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Emotional Regulation and Learning

Updated: Apr 10, 2022

Emotions are complex. Then add slow cognitive processing and sensory processing disorder. How is a student who is processing strong emotions able to learn? A toolbox of strategies like using fidget toys, breathing strategies, and taking breaks help a stressed student calm their brain in order to be ready to learn. Neurodivergent students have more difficulty due to the way the brain processes emotions.

I am a big fan of fidget toys. For some kids, the need to move their body is so strong that when they cannot move, that is all they are thinking about. Playing with fidgets, or standing/walking in the back of the class is what their body demands. It is called self-stimulatory behavior which helps keep a student's body regulated. You can put colored tape on the floor in a line or box to give a student a space to pace.

Have you ever seen others who shake their leg? How about both legs? That is a somewhat socially-acceptable self-stimulatory behavior. I did it often while I created this post. Its what I need to do to keep my mind focused. I know some students, who listen to music with one earbud. Their brain just craves and requires multiple sensory inputs at the same time.

Neurotypical kids take breaks by daydreaming, going to the restroom, sharpening their pencil, etc. Some kids with autism may not know what fits within the classroom environment. Many autistics thrive on systems-based learning environments. Adding breaks right into their schedule (usually 5 to 10 minutes) is a straight forward way to be sure that movement is included because they get out of their chairs and the learning brain gets some down time on a regular basis.

Another break strategy is unlimited breaks which teaches students the skill of self-regulation and is designed for students who have staff who can monitor them. The backbone of this idea rests on self-advocacy and trust. The trust is on the student's side. What I mean is that the student needs to rely on staff and that when they request a break that it will be honored. The student is taught to notice when their body or mind is becoming agitated, and they can request a break.

In the designated break area, the adult sets a 5 minute timer. When it goes off, ask the student are you ready to return to class? If not, then another 5 minute timer. After this, if a student has a preferred sensory tool or activity, it is removed. The staff encourages the student to return by stating the positives that are coming up like earning rewards, or that recess is soon. The kids will appear to abuse it at first when they are learning this concept, but will learn to trust the system, and the requests will decrease. They will learn that they can request a break before they become dysregulated, but if they want to earn rewards or go to recess, they need to return to class and be doing their work.

What's great about breathing techniques is they can be done throughout the day and anywhere. Focusing on the breath interrupts dysregulation that may be happening in the brain, because we are causing a normally automatic process to become manual and thoughtful. The best time to teach a breathing technique, is when they are calm. There are many approaches, and most any can be used. Here is one to do while counting slowly with your fingers:

1. "Lets take a big belly breathe through our nose, counting to 5."

2. "Hold it counting to 3."

3. "And blow out through the mouth, counting to 5".

4. Repeat 3 times. Not anymore, because hyperventilation could occur.

Because the mind is focusing on the breathing, it interrupts the thought patterns that may have been causing the student to become upset. Physically, an excited nervous system in the body will slow down with the breathing and the body will become calmer.

Every child is unique and every child may need something different from one day to the next to help with emotional regulation. So having several tools in the toolbox will help neurodivergent kids stay regulated and ready to learn.


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