Over the past few years, I’ve heard the same question come up over and over – “how do we help our middle and high school students self-regulate?” It begins with understanding! Whether we reflect on our own experiences, have adolescents in our home, or work with students who are between the ages of 11 and early 20s, we understand that there are some significant shifts in behavior and functioning during this time! Students are seeking to understand themselves and how they fit into the world around them, they are gaining independence, taking risks, increasing social awareness, empathy, and a plethora of other skills. It is a busy time! It can be overwhelming for us and them. When we consider the very real stressors that have heavily impacted our young people in recent years, it can be difficult to know what to do or even where to start. I believe it begins by understanding the changes in the brain and then using that information to create an environment in which regulatory skills can be routinely and safely introduced and practiced.
A Brief Overview of the Adolescent Brain
We are all aware of the intense brain growth and development that occurs in the early years of life. From the 2nd trimester to 6 years old we watch our little ones develop language, motor skills, relationships, and so much more. It is amazing. What you may not know is that the second most significant period of brain development occurs during adolescence. A combination of neurochemical and structural changes are happening to build a more efficient way of living. As our adolescent students experience this huge shift, they may experience higher dopamine levels leading to high reward or risk taking behaviors and a lower baseline leading to more, “I’m bored” moments. There is also a shift in melatonin distribution which tends to push back their sleep cycle by a couple of hours! While their natural rhythms are delayed, they still require 9 or more hours of sleep per night but many are not getting that. Sleep disruptions can lead to moodiness, irritability, and trouble with memory! Structurally, their prefrontal cortex is undergoing synaptic pruning by getting rid of the things they don’t need and strengthening what they do use. It’s a tricky time to say the least.
As our students navigate these big shifts in development, there are some real opportunities for us, as educators, to guide our students to take positive risks, to stretch their learning and thinking, and to develop self-regulation skills! The adolescent brain is especially adaptive and is highly influenced by the environment it’s in. When we focus on building an environment that encourages safety, belonging, and social emotional learning, we are nurturing their inclination to develop empathy, social awareness, self-regulation, and even advocacy skills. Let’s begin the conversation by addressing an environment built for the development of self-regulation.
The Teacher as the Supportive Adult
Adolescence is an exciting time FULL of firsts! There is so much unknown and left to be discovered and the teen brain is able to find the joy in the unknown. We can offer grounding or predictability to cue the type of safety that encourages positive risk taking such as applying for the first job or trying out for the team or putting yourself out there to make a new friend by setting clear expectations and boundaries in our classrooms! Teens find comfort and even relief in having teachers who provide warmth and high expectations. This is known as being a “warm demander”. Zaretta Hammond, in Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, defines a warm demander as “a teacher who communicates personal warmth toward students while at the same time demands they work toward high standards. The teacher provides concrete guidance and support for meeting the standards, particularly corrective feedback, opportunities for information processing, and culturally relevant meaning making.” We become warm demanders when we lead with relationship building, provide clear expectations, and encourage critical thinking. Establishing yourself in this role sets you up to encourage the development of self-regulation skills.
We can’t develop self-regulation without experiencing co-regulation. Co-regulation occurs when we sit beside our distressed students, offer validation, model calming techniques, praise the use of self-regulation, and provide opportunities for practice. While I know we want our students to initiate self-regulatory skills, that may not be a reasonable expectation. Understanding that enables us to consider how we might move our students in that direction. Remember, the structural changes that are occurring in their brains are meant to move them in this direction as well AND they are ridding themselves of skills they don’t practice or need and strengthening the skills they DO practice and need. Integrating regulatory skills into your procedures and routines with opportunities for reflection sets the stage for this transition from strictly co-regulation to the use of self-regulation. Let’s talk about how we create an environment full of opportunities to build these skills!
Strategies for the Classroom
3 Strategies For You
Self-regulation begins with co-regulation. By planning ahead and understanding our own stress response system activators, we can equip ourselves with tools to ensure we are bringing calm to our student’s storm. I, for instance, recognize that I benefit from a few big deep breaths, a walk around the building (if the situation permits), and a reminder to myself that a dysregulated adult can’t regulate a dysregulated student. I simply say that to myself as a prompt or reminder that my role in this scenario is to guide and model self-regulation through co-regulation. What are your three in the moment strategies? Take a moment to identify those!
*A note about caring for ourselves – while we may ready ourselves to model and encourage regulatory practices in high stress situations, that does not mean that we have effectively rid ourselves of the increased stress hormones that flood our bodies in times of stress! Layer self-care activities into your day to allow your mind and body to heal from added stress. I choose to journal, exercise, or connect with my family and friends!
1. Music – When working with pre-teens and teens, it is helpful to lean into practices that they already enjoy and are comfortable practicing in front of their peers. While I know that a regular yoga practice will benefit my students, I don’t start there or I won’t have the buy-in and participation I need for these strategies to be successful! Music is a fantastic way to show students how they can improve their mood, express emotions safely, and connect with one another! Here is one idea to get you started!
Class playlist – allow students to submit songs that they find calming or energizing. Create a playlist for each scenario and play it sometime during the week. Perhaps you’ll choose to play a song a day or a song a week. This activity allows students to consider how music impacts their brain state. They will also appreciate the opportunity to have some choice in what happens during the class period. Remember, practicing self-reflection in neutral times helps students build the capacity to return to those tools in times of distress! (Be sure to listen to each song in its entirety before playing it for the class!)
2. Breath – Breath is my favorite tool for students of all ages; however, I fully acknowledge that it can be awkward to start. This is where building regulatory practices into our routines can really benefit us! Breath is also a fantastic way to co-regulate with a student who is having a difficult time. We know that language isn’t helpful in calming a student who is experiencing a fight or flight response. Instead, we might try sitting with the student in a safe place, acknowledging our own distress and beginning big deep breaths on our own. More often than not, if we have a connection with this student and have found a safe quiet space, their breath patterns will slow as they begin to match ours. Here are some fun ways to incorporate breath into your day:
School-wide practices -build breath into your school’s procedures and routines. This is how we as a community agree to start our day! I’ve seen several schools incorporate breath into their morning announcements. Generally, the students will have been taught why and how we practice deep breathing. This can be done as a monthly lesson from the counselor or social worker. Then, each morning, after general school announcements, students are prompted to take a few cleansing breaths to ready their brains for learning and to start the day.
Mix it up! Have fun with these quick breathing activities. Some days, it might be as simple as big deep belly breaths. Other days it may be something like rectangle breathing, star breathing, or any of the many fun breathing techniques out there! I’ve included a few here for you to get started! I always tell students that participating in the breath activity is optional; however, I do ask them to simply sit quietly while we go through the exercise. It’s generally less than 2 minutes and when practiced with consistency makes a real difference for staff and students alike!
3. Journal or Draw – Drawing and journaling can be safe, easy, and even playful ways to express emotions or calm a stressful situation. Integrate journaling and drawing into bell work. Students can draw their breath, draw their emotions, respond to journaling prompts that encourage insight, imagination, and creativity.
4. Physical Activity – Dance parties, walks around the building, 5 minute work out videos, jumping jacks, wall push-ups – the ideas are endless! Physical activity is the fastest way to remove stress hormones from the body! Consider having a scaled check-in in your classroom. Have everyone reflect on their brain and body state as they enter the classroom. Do some exercise and reassess – how did the activity change their brain state? Physical activity during the day also promotes better rest at night. Remember our teens are experiencing neurochemical changes that delay the release of melatonin so we want to do whatever we can to ensure they’ll get that much needed 9+ hours of sleep a night!
The adolescent brain is enduring significant changes. These changes don’t need to be perceived as bad though! Our preteens and teens are primed for taking risks, trying new experiences, viewing things through a new lens, and building self-regulatory skills among many other things. We must recognize that their environment plays a huge role in how these changes play out. We can create spaces that promote belonging, creativity, and social emotional skill development with just a few changes. Consistency and reflection are key to our and their success. Be brave alongside your students, try new things, and learn together. These practices benefit us individually and collectively!