proud. Encourage students to practice using their new emotion vocabulary when you read or talk about your day.
  • Kid Talk:
    When you notice your child or a student acting a certain way, ask how they are feeling. Add that feeling to the Feelings Tree and tell them about a time you felt that way. This helps children understand that all feelings are normal and okay. It also helps to validate positive feelings, like pride or affection.

Understand that Emotion Underlies Behavior

Sometimes it can feel as if someone else is in control, especially when you experience big, intense feelings — as if the emotion, not you, is in charge of what you say or do. Acknowledging the connection between feelings and behavior can help parents and teachers get to the root of difficult behavior, and can help students to build self-awareness about the link between how they feel and how they act.

  • Strategy:
    "Stop and Stay Cool" is a strategy kids can use to calm themselves down when they feel strong emotions like anger or anxiety. Stop and Stay Cool has five steps:
    • Notice when you are about to lose control
    • Tell yourself to stop and think
    • Wrap your arms around yourself and give a big hug
    • Practice breathing slowly while counting to five
    • Regain control and return to the learning or social activity
  • Kid Talk:
    Ask your child: When you have a strong emotion like anger, does it feel like someone else is in control? Talk to your child about who is “in control” and what might be triggering the feelings. Walk your child through the Stop and Stay Cool steps, modeling how to take deep breaths, slow it down, and take time to “cool off” before moving ahead.

Talk About Positive and Negative Emotions

Experiencing negative emotions is a normal part of life, but they can be difficult for children and caregivers to navigate, especially when feelings seem to get in the way of things we need to do. Children need help to learn how to identify and manage difficult emotions in productive ways.

  • Strategy:
    “I” messages help children (and adults) identify feelings and communicate them appropriately. Encouraging students to use their own words to express what they are feeling can help support the development of an emotions vocabulary while improving communication and your understanding of the situation.
  • Kid Talk:
    If you notice your child or student feeling angry, disappointed, or embarrassed, help them use an “I” message to describe what they are feeling. For example, “I feel frustrated because everybody else has a partner and I don’t.”

Think About Thinking

Talking about what’s going on inside your mind, maybe even explaining how emotions are formed and processed, can help kids think about their own brain and empower them to understand how they think, feel, and act.

  • Strategy:
    The "Stop and Think" strategy encourages students to use self-control to stop and think before they act. Students can identify when a situation requires waiting, reflecting, or choosing an appropriate response instead of an automatic impulse. For example, a teacher might remind students to use their Stop and Think power to raise their hands before shouting out an answer, or to wait patiently instead of cutting in line. At home, a parent might use Stop and Think to remind a child to think about what they are supposed to do before turning on the TV (first do homework, set the table, etc.).
  • Kid Talk:
    Tell your child or your students that the brain is like a muscle that grows with exercise and good health. Eat well, get plenty of sleep, and you can build your “brain powers” by practicing specific skills — like stopping to think before you act. In difficult situations, remind children to use these “brain powers” to help them focus, remember, and exercise self-control.
Widen Layout: 
standard
See More In
Early Childhood K-12 Parenting and Community Social-Emotional Wellbeing