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Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Emotional Regulation Activities for Tweens and Teens

Middle and high school students often experience strong feelings, and self-regulation tools can help them feel in control.

May 24, 2021
SDI Productions / iStock

Emotional regulation can be a particularly challenging skill for tweens and teens. At this point in their development, they can demonstrate social and emotional changes that may impact their ability to emotionally regulate in the school setting and that can affect grades, executive functioning, and overall health. When physical, academic, social, and peer pressures and fluctuations pile on, many tweens and teens struggle, to the point where they can feel like their lives are out of control.

Stabilizing coping strategies and self-regulating tools help students take ownership of challenging and overwhelming emotions. I use them frequently in my practice, with much success.

Preparation

Before you introduce new strategies to students who need to work on social and emotional regulation, keep in mind that they work best within a sturdy, consistent framework:

  • Provide students with choice. Emphasize that they can choose whatever tools help them the most. Reinforce that they have the control, which in itself is regulating.
  • Model these strategies consistently across your day yourself, especially when you are feeling emotionally dysregulated; this will demonstrate to your students that not only is it OK to have challenging feelings but also there are tangible ways to help manage them.
  • Link the use of these supports to being a successful adult. For example, you can tell your students, “Grownups often feel challenging emotions in daily life, such as frustration, sadness, worry, and anger—just like kids. They also have to manage jobs, family, and finances at the same time. When you learn how to manage difficult feelings and your own responsibilities now, that will help you become a successful grownup.”
  • Keep the strategies below visibly accessible to your entire classroom so they can tap the strategies at a glance (and build a community of understanding around the importance of emotional regulation).

Bubble Breath With Forced Exhalation

This is a good strategy when students are feeling emotionally dysregulated because it delivers oxygen to the brain, which can help students think better and make smarter choices. (It’s also calming when kids are preparing to go to bed.) Bubble breaths are a variation on deep breathing, and they can calm fight or flight behaviors (stimulated by the sympathetic nervous system) by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.

Directions for students:

Breathe in through your nose slowly for 4 seconds, hold, breathe out through your mouth slowly and with control for 6 seconds. (Emphasize holding the inhale breath longer than the exhale breath.)

Repeat and gauge how you feel with each breath.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

This is an exercise where students isolate and then tense and relax different muscles in their body. Progressive muscle relaxation tells the body where it is in space, which is good for teens and tweens when they are feeling emotionally dysregulated. It’s a great stress buster and has even been shown to help treat anger and aggression in adolescent males.

Directions for students:

Label your feelings and put them into your shoulders. Tense them. Hold the position for 5 seconds and release.

Do the same for the wrists, fingers, knees, ankles, and toes. The feelings should become more manageable or even disappear.

My List of 10

Research shows that writing down positive affirmations about one’s core personal values and positive attributes improves self-esteem, executive function, and inhibitory control. When students list their strengths, it can help them get through a hard day and give them a confidence boost.

Directions for students:

Think of 10 things that define who you are and make you special. Take your time. Write down your list.

Put the list somewhere you will see it routinely, such as next to your bed or pinned up in your workspace.

Cool-Down Area

A cool-down area offers students refuge when emotions like anger, sadness, and anxiety make their appearance, and these areas are often included in the design of trauma-informed classrooms. It is a dedicated space to practice emotional-regulation skills in the classroom, rather than in isolation, and it strengthens the educator-student relationship by communicating to the students that no matter what, they belong in the classroom community. The cool-down area can be equipped with dim lighting, an MP3 player with relaxing music and headphones, stress balls, markers and paper, affirmations lists, and even scent, like lavender and vanilla.

Sometimes it helps to invite the student to request their own cool-down area; supply it with items they choose, including pictures of family and friends; and name it themselves—for example, “The Chill Zone” or “My Calm Spot.”

Guide your students with these questions:

What tools or items would you like to put into the cool-down area that make you feel happy, calm, and safe? What community rules should we create to use this space safely and correctly?

This can always be a safe spot for you to go to when you first feel emotions you might not be able to control. Don’t wait until they feel too big.

Wearable Fidget

A loose key ring bracelet, scrunchie, or rubber band can be a nice alternative to a stress ball. They’re not as distracting, they’re portable, and they’re discreet. The physical movement of pulling or squeezing the material of the fidget can provide an outlet for pent-up feelings, while also getting out excess energy.

Directions for students:

Label your feelings and connect them to the wearable fidget: visualize where those feelings are in your body and put those feelings into the fidget, so you can control them.

Pull the fidget back and forth when you’re feeling emotional. Imagine your feelings disappearing with every pull. 

Positive Self-Talk/Affirmations

Self-talk requires a lot of mental power and energy, as well as practice, but positive affirmations have been shown to improve executive function skills, including working memory.

Directions for positive self-talk are straightforward: Tell your students that when they have a negative thought about themselves, they can replace it with an affirmation, like “I am an awesome person, regardless of what anyone says or does.” Remind them that if they’re consistent, positive self-talk can become a habit, just like anything else.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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