As a school principal, I’ve navigated my share of student disputes—from “she stole my applesauce” to football recess referee to mediating more serious and violent gang disputes as a high school administrator.
When students have outbursts or retreat inward, they may have issues with other students, something happening at home, or even an internal conflict they’re trying to process. Supporting students when they’re in crisis, or especially rebellious, is difficult. It requires patience and understanding. It’s not about the discipline that we impose, but rather the self-discipline we all—adults and students—model and learn how to harness from within.
Teaching Self-Regulation is an Urgent Need
Research indicates that there is a mental health crisis among teens today. Forty-two percent of high school students indicate suffering from overwhelming stress and anxiety—a 50 percent increase from 2011. These strong emotions can be disastrous if students don’t learn how to adapt and cope.
Interpersonal and intrapersonal conflicts can be hard to manage, yet they present teachable moments for us to help students apply strategies for resolving their issues in real time. Our students are also watching our every move, including the models we provide when we’re elated, frustrated, or simply riding the wild of human emotions. In fact, disciplinare (the forbear of discipline) means “to teach” in Latin. We must remember that schools not only are institutions of academic learning but also are training grounds for lifelong personal success.
It’s About Strategy, Not Perfection
While I’ve learned that helping students regain their composure requires being a regulated adult in the moment of crisis or conflict, the reality is that everyone has off days and moments of frustration. You don’t have to be perfect. We’re all human, and we wrestle with real emotions.
Here are some ideas to help students regulate their emotions and keep calm.
1. Build strong relationships with students. This is essential because it increases students’ feelings of trust and sense of belonging. In fact, research indicates that positive relationships can have a remedying effect on youth trauma. Strong attachments with adults at school—including teachers, staff, coaches, and administrators—provide young people with a sense of safety, security, and stability.
You can deepen connections with students through time spent during extracurricular activities. Align school initiatives with students’ diverse interests in music, sports, visual arts, language, coding, and more.
At our school, we pair students with an adult as a mentor, which facilitates closer bonds. As a result, students respond favorably to us because they know we truly care about them. These strong and reliable connections can be particularly important when students experience insecurity at home.
2. Teach coping and self-management skills before they’re needed. In the heat of the moment, it’s hard to think clearly, and the fight-or-flight response may kick in. That’s why we’ve established a peace corner in every classroom. These spaces provide our students with the prompt to self-direct and reflect—taking a break when they feel they need it. It’s so encouraging to hear a 4-year-old empowered enough to say, “I need to take a break.”
We also leverage positive psychology strategies through encouraging, specific feedback, and even social stories, which allow students to envision themselves making good decisions. We start each day with affirmations about our identity as leaders, and student groups sing our school values during morning announcements. We believe it’s important for students to develop a deep belief in themselves to know they can face the challenges that come their way.
3. Expect conflict. Diversity of thought can sometimes result in tension. Students will experience frustration, anger, or sadness. These strong emotions offer the adults who support students with the opportunity to affirm students’ identities and coach them through the wild ride of feelings. In addition, we often know and can anticipate the hot spots of the day for when students may need more support. For example, playing soft instrumental music right after recess may help students settle down and limit peer-to-peer conflict.
Educators can also identify peer mediators in advance to help students work together to solve certain problems. These leadership roles can be formal or informal or even school-level jobs through student council, or playground monitors. Students can help mediate by giving advice and sharing perspectives to their peers through role-plays.
4. Listen to what’s said and unsaid. When supporting students at the height of their emotions, we must acknowledge their behaviors. Are they fidgeting? Crying? Fuming? What clues and hints can you uncover about the root of the issue? Do they need someone to hear them out or maybe just a safe, quiet space to think? Would a peer mediator be helpful?
This can be challenging if a student has an outburst during the middle of instruction, which could derail the entire class. When this happens, it may be time to ask students probing questions about what’s bothering them. Yet, sometimes all they may want is the presence of a caring adult and a nonjudgmental ear. It really all depends.
5. All behavior is a form of communication. Determining appropriate support may sometimes necessitate involvement from a school counselor or mental health professional. Other times, our students may simply need to tap into their own strength through guidance from a teacher or administrator. Being a regulated adult in these situations helps to ascertain the next steps to take to assist the student.
6. Tap in a colleague. It’s OK to not be ok. A variety of factors can cause you to not have the energy to offer nuanced support at the specific moment a student is in need. This is a tremendous responsibility.
We can break or build our students in these moments, and we take this seriously at our school. Our teachers have buddy classrooms. They rely on each other to both proactively curtail behavior issues and also help de-escalate students when necessary. We know how to ask for support when dealing with a student who is in crisis by telling a colleague that we need a break. Education is a collaborative effort, and the psychological, intellectual, and physical demands of the work are to be shared.
It doesn’t make you less of a professional or caring educator to tap out. It actually demonstrates your own level of self-awareness and understanding, which ultimately helps us all serve students at optimal and healthy levels.