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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Take CHARGE Day 13: Calming techniques

Updated: Jan 22, 2020

Photo by Colton Sturgeon on Unsplash

(To read Day 12, click here. To listen to this post as a podcast, click here.)

Take CHARGE of the Classroom







Students have missing skills. While they might not know how to apply the Pythagorean Theorem to find the length of an unknown side of a right triangle, those aren't the types of skills I'm talking about. More than just focusing on content-related skills, teachers should take a hard look at the emotional skills that might be absent from their students.

Ultimately, teachers want students to behave. They want students to function on their own, make the right decisions, and take responsibility for their actions. Yet too often, teachers shy away from spending precious instructional minutes on teaching these behavioral skills for three major reasons. Today's post, along with the next two (Day 14 and Day 15), will look at how to grow our students in the use of these much needed skills.

But first, we must take care of those pesky objections.

First, teachers shy away from teaching social-emotional habits and skills because they themselves aren't comfortable with them. How can they teach students to use calming techniques when they themselves fly off the handle at a moment's notice? That's a good question, but my response would be to learn together. Be open with your students, let them know that you're going to teach them something that you're still working on. That level of vulnerability will strengthen your relationship with them through openness and authenticity.

Second, teachers often claim the time factor. Their class periods already utilize every second of time for instruction and they don't have any left over for such soft skills. Yet, if there were a video camera recording your classroom for a month, how much instructional time would it see is being used for dealing with behavioral matters? How many minutes are lost each day keeping students focused, dealing with disagreements, playing referee between hostile classmates, and nagging students about missing assignments? Don't have time? You could actually save time in the long run by helping students learn these self-regulatory skills!

Finally, some teachers agree that these skills are helpful but hope they'll be caught rather than needing to be taught. Through some magical transfer of knowledge, students will pick up what they need to if the teacher models them. To a certain extent, that does occur. Students do pick up on what they see consistently demonstrated day after day. But, I'd argue, are you comfortable just hoping your students pick up on academic skills, such as using phonics to decode, generating a thesis statement, or finding the least common denominator? Most likely, academic skills are too important to leave to chance and you'll want to teach them explicitly. The same goes for social-emotional skills.

Taking charge is about actively working to improve your classroom environment, not waving a magic wand and hoping that students behave on their own. The power of taking charge lies in the fact that both parties are responsible for their own actions - the teacher and the students. Growth is mandatory for not just the students but the teachers as well. Teachers learn to be more self-disciplined and, in turn, teach children how to better manage themselves.


Before diving into calming techniques to help you and your students self-regulate, one seemingly obvious word of caution. All the growth areas to be discussed in today's post and the next two should be taught to students when they are calm and receptive to new learning. Trying to teach a child a new breathing technique when she's in the middle of a meltdown is as useful as trying to paint your house in the middle of a hurricane.

With that being said, the skill that will probably help you and your students the most is something you already do about 20,000 times each day. Nature has given us a powerful tool to control our emotions - our breath. Taking slow, deep breaths helps you relax and calms your brain so you think clearer and stay in control. Students can use it before taking a test, to get to sleep, or any time they're frustrated, worried, sad, or just need to chill. And they can use it anywhere. The more you and your students practice, the easier it is to calm and relax.

When in doubt, breathe. Pause for a moment and breathe right now. Take three deep breaths through your nose and exhale them through your mouth, trying to make the exhalation about twice as long as your inhalation. As you breathe, focus on the sensation of the air moving through your nose, into your lungs, and out through your mouth. Breathing calms and centers you, giving you and your students a handy tool for defusing testy situations.

To teach the power of breathing, there are many different types of breathing exercises you can share with students. Let them experience all of them and discuss how breathing calms the nerves and emotions. When in distress, students can utilize breathing as a simple self-calming technique.

Buddy breathing: Have children sit back-to-back with arms intertwined at the elbows. Ask them to breathe together, synchronizing their breaths until they are in unison.

Belly buddy: Students place a small stone or stuffed animal on their tummies while they are laying flat on their backs. With breathing, they watch it rise and fall with each full breath.

Gratitude breathing: Using any type of breathing, students think of one thing they are thankful for with each exhale. Not only does the breathing calm the nervous system, the thoughts of gratitude open the students up to serenity and thankfulness.

Hand model of the brain

Another method to help students grow is to teach them about their brains. Put out by Dr. Dan Siegel, the hand model of the brain is a useful simplification of how our brains work. First looking at a fist, the four fingers overlapping the thumb represent our cerebral cortex, including the all-important prefrontal cortex that allows us to use our executive skills.

Underneath the cerebral cortex (the four fingers) is the hippocampus and amygdala, represented by the knuckle and the base of thumb, respectfully. The hippocampus and amygdala are part of the limbic system, which helps us regulate our emotions and form new memories. Finally, the brain stem is represented by the palm of the hand. This is the oldest part of our brain, sometimes called the reptilian brain, and is responsible for our fight, flight, or freeze autonomic responses.

While the names and functions of each of these parts of the brain are not essential for students to memorize, what they represent is a powerful insight for students. When their brains are acting normally, regulated and integrated, it's like the fist on the right in the image above. Their prefrontal cortex is in charge and they are making rational decisions. Everything is great in the world.

Sometimes, however, they "flip their lid." This happens when they become angry, frightened, scared, or emotionally stimulated in some other way. This looks like the image on the left. The prefrontal cortex is out of the picture and the hippocampus, amygdala, or possibly their brain stem is temporarily in charge. While emotionally agitated, they do not have access to the more rational parts of their brain. In fact, you could say that they are acting irrationally because they are momentarily unable to access the higher-level areas in their prefrontal cortex.

Glitter jar

So how does this help students? Teaching them that when they get upset they "flip their lid" provides then with a handy metaphor to describe what is happening inside them. The more they know, the more they feel in control (even when out of control). No one likes to remain in ignorance and oftentimes students feel completely powerless in the face of these gigantic and unpredictable emotions.

Also, this imagery is useful when used in conjunction with a glitter jar. Sometimes called a calm down jar, glitter jars are easy to make with just a few ingredients such as a jar or plastic bottle, warm water, glitter glue, gel food coloring, and lots of glitter.

When students get angry, they can use the glitter jar to represent what's going on inside of them. If they "flip their lid," it's like the glitter being shaken in the glitter jar. When their emotions are rising up, the brain (the bottle) floods with cortisol (the glitter) and they flip their lid (shake the bottle). They lose access to the prefrontal cortex with its flexibility and reasoning capabilities. As they breathe, the cortisol dissipates (the glitter settles to the bottom of the bottle) and they feel calmer and the prefrontal cortex comes back online, making it easier to feel calm and make better decisions.

Students can use a glitter jar as a calm-down aid just as they would use a calculator as a calculation aid. When upset, they can shake up the glitter jar and take deep, measured breaths until the glitter settles back down. When the jar is clear, most likely their emotions have settled down as well and they can continue with their learning activity. Many recipes and videos for how to make glitter jars are available for free online.

Next steps

Action: Create a glitter jar for your classroom. Try using it yourself once or twice when you get angry at home to see how it feels to breathe through a situation and wait for the glitter to settle. This can be a powerful tool to help students self-regulate.

Reflection questions: What do your students normally do when they get angry? Do they have any way to calm themselves down? If so, how effective and timely is it? How useful do you think it will be to teach students the hand model of the brain?


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

Borba, M. (2016). UnSelfie: Why empathetic kids succeed in our all-about-me world. Simon and Schuster.

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.

Srinivasan, M. (2014). Teach, breathe, learn: mindfulness in and out of the classroom. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.

To read Day 14, click here.

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