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Classroom Management

What to Do About Increasing Dysregulation in the Early Grades

Conflict at school is a normal part of learning how to interact with others—and early-grade teachers have always had to manage misbehavior in class. But not at the levels they’re seeing now.

August 25, 2023

Teaching our youngest students has never been easy, but the last few years have been a particular challenge. Sidelined and homebound during the pandemic, many young children—deprived of the benefits of steady and formative day care and preschool learning—arrived at school dysregulated, off-task and distracted, and often downright defiant. 

“Kids’ behaviors are bigger, more intense, more disruptive than ever before,” says Lety Valero, a former teacher and school administrator who now regularly presents at the ASCD and NAEYC annual conferences and travels the country training teachers as a master instructor of Conscious Discipline, a company that provides classroom management training. “And what I’m seeing is a lot of desperation among teachers. They’re exhausted.”

The research on student behavior, of course, bears this out: A 2023 survey by EAB, an education consulting firm, found that 84 percent of educators reported that students are “developmentally behind in self-regulation and relationship building.” Meanwhile, according to a National Center for Education Statistics survey last year, nearly 80 percent of elementary school educators reported needing more support to handle student and staff mental health, and over 70 percent said that staff need more training to adequately support students’ social and emotional development. 

We sat down with Valero to get her take on what’s unfolding in elementary classrooms across the country and what can be done to right the ship.

Sarah Gonser: When you describe kids’ behaviors as “bigger and more intense” right now, what do you mean—can you describe what’s happening in classrooms? 

Lety Valero: Some of the behaviors that teachers talk about—and I’ve seen them—are children running around the room, children hitting one another, children having a window of tolerance so small that anything throws them off. I walked into a classroom recently and a child was having a meltdown. He saw me coming in, and he took off his shoes and threw them at me.

It’s very intense behavior from children who are completely dysregulated—and the teachers often don’t know how to respond, so they sometimes react in ways that model the exact behavior they’re trying to eliminate. 

Gonser: How are teachers modeling the behavior they’re trying to eliminate—can you explain what that might look like?

Valero: When a child is out of control, teachers are becoming dysregulated themselves, and then they’re asking the child with words to calm down, as opposed to calming themselves down first so the child is able to achieve calm.

No child is ever going to calm down because we say, “Calm down, calm down, calm down!” A child may achieve that composure in the presence of a regulated adult. Without this modeling, a dysregulated child eventually becomes a dysregulated adult; it just escalates the behavior and everybody loses. 

Gonser: The apparent increase in the misbehavior of young kids is often attributed to growing up during a global pandemic—the social isolation and limited interactions with people other than caregivers at home. Is that how you see it?

Valero: Well, the first year of their lives, they were surrounded by stress—adults trapped at home living in a survival state with no predictability, worried about being able to put food on the table.

These children were born into that situation, which is the opposite of what they need for optimal learning. For optimal learning, children need an environment where there’s plenty of challenge, but stress is low. But what were they surrounded by? High stress and high challenge. 

Then the kids went back to school and the standards were the same, the expectations were the same—but their skills were not the same. 

Gonser: How have you changed your usual training for early-grade teachers, given what they’re dealing with?

Valero: I’m really showing and offering empathy to teachers; they need to be validated for what they are experiencing. And I try to focus on what they’re doing—they’re showing up, they haven’t given up—and not what they’re not doing. 

And then I present the idea that if we want children to behave differently, we have to go back to the basics, back to what we know about the brain and how the brain works, focusing on creating classrooms based on safety, connection, and problem-solving. Children have got to be in an environment that’s safe enough so that they’re regulated and connected to their teachers and to their peers. They have to know that here I belong, I matter, I am supported when I make a mistake, and people want to see me be successful. If we have that environment, then we can teach children new behaviors. 

Gonser: That’s not a quick fix, which might be hard for some to hear, especially after the last few years.

Valero: Sometimes teachers want a recipe, but children learn through seeing a model, seeing how a teacher responds, how she composes herself, how she reacts when life doesn’t go the way she’d hoped. That’s how children learn. 

Gonser: How do you respond to critics of social and emotional work who say teachers are supposed to focus on academics and that it’s parents’ job to teach kids how to behave?

Valero: Yes, our job is to teach—and children’s job is to learn. However, if we want optimal learning to take place, children have to be in a state of relaxed alertness, and that state comes from feeling safe and connected. Social and emotional work is an investment that we make in order for children to be able to learn optimally. 

So, children do need to know math and how to read and write, but we can’t forget that we’re raising human beings and we are all responsible for it. 

Gonser: What do you think we get wrong about conflict in the early grades? 

Valero: I think that as adults, many of us have a mental model that says we should avoid conflict because conflict is bad; some of us never learned that conflict is an opportunity to solve problems and to learn. 

A child, for instance, who pushes a classmate—that’s the best moment for me to teach both children. The one who pushed needs to think about how they want to be treated; and the child who got pushed needs to learn to speak up and say, “Hey, be more careful. I don’t like it when you push me. Next time walk around.” And then you teach the child who pushed: Next time you’re going to say, “Excuse me.” 

Through this conflict, I’ve now planted the seed that when you’re not treated well, you set a boundary and tell people how you expect to be treated, and I can teach the other child a better way to treat people. We need to teach students these social-emotional skills that are essential for the rest of their lives. I think we sometimes fail because what traditional discipline typically does is just tell the child what they’re doing wrong.

Gonser: So when you train teachers with a Conscious Discipline approach, how is that different from traditional discipline?

Valero: Well, Conscious Discipline isn’t just practicing or implementing a curriculum. It starts with the transformation of the adult—I cannot give what I don’t have. The adult works on their own self-regulation, on being conscious of my thoughts, my words, my actions, and how I respond to children, what I’m modeling to children. A conscious adult brings safety, and we promote safety through different rituals that create the school family, those caring connections between one another. 

Gonser: Can you describe a ritual?

Valero: We have a ritual that we call the Kindness Tree, where when there’s an act of kindness in the classroom, we put hearts on the tree. So instead of having children looking at who made a mistake, we have children looking for and practicing kindness between one another. When we focus on and value kindness, we’re valuing one another.

What rituals like this really promote is a sense of family, a sense of togetherness. And without that, we’re not going to see the changes that we’re hoping to see. 

Gonser: In the early grades, are there specific strategies that you recommend for teachers dealing with dysregulated students? 

Valero: When children’s nervous systems are dysregulated, you might start with breathing throughout the day—not breathing once, but engaging in breathing activities several times throughout the day. We start our day by taking three deep breaths. Every transition, we take another three deep breaths. It’s calming and goes back to being organized inside so that they can be organized outside. 

And that’s something that I model when I’m teaching a workshop—like today, at the end of the day, I asked them, “How many breaths did we take today? Today we took six sets of three breaths.” So doing that consciously—teaching and modeling for children how to breathe. 

Gonser: Are there other strategies that come to mind? 

Valero: When a child is having a meltdown, we have a space in the classroom where they can practice self-regulation. It’s designed to take the child from the lower centers of the brain to the higher centers of the brain so that they can go back to a state of relaxed alertness. 

Children go to the safe place, take a breath, then use a “feeling buddies” doll to name and manage their feelings. They take a breath with the feeling and then calm the feeling down by saying, “You got this. You can do this. You wanted a turn at the computer and you didn’t get it, and that was hard.”

The feeling buddy is a doll in the shape of a gingerbread person, and they have different expressions. Sometimes teachers have the resources to incorporate the dolls into their practice and sometimes they don’t. So instead, it can be a Popsicle stick with a cardboard face that shows different feeling faces. 

Why do they do this work with a feelings doll? Because they can’t do it by themselves. Their brain isn’t mature enough to say, “I wanted a turn and I’m just feeling angry.” But when they pick, for instance, the angry doll, they say, “Your eyes look like this, your mouth looks like this, you seem angry. Breathe.” They’re regulating themselves: The moment I feel this way, I can choose steps to manage these feelings and calm myself. 

Gonser: Giving kids space to calm down in a classroom safe place, as you call it, or a peace corner—that’s something we’re hearing about more and more in recent years. 

Valero: Right, and what did we used to do? You got a time-out—go think about what you did. Well, the child has no metacognition, so they have no ability to think about what they did, especially the younger ones. So what do they do? They sit there and do nothing. They go, “La la la la la.” I mean, that’s all they can do. 

When you have resources like a safe place, it’s creating those pathways for self-regulation for the rest of their lives. 

Gonser: We started this conversation talking about safety. What are some ways teachers can create safety in classrooms as they begin the new school year? 

Valero: Certainly one thing that I would suggest is children need organizational structure—predictability brings safety. 

So I suggest that teachers create visuals—by taking pictures of the kids, of their real classroom, or by making drawings with stick figures—that show kids precisely what their day is going to look like. You can use a clothespin to mark where you are in the school day. 

Many children come from stressful environments, and they have a very hard time picking up patterns. These are the children who will ask in February, “Are we going to eat lunch today?” And you’re thinking, “We’ve had lunch every single day.” Well, they haven’t picked up the pattern. They may be coming from homes where they had very little control and didn’t know what would happen next—these kids don’t like surprises, and they won’t be very tolerant of a change in the schedule. 

Having visuals in place and setting up that predictable structure right from the beginning is essential. 

Gonser: Teachers have had an especially tough time in the last few years. What’s your advice for the new school year when you’re training early-grade teachers?

Valero: So, as I mentioned, make sure the first few weeks of school, you’re creating that structure, building those connections. 

And then when the going gets tough, when things are not working and feel disorganized, go back to: Am I solving the needs of their survival state? Am I soothing the needs of their emotional and executive state? Am I a safe and composed adult? Do I communicate to my children that they’re safe in my presence? Do I have visuals that tell children what to do? If any of that is missing, go back to that. 

Then: Do children feel loved? If they’re acting out, do they feel like they matter? If they’re having behaviors that say, “See me, see me, see me,” then it might mean that they don’t feel connected. Do they feel seen today? Is there a true sense of belonging? Am I encouraging children? Do I offer them empathy? 

And if any of those components are missing, then we go back and teach the missing skills. And with that, we’re good to go. 

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  • Classroom Management
  • Mental Health
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Teaching Strategies
  • Pre-K
  • K-2 Primary

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