It’s a New School Year – Handle with Care

September 19, 2023

By Sheena Lall, Director of Learning Innovation and Social Emotional Competency at Talent Development Secondary (TDS). LGPC, Ed.M Mental Health Counseling, MA Psychological Counseling, MST Secondary Education

We see you!

It is that time of year again. The beginning of a new school year. You are likely experiencing a myriad of emotions. Some excitement, some fear, some comfort in returning to a routine, and even some trauma from the way things have been going at work lately. Whatever you may be feeling, you are not alone. We are hearing from teachers all around the country and it is important to know that YOU ARE IMPORTANT. Your emotions are important, and we want to support you. As the new year starts and we begin to think about how best to support our students and create strong student success systems, it is important to remember that we need robust educator support systems as well. So, keep reading for some short exercises you can partake in to regulate your emotions inside and outside of the classroom this year.

As an educator and counselor, I have been through many of the trauma-informed trainings available to us, but the one thing that always struck me was that nothing ever considered my experience in the situation. I was always expected to be this expert that could take on all the emotions around me. We are human too, and we deserve to be cared for as well. Since the job of regulating students falls to us, we must figure out how to care for ourselves before we can care for those in our classrooms. It is like the oxygen mask on the plane, first you take care of yourself and then you can help others.

The importance of taking students’ home situations into account is undeniable, as it shines light on root causes and eventually effective interventions. And, since we are human, we work the same way. You may find yourself running late, frazzled from an argument at home, stressed about all the bills on your plate, worried about loved ones you care for, or mainly you are just plain exhausted. These root causes need to be addressed so we can show up as our best selves in the spaces we occupy.

What is going on?

What happens to you when you feel dysregulated? Simply put, your brain is giving your body the message that you are in danger and your body is reacting to try to protect itself. (Click here to learn more about emotions and your brain.) The limbic system in your brain consists of the thalamus, amygdala, and hypothalamus. The thalamus pulls on input from the five senses- what you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. The amygdala decides what level of danger you are in, also known as your flight or fight response. The hypothalamus initiates the physical response from your body, like increased heart rate or rapid breathing.

What can you do about it?

Some strategies you can employ in 30 seconds or less

Always start with breathing. Regulating your breath helps your body return to a regulated state.  Try to inhale and then exhale for 2 seconds longer than you inhaled.

Your five senses are the key to calming your distress. Remember your thalamus?

  • Touch and movement are elementary tools for calming – body work is important. Pay attention to your body and figure out where things may be feeling off. A hug or rocking can make us feel protected. Releasing physical tension means emotions can be released.
    • Give yourself a hand massage for 30 seconds.
    • Push against the wall to release cortisol.
    • 30-second co-regulation hug
  • Taste can help your brain refocus on the sensations your mouth is experiencing. The rhythmic motions of chewing are calming to the body.
    • Drink water.
    • Chew gum/suck on mint.
    • Drink a hot or cold beverage.
  • Hearing – you can condition your brain to enter a certain emotional state by listening to certain music at specific times.
    • Pick a song to listen to (you can share with your class) and play it regularly during a “calming moment”- whenever it is necessary.
    • Drum a beat with your fingers on your clothing or on the wall (you can have the class copy or respond to your beat).
    • Hum a song or chant a phrase that makes you feel good- perhaps it is attached to a positive memory.
  • Smell – this is the only sense that is sent directly to the olfactory bulb. Scents can be used to jog pleasant memories.
    • Use a scented lotion.
    • Keep an essential oil roll-on nearby; use an aromatherapy diffuser.
    • Grow the plant in the room. Lavender calms, citrus gives energy and peppermint helps focus.
  • Sight is an easily manipulated sense and if we have the tools, we can conjure up great visuals to help calm our bodies.
    • Create a calming space with pictures of some favorite memories or calming sights, for example a bulletin board of the beach, or picture of your vacation on the desk.
    • Focus on something outside of your immediate space, look out the window and observe a bird or the wind pattern.
    • Look at the lines of your palm and trace over them softly.

Hopefully you (and your students) can exercise some of these suggestions in your classroom (and outside of the classroom) during moments of emotional regulation. 

Again, you are human and how you feel is important to the entire school community. You deserve to feel regulated as you help the youth achieve success. As we learn more about how best to regulate our responses in stressful times, we will be better positioned to understand how best to support our students. Strong, supportive relationships, including between school adults and students, are a key component of student success systems; modeling regulation strategies to your students and allowing them to see that even adults can be dysregulated and practice strategies is a wonderful way to form a connection with students.

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