Emotional Regulation

What is emotional regulation?

Emotional regulation is the ability to respond to the ongoing demands of experiences and/or events in a manner that is socially tolerable and sufficiently flexible. It is the ability to regulate one’s own emotions and to respond to the ongoing demands of the day.  If you trashed your kitchen in anger every time you received a bill, this would be a sign that you do not have the ability to control your own emotional state, you become dysregulated.  We all have times when things do not go our way, when our behaviours do not have the desired result or reward that we expect and we become emotionally dysregulated, i.e. angry, frustrated, annoyed, tearful and so on and over which we may have limited control at the time (meltdown).   However, as adults, we do generally manage to limit and contain our outbursts.  We may use self-talk, reason with ourselves and provide explanations to ourselves for why it is not as bad as we think or take ourselves for a walk to calm down.  We learned how to do this, we became self-regulating.  Some adults with psychiatric or personality issues will always have very limited or no control over their emotional state, which can prove to be dangerous.

When children get to about 2 years old, they start to become consciously aware of their own behaviours and emotions.  At this stage, they begin to use emotional dysregulation-type behaviours consciously, to obtain or avoid things.  We all know about the terrible twos! This is the first glimmer of self-regulation and the stage when parents start to ignore their melodramatic behaviour and see it for what it is now becoming, i.e. an attempt at consciously manipulating others with a behaviour (tantrum).  Parents then start to provide their small children with socially acceptable ways to gain the rewards they so badly need and train their behaviour to be more reasonable.

Students with special needs firstly need much more help over a longer period of time to find ways of obtaining the rewards they want by using appropriate behaviours.  In this way they will not be emotionally dysregulated nearly as much since they will know what to do to get what they want.  However, when we feel that a student seems confident that they have found ways to get the rewards they want (e.g. work first then toy), it is time to start working on helping them learn to deal with their own emotional regulation as well, so they can deal with change and variation and unexpected setbacks.

When a student is regulated they are able to use their cognitive ability to keep their emotions under control.   Being able to keep their emotions under control affects their behaviours and actions displayed to others.  It enables them to fit into society’s norms. For example a student who finds it hard to cope with the flickering lights in the classroom can learn to regulate their emotions and not have an outburst in the classroom.  They can learn to take a break and leave class instead.  More on how to help them with emotional regulation below.

According to the SCERTS Model, a developmental framework that focuses on the development of spontaneous, functional communication abilities and emotional regulatory capacities, (SCERTS stands for Social Communication, Emotional Regulation and Transactional Support, Prizant et al 2003):

Emotional Regulation is the development of the ability to maintain a well-regulated emotional state to cope with everyday stress and to be most available for learning and interacting.

Generally emotional dysregulation involves the individual having difficulty in controlling the influence of emotional arousal on the organising and quality of their thoughts, actions and interactions.  A person’s emotional state is very complex and it influences their cognitive ability, emotions and their behaviours because they are interlinked.   Cognitive ability affects emotional understandings which affect behaviour. When they are in balance a person is regulated.

When emotions are in hyper drive and a person is in a high (or low) arousal state, cognitive ability and learning will be affected and behaviours/actions are influenced.  This is a person who is emotionally dysregulated.

Meltdowns and tantrums

You can see from what we have said above that a meltdown is an episode of emotional dysregulation where the person has limited or no control over their behaviour.  A tantrum is an episode of behaviour where the person has a reasonable degree of control and is using their behaviour to manipulate others. A tantrum can deteriorate into a meltdown at times.  Both types of behaviour can be managed in ways that reduce their frequency.


ACTIVITY:

Understanding the difference between a Meltdown and a Tantrum is important to help enable you to handle some situations. Therefore, you need to know if a student is having a Meltdown or Tantrum since you will handle each situation differently.

Please click on  This Test which will automatically download below.  Fill in the blanks with either Meltdown or Tantrum to see what your initial perceptions are before you move on.  Here you can find the Answers.


Over time tantrums can become learned responses.  A student may know if they act a certain way you will typically respond in the same way. A way to combat this is to change how you act in repeated situations but what must remain a constant is the following through of consequences. Ensure consequences are achievable and realistic and consist of positive reinforcement rather than punishment of some sort. Saying ‘do your work or you will stay in after school’ is a punishment and also not a good idea if it is highly unlikely to happen. Instead you may say ‘please, do your work then you can have 2 tokens’.  Perhaps you might then reward the student close to them with tokens for completing their work (modeling). The student can see this as an example of you following through.  Of course you will need to use what the student finds highly motivating to offer as a reward. Use the old carrot but not stick method to get students to stay on task. More on tokens and rewards later in the Reinforcement Schedules section.

Emotional Memory

Emotional dysregulation (meltdowns) can also create an emotional memory. This means that, over time, a student may feel the same feelings originally associated with a particular situation.  This may be positive or negative. For example, hearing the music from an ice-cream truck may create positive feelings as the student has memories of getting an ice-cream.  A negative memory could be triggered by seeing a vacuum cleaner; the student remembers the noise and starts to feel anxiety.  If a student has had negative experiences in a particular classroom, they may become fearful of re-entering that particular room.  In this case, short bursts of being in the room doing only a fun activity at first would help.

It is important to understand the influences/factors affecting the ability to self-regulate.

Factors Influencing Emotional Regulation

  • Physiological
  • Sensory
  • Communication and language
  • Interpersonal
  • Social
  • Motor
  • Developmental shifts and changes
 What does a Meltdown (Emotional Dysregulation) or Tantrum Look like?

ACTIVITY:

It is useful if you look back again at Meltdown vs Tantrum Answers for key indicators being displayed by the children.

Clip One: Baby having a Tantrum (manipulating those around):

Clip Two: Child having a Tantrum (work avoidance):

Clip Three: Child having a Meltdown (emotional dysregulation outside his control once it starts):

Clip Four: Child having a Meltdown (emotional dysregulation outside his control)


You can see now that tantrums can be modified and reduced using behavioural training, by giving the child different ways to access the outcomes they want other than by having a tantrum.  By contrast, meltdowns are when the emotional state completely collapses and the child no longer has control over themselves.  Once this happens it can take some time for them to recover. This emotional collapse follows a fairly typical course as will be explored in detail further on. Ideally, while the child is prone to this kind of dysregulation, it is the job of everyone around them to try and avoid it happening at all, using various behavioural methods which we will cover in the next part.  In addition, tantrums (which are more easily eliminated) can turn into meltdowns (which are more complicated) so dealing with tantrums using behavioural techniques, training and rewards rather than punishment, can improve the life of a child and everyone around them quite quickly and successfully.

Understanding the behaviour you see

First of all, when you find you have a student in your class who has inappropriate behaviours that need to be changed, you need to do some observations and regular recording to help you to understand what the behaviour is designed to achieve.  We have found in the past that just thinking about it or having a look will not give you the answers you want.  Once regular recording takes place, it is quite possible that the result will surprise you and not be what you expected by just looking or guessing. That is sometimes what we have found.

You will need a specific recording sheet and we give you an example here which can of course be modified to suit your requirements.

Function of Behaviour Recording Sheet

ACTIVITY:

It is important to record and analyse the inappropriate behaviour/s by keeping some form of a record.  Here again is the link to a Behaviour Recording Sheet, click to download. You should record behaviours over a period of time, one day is not going to tell you enough.


You can use any type of format you like as long as it has the following information:

  • Student Name
  • Date
  • Time
  • People involved
  • Antecedent (what was happening immediately before the meltdown)
  • The Behaviour
  • What happened Post Behaviour (consequences of the behaviour)

Please note that ‘post behaviour’ does not refer to consequences as in punishment or reprimand—it is what the student was doing and what others around the student did after the behaviour being studied terminated — it helps you to identify the function of the behaviour.

After a while patterns may emerge which could help you narrow down the function of the behaviour, i.e. what was the behaviour trying to achieve. This could then lead into you being more proactive when handling the student as you will have more insight into when the behaviour may occur. As educators it is often easier to be proactive than reactive as it takes up less time, less stress and effort from all parties involved. So when determining the function of a student’s behaviour keep in mind the following questions:

  • Is the student having a tantrum (to manipulate the environment somehow) or are they having a meltdown (emotionally dysregulated)?
  • When and where it is occurring (time and context)?
  • What is occurring before and after behaviour?
  • Why is the student displaying the behaviour?
  • Are they trying to AVOID something ?
  • Are they trying to OBTAIN something?

Examples of behavioural analysis;

    1. After repeated observation and filling in the behaviour recording sheet, it was seen that a student started to throw work just after another student started to play noisily in the corner area. In dealing with the dysregulated student, staff also moved the playing student to another part of the room, after which the dysregulated student calmed down.  It was concluded that the noisy student was too noisy.  Staff did not spot this relationship until repeated observations were made.
    2. The teacher believed that a student was becoming dysregulated just before recess so might be getting hungry. After repeated observations of a few weeks, she discovered that this was not actually true, the student became dysregulated at various times so it was not related to hunger at all.

How to obtain emotional regulation


ACTIVITY:

Understanding emotional regulation is critical when working with students with special needs. You may at this stage have minimal knowledge of emotional regulation but it would be useful to click to download and complete this Emotional Regulation Profile for your student before moving on so you have formed a clear picture when continuing on with the activities.

Print out the Profile and in each area on the Profile please tick and add additional information that applies to your student.  Please refer firstly to the top of the document, the Outline of the Stages of Escalation of Emotional Dysregulation, to help you in filling out the Profile.


We can generally observe the stages of escalation in our students.  Being able to recognise when our students are at a particular stage can be priceless as, sometimes, if our timing and tact are good, we are able to re-direct a student before they become highly emotionally dysregulated, a stage which is not nice for them or us. If the student does go into the dysregulated phase it may be about minimising the damage (physical and emotional) to the people involved in the situation. It becomes about understanding and re-conciliation.

Using an Emotional Regulation Plan

ACTIVITY:

Once you have identified the function of the behaviour you want to change, you then need to think about helping with the emotional regulation for the student, if this is an issue for them.  First of all  click to open and look at an Overview of an Emotional Regulation Plan with descriptors in each box.  This version explains what each bit is for.

Click to have a look at an example version of a Completed Emotional Regulation Plan, with many entries in each part.  It is unlikely that you will have as much as this just for one student but the entries might help you identify what is happening with your student.

Also please click to download a Blank Emotional Regulation Plan we use at our school for an Emotional Regulation Plan.  The emotional regulation plan is used with many of our students who have disabilities and difficulties regulating their emotions. You can save and fill in this version to help you with your student.


An Emotional Regulation Plan is not a Behaviour Management Plan (BMP) as with a BMP you are generally addressing or targeting one specific behaviour the student is displaying not a multitude of behaviours.  However, if you are still determining whether the student’s behaviour is a ‘tantrum’ or meltdown you can use the first two stages of the plan as a tool to assist in your BMP.  Within our classrooms we have done this as a student was initially swearing when they were dysregulated then at times they were also using it consciously for work avoidance.

When you create an emotional regulation plan for a student the ideal situation is that everyone who works with the student has some input especially when describing the student. When creating supports for the student, at first, the list may seem to be really long. This is useful because it gives the person working with the student a whole bag of tricks to utilise. After a short period of time the list will most likely be narrowed down. We have seen students who respond differently to different staff who will vary their supportive strategies slightly but are effective in keeping the student regulated.  All staff follows the directives in place for any student who has an Emotional Regulation Plan.

When you are ready you can move on to the NEXT SECTION – REWARDS AND REINFORCEMENT