I’m watching a group of children prepare to act out a spiritual story. One child insists on taking the lead role, and tries to tell all the others what they must do. When another child resists, the first becomes angry. The teacher, hoping to keep the peace, urges the second child to cooperate. Now both children are upset as the teacher repeats, “It’s ok, it’s ok, calm down,” when things are clearly running out of control.
Since the pandemic, preschool and early elementary children are struggling to regulate their emotions even more than usual. The stress and uncertainty created by the crisis disrupted typical patterns of development. They had fewer opportunities to practice building peer relationships and more reasons to feel anxious and vulnerable. Many of their reactions to even minor challenges are more intense and out of control than we might expect given their age.
Combine kids’ emotion dysregulation with many leaders’ aversion to conflict, and you have a recipe for group dysfunction. However, educational consultant Lety Valero believes that practicing Conscious Discipline can help children and adults feel emotionally aware, connected, and engaged.
Conscious Discipline begins with the teacher’s or group leader’s self-regulation. As adults, we think about how we feel when we encounter conflicts and big emotions. Are we anxious? Frustrated? Protective? Angry? Recognizing how we react and shifting that response toward how we want children to regulate their emotions is key.
Valero notes that kids are much more likely to imitate good models than follow spoken directions. So if we want children to learn how to de-escalate conflicts and meltdowns, we need to show them how. Breathing exercises are particularly helpful here. Before responding to a child who is spiraling out of control, visibly take three deep breaths to calm yourself. This signals to the child that deep breathing is a tool they can also use to manage their emotions.
Incorporating regular breath practices into your group’s routines also helps model emotional regulation. Begin your gathering with a short breathing ritual and repeat that routine each time you move to a new activity. End your time together with a final round of deep breaths before children head out.
Another useful tool are ‘feeling dolls’, cut-out figures (or faces on popsicle sticks) that represent a variety of emotions. Children under eight often do not have the capacity to accurately identify their feelings without some assistance. Feeling dolls encourage them to pick a figure that looks like how they see themselves and playact calming behaviors together. Studies show this works better than a conventional ‘time out’, where children have to figure things out on their own.
Conflicts between children are also great opportunities to teach kids healthy relationship-building skills. Instead of focusing solely on correcting the behavior of an aggressor, we can model more effective interactions one both sides. For example, one child grabs another child’s marker and the second child begins to cry. We take a few deep breaths and then ask child one to think about how they might communicate their need for the marker more respectfully. We coach child two to use their voice to communicate how they feel when someone takes their marker. Both children thus learn how better emotional regulation contributes to good relationships.