George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

How to Spot Signs of Hidden Distress in Young Students

It’s important for preschool teachers to be able to recognize when students need emotional support—even if they seem to be doing fine.

September 26, 2022
Preschool teacher and student work on a drawing together
Drazen Zigic / iStock

Preschool classrooms tend to be organized chaos, with 15–20 young students presenting with different needs while their teachers valiantly attempt to prioritize who comes first. As a clinical social worker embedded within a preschool, I find that the decision is often made for me, with the sounds of a student in distress—yelling, crying, screaming—demanding my immediate attention and intervention. But not every child’s distress can be heard or even seen.

Many of our “good,” quiet, eager-to-please students carry the weight of their own hard feelings and struggle with them just as our other students do. Being perceptive about the quiet kids and recognizing when being “good” indicates that a student may need support will ensure that every child receives the help, attention, and connection that’s essential to thriving in school.

Differentiate Between Internalized and Externalized Behavior

While many of my students do engage in externalized behaviors that are easily observed—physical and verbal aggression, oppositional behavior—I also work with many students who internalize their feelings, so their behavior or overall demeanor isn’t easily recognized as a sign for help.

When these students experience stress or other big feelings, they often become withdrawn and stop speaking or quietly refuse to participate in circle time and other activities, choosing instead to spend time in the classroom quiet area. It may seem like they’re taking that time to regulate themselves, but when I go to them, they’re sitting silently and appear frozen by their strong feelings.

Other students I’ve worked with have exhibited internalized struggles in other ways. I’ve noticed that some of my students who appear to be engaged in pretend play with the dollhouse or kitchen area aren’t playing at all, instead just moving dolls, furniture, or other toys around. One student, in response to my firm voice and limit-setting with his class in the gymnasium, took it upon himself to clean up the entire gym without help before asking me if he did the right thing.

Another student, one who is always eager to please, teared up when his teacher told him to stop playing on his cot at rest time but quickly stopped himself from crying. I’ve also had students have no reaction at all to stressors that should’ve garnered some kind of response.

Understand the Window of Tolerance

The externalized behaviors and impact of internalized feelings observed in the classroom fall on opposite ends of a student’s window of tolerance, a concept developed by psychiatrist Dan Siegel that refers to the “ideal emotional zone that a person needs for optimal functioning.”

Students are in this emotional zone when they’re regulated and able to focus, learn, and cope with stressors. Children who exhibit externalized behavior when triggered are described as being in a state of hyperarousal. Their behavior is an outward display of their in-the-moment internal experience, communicating to us that they need support in coming down from this state of hyperarousal back to their window of tolerance.

The students who we consider to be the “good” kids but may be quietly struggling are often just as overwhelmed and dysregulated by their feelings when triggered. These students can be described as being hypoaroused or constricted. The emotions they experience are so overwhelming that they shut down and become numb to their feelings. Avoiding feelings such as anger, fear, guilt, and shame fuels their need to please adults, engage in perfectionism, and act as though everything is fine when it might not be.

Try Strategies to Help Young Students Self-Regulate

There are a variety of reasons why young children may experience constricted affect, such as adverse childhood events, modeling of constricted affect expression at home, or wanting to protect caregivers from big feelings, or it may simply be their own temperament.

Most young learners, however, need consistent support to stay within or come back to their window of tolerance because they’ve only just begun to learn how to self-regulate when they experience stress. We don’t need to know the reason behind a child’s hypoarousal, but we do need to recognize when they are in that state.

Our goal is to awaken their nervous system just enough to bring them back up to their window of tolerance so that they can access and express their feelings. Because of that, it’s crucial that the strategies we offer be different from strategies we offer children who may need help calming their bodies when exhibiting external behaviors.

Encourage movement-based activities: Activities such as animal walks, playing catch, going for a walk, yoga, and dancing are effective and developmentally appropriate strategies for helping young learners become more regulated. I use movement frequently in my work with preschool-aged children and often start sessions with bear crawls or movement dice to turn it into a game.

Offer a fidget: Giving kids fidgets or Play-Doh to work with while we speak is also helpful, as it can be a healthy distraction from experiencing feelings too intensely. Giving students a job, such as delivering papers to the main office or bringing something to another classroom, can also help them become more regulated and less constricted. These activities allow children to move around, they get a break from the classroom, and being helpful allows them to experience feelings in a positive and healthy way.

Model affect regulation: Teachers and support staff are in a position to model affect regulation and normalize the ways in which people experience feelings. I often share with students that I’ve had to learn not to bottle up my feelings. I talk with them about the coping skills I use to stay regulated while still being able to express myself. It’s also helpful to give students permission to decide not to talk about what’s bothering them until they’re ready, and reminding them of the many adults who want to support them is also helpful.

It’s also important to provide a safe and supportive space for our young students to make mistakes or the occasional poor choice without being too hard on them. Doing this allows them to experience—slowly and safely—what it feels like when we aren’t perfect.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Student Wellness
  • Pre-K

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