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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Take CHARGE Day 10: Helping children through the emotional state

Updated: Jan 20, 2020

(To read Day 9, click here. To listen to this post as a podcast, click here.)

Take CHARGE of the Moment







In Day 6 and Day 7, we looked at the skill of empathy that allows us to improve our attunement. Day 9 (yesterday) and Day 10 (today) focus on the skill of adaptability. Whether we give students firm directives or two positive choices, we must remain flexible to meet the moment as it is. Every child and every situation requires something different, so the key to meeting their needs is a wide assortment of tools and the skill to wield them as needed.

Remember that students in the emotional state have connection as their core need. They are trying to answer the question, "Am I loved?" Connection, not punishment, is what students seek in this brain state. One key that is woven throughout these suggestions is that there is no script. Teachers should never try to move students through a set of predetermined behavioral steps because they'll fight them all the way.

Be consistent but not rigid. Consistency means working from a reliable and coherent philosophy so that students know what teachers expect of them and what they should expect from teachers. Rigidity means maintaining an unswerving devotion to rules that teachers set up, sometimes without having even thought them through, or without changing them as the students develop.

Using words to quiet emotions

In some situations students are emotionally upset, scared, or sad but are not acting out in harmful ways. With the goal of moving students up the ladder toward the executive state, or upstairs brain, one strategy to be familiar with is called name it to tame it. Simply by naming the emotion, a student feels her levels of fear and anger decrease. "Lauren, you look like you're feeling frustrated." Part of the upstairs brain takes charge with the labeling and processes the emotion. This allows the thinking, analytical part of the brain to take over and soothe the irritated, lower parts rather than letting the reactive, emotional downstairs brain dominate and dictate the person's feelings and responses.

If it's a fairly simple emotion brought on by a common occurrence, naming it begins the process of integrating the different parts of the brain. Sometimes, however, a much larger event has occurred, typically at home, that has caused a more powerful state of unrest. One of the best ways to promote integration is to help the child retell the story of the frightening or painful experience. The right side of the brain processes the emotions and autobiographical memories, but the left side is what makes sense of these feelings and recollections.

Storytelling allows children to understand themselves and their world by using both the left and right hemispheres together. Merely assigning a name or label to what is being felt literally calms down the activity of the emotional circuitry in the right hemisphere. When children can give words to their frightening and painful experiences, those experiences often become much less frightening and painful. One word of caution, however. Teachers are trusted role models but not psychotherapists. If the situation seems too personal or emotionally complex, please bring in the school counselor or administration for assistance.

Two positive choices

Sometimes the state of upset is causing some poor behaviors. If students are acting out their feelings in harmful or potentially harmful ways, naming the emotion might not be enough. When action needs to be taken quickly, teachers can give students two positive choices. Doing this helps children upshift from an emotional state to an executive state. Providing two choices offers some degree of power while asking children to activate their prefrontal lobes for decision-making and focused attention.

When teachers try to make students do things, they prime themselves to rely on force. Their strong-arm tactics teach children it's legitimate to use coercion to influence others. Attempting to use force to make children behave strips children of their willpower and self-worth. Offering choice fosters general well-being, increases pro-social behavior and responsibility, and improves academic achievement. It raises teacher morale and enhances all classroom relationships. Finally, it advances self-regulation and intrinsic motivation.

Both choices need to be viable, however. When teachers offer a false choice (e.g., eat what you're served or starve), they set students up to believe that when they think, feel, or choose differently than the teacher, they are bad, wrong, or disrespectful. Offering two positive choices teaches the autonomy and personal responsibility that slows reoccurrence in the future, while also encouraging children to choose compliance in the moment.

"Lauren, it's time to line up. You can either line up here behind Evan or walk with me. The choice is yours." If students don't quickly choose, teachers should continue to calmly repeat the choices. If the situation deteriorates because the child refuses to choose, she might need to be presented with two new choices that are more limited. The child will most likely choose but the most important point is to remain composed and not take it personally.

Once students see that they are constantly making choices, they can take charge of their actions and their lives. They realize their power lies within them, not in their attempts to control or manipulate others. Teachers ultimately cannot make children do anything and this truth shouldn't be hidden from them. It's empowering for them to know that they are in control of their choices. At the same time, they should also remember that certain choices have negative repercussions.

Change "I" to "we"

Finally, some situations involve a disagreement between two or more students. Teachers often rush in to settle the disagreement, acting as a referee and sending the offender(s) to a metaphorical penalty box. These actions, while typically warranted, miss out on a chance to help integrate the students' brains. Rather than solving the problems for the students, teachers can slow the situation down to change "I" to "we".

Teachers can ask the students to take the perspective of the child that they offended or hurt. "Lauren, I see that Evan is upset and that he's got something clenched in his fist. Why do you think he feels this way?" Through thoughtful and respectful questioning, teachers can help students access their executive (upstairs) brain by thinking about the situation from the other child's point of view. "Evan, Lauren has her arms crossed and she hit you on the leg. Why do you think this happened?"

The first few times students do this, they may not know how to respond to the question. They might say something useless like, "I don't know," or something volatile to further the conflict (e.g., "Because she's stupid!"). In these cases, the teacher is there to keep the conversation on track. If one of the affected parties seems unwilling or unable to engage in perspective taking, the teacher can cut short the exercise before it makes the situation worse.

To sincerely want to make things rights, a child must understand how the other person is feeling, and why that person is upset. When teachers break through their students' defensiveness and their reluctance to accept responsibility, they can help students be thoughtful about others they've hurt, and make an effort toward reconciliation. "Now that we both know why the other person did what they did, what can we do to make this right?"

One key to remember for this strategy is that the teacher should remain present to act as an external upstairs brain for students having difficulty accessing theirs. Simply telling them to work it out on their own might actually allow the situation to deteriorate if students can't muster the problem-solving skills needed to work through the conflict unsupervised.

Next steps

Action: Think about these strategies and others you might have used in the past to help defuse students in an emotional state. List them on an index card or sticky note in a prominent place so that, when something occurs, you have quick access to a variety of tools to address the situation.

Reflection questions: What strategies have you used in the past to help students manage their emotions? Which ones have been successful? Which of the three strategies described in the post above do you think will be most useful for you?


Bailey, R. A. (2015). Conscious discipline: building resilient classrooms. Oviedo, FL: Loving Guidance.

Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2016). No-drama discipline: the whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child's developing mind. New York: Bantam Books.

Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2016). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your childs developing mind. Vancouver, B.C.: Langara College.

To read Day 11, click here.

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