During tense situations, young children can learn to regulate their emotions when teachers calmly sit with them — using zero words at first.
by Megan Tavares
As a preschool social worker, I’m often in my center’s peace corner, sitting cross-legged on a shag carpet that our students like to make snow angels on, hands folded in my lap, waiting silently as one child or another thrashes and yells before slowly settling. Because the sounds of a young student in distress are anything but calm, my colleagues might come to the door offering support, or they look through the glass out of curiosity. I’m just sitting silently, waiting patiently for the right moment to intervene. But silence is the intervention during those charged moments, and over the years I’ve spent in the field of early childhood, using silence intentionally has become one of my most effective go-to strategies.
Using silence as a co-regulation strategy with preschoolers allows early childhood educators to connect with their young learners in a profound way, effectively supporting them as they move toward a sense of safety. Our silence speaks to what’s underneath the behavior and creates space for uncomfortable feelings to be seen and tended to. This demonstrates to our students, including the students watching all of this unfold, that we care enough to sit with them in their discomfort until they’re ready to successfully transition back to learning.
USING WORDS CAN OFTEN ESCALATE DIFFICULT MOMENTS
Pre-K settings are meant to be language-rich environments so that children can strengthen their expressive and receptive speech-language development. As a result, they are encouraged to use their words to express their wants and needs.
During difficult moments in the classroom, when students become dysregulated and may act out, well-meaning educators tend to encourage young learners to use their words, in the hopes that verbalizing how they feel and why they feel that way will defuse the situation. Educators, under an enormous amount of pressure to de-escalate behaviors quickly, rely on language to offer strategies or ask how they can help. They unintentionally co-escalate rather than co-regulate with the student, which prolongs upset in the classroom.
A parallel process of dysregulation often occurs between young students and educators during these challenging moments. As young children become increasingly dysregulated, they no longer have access to the part of the brain that controls language and reasoning because our sympathetic nervous system, which controls our fight, flight, freeze, and fawn response, takes it offline.
As educators become increasingly dysregulated when faced with a struggling student, the same sequence of events takes place in their adult brain. However, teachers don’t communicate their dysregulation through behavior, but through language and how we use it when challenged—our volume, tone, pressure, and pace. When this happens, children who are already overstimulated by the classroom environment aren’t able to tolerate verbal attempts to offer support because voice and language overwhelm an already taxed brain and body.
HOW TO CO-REGULATE WITH STUDENTS
Early childhood educators can use many strategies to silently co-regulate with their students. With some students, I can simply put my hand out for them to take and walk them over to the classroom quiet area, a routine established with trust and time. This is also a natural opportunity to demonstrate the use of a quiet co-regulation strategy for newer students who may be watching, teaching them what the quiet area is for and what they can expect from me should I need to support them.
Once I guide students to the quiet area, we sit down together silently, and after a few minutes of sitting calmly near them, I continue to de-escalate through distraction. Small liquid timers or calming jars are excellent tools because they are visually soothing and young children love them.
For one student, I played with it myself, turning it upside down and right again before silently offering it to him. After a few minutes of playing with it on his own, he began to regulate enough where he was able to search for other coping tools and fidgets, showing them to me before beginning to talk about how hard it was to become a big brother.
For another student who frequently engaged in aggressive behavior, it was important to learn how to adapt to what his brain and body could handle in charged moments. He couldn’t tolerate me sitting next to him but preferred for me to sit within visual proximity. He responded well to a fidget or liquid timer as a distraction tool, but he wouldn’t take it from my hand.
Instead, I learned to put it on the floor and gently slide it over to him for him to take when he was ready, a strategy identified after a particularly charged moment in which any movement I made seemed to further escalate him. Eventually, he always came out from underneath a table or from behind a soft chair to take it before crawling over to sit next to me.
Other students benefit from quiet body-based strategies. Providing proprioceptive input, or deep pressure, to children through heavy work or joint compressions is an effective strategy. One of my colleagues often sits quietly with children who are struggling and provides deep pressure input by massaging their hands. I often offer students the option of sitting on my lap so I can envelop them in a bear hug and gently do some finger rolls and pulls or gentle squeezes on their arms.
We always observe our students’ bodies relaxing while providing deep pressure input. Their shoulders lower, they breathe deeply, and their limbs loosen, all physical cues that their fight or flight system is turning off and they are beginning to regulate.
UNDERSTAND AND PRIORITIZE CONSENT
While quiet body-based interventions are an effective co-regulation strategy for young children, it’s important for educators to be mindful of safety and consent. Parents sign a consent form that explains the use of sensory and body-based coping strategies upon enrolling their child, and our young students are taught that they always have the right to say no if they don’t want to be touched. Our educators can also say no if they aren’t comfortable co-regulating in this way.
There are many times when the use of body-based strategies requiring touch isn’t appropriate, such as at centers where physical contact may not be allowed or educators are alone with a student who is struggling. Small rocking chairs; body socks and foam rollers; and weighted lap pads, blankets, and stuffed animals are great alternative quiet body-based co-regulation tools that educators can have available in the classroom that don’t require physical contact but still offer the same benefits.