Opinion
Teaching Opinion

How to Manage Emotional Distress in the Classroom

Giving students agency is key
By Kareem Farah — May 30, 2023 5 min read
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In late 2022, my team and I visited 15 districts across the country to observe how educators were implementing student-centered instruction, which gives students an active role in their learning. While meeting with innovative educators pushing the envelope on ways to think about teaching and learning, we also saw the far-reaching damage of the pandemic on students and teachers.

Not only did students have broader ranges of learning levels within the same classrooms, but some were also in the darkest places we’ve ever seen from a social-emotional behavior standpoint. In some cases, students exhibited signs of emotional dysregulation—the inability to control or regulate emotional responses—which lead to inappropriate outbursts or mood swings. The emotional dysregulation was so severe that many educators had to focus more instructional time than usual on behavior management and engagement, completely derailing their lesson plans. Additionally, the increased complexity of students’ academic and emotional needs had left teachers feeling burned out, with many thinking about leaving the profession.

To help teachers meet their students’ highly diverse learning levels while also being considerate of their social-emotional needs, here are four strategies to consider.

1. Leverage technology for student-centered instruction.

During our visits, we saw that available instructional technology sat untapped because educators hadn’t been given a blueprint for how it can be maximized in an in-person setting. With the right plan, educators can leverage technology to foster differentiated learning, human connection, and social-emotional growth in the classroom by enabling a “controlled chaos” environment. For example, some students might be starting a new lesson, accessing videos on a tablet, and taking guided notes, while others are spending more time on an area they have yet to master. Using technology to allow students to work independently also reduces the likelihood that all learning stops when one or more students don’t want to engage.

What’s more, technology can help teachers be considerate of students’ social-emotional needs by enabling them to work in the style that best suits them. As a result, instead of witnessing a student’s growing frustration and rowdy behavior, the teacher can devote more time to helping that student achieve mastery.

2. Combine structure and student autonomy.

When educators are trying to help students who show symptoms of emotional dysregulation, there’s a temptation to overstructure the learning environment by implementing new rules or consequences for unruly behavior. However, doing so does not solve the issues of disruptive behaviors, lack of agency and self-regulation, or students’ struggles with personal responsibility and self-direction.

Students need the space, the systems, and the structures to improve, which will allow them to become self-directed learners. Putting those features into place involves creating a self-paced learning environment with well-defined guardrails.

An example of such an environment could be assigning students a week of self-paced work and equipping them with a set of tools to help drive their own learning experience. Along with that autonomy would be an ample amount of structure provided in one-on-one or small-group interactions with their teacher to help students pause, reflect, and reset on a regular basis.

Students need the space, the systems, and the structures to improve, which will allow them to become self-directed learners.

So, if a student was consistently disengaged during class time and unable to keep up with their work, the teacher could point that out during one-on-one time and ask how the student planned to fix the issue. That way, the student has the opportunity to reengage without feeling punished, which helps develop work ethic and a sense of agency.

3. Focus less on disengagement and more on reengagement.

Instead of focusing on when students disengage, watch for when they reengage. Yes, most students readily disengage. The question is, if we give them maybe five minutes to chill out, will they reengage on their own?

Adults often disengage and reengage while working when we are feeling overwhelmed or need a break, but our productivity is measured by whether we can reengage quickly and get back on task. It’s important to bear that in mind so that teachers can give students showing signs of emotional dysregulation the space they need to collect themselves and return to the task at hand.

4. Use whole-class discussions for noncontent challenges.

Overstimulation is a common challenge in today’s world, and this is reflected in many classrooms across the country. For that reason, I’d argue that—depending on the subject matter—classroom conversations should incorporate more effective self-management and focus less on absorbing an overwhelming amount of lesson content in a short period of time. For example, teachers can break students up into small groups to practice and dive deeper into a lesson while the teacher moves around the room and answers any questions.

We would see so much better student collaboration and use of time if we designated certain lesson content to small-group or independent work and nonlesson content to whole-group discussions. Nonlesson content topics could include how to avoid distractions and ways to use and manage time effectively.

With this approach, students learn both the content and how to navigate a student-centered learning environment. They may also be more likely to speak up and share their nonacademic achievements (e.g., how they completed an assignment while babysitting siblings). This supports students’ social-emotional needs by teaching valuable coping mechanisms they can use when feeling overstimulated.

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The only condition for implementing these classroom practices is that educational leaders must establish the space for teachers to feel empowered to create change.

As previously mentioned, I saw many innovative teachers during my visits and many more who were salivating for innovative practices. But school or district leaders often believe certain conditions of readiness need to be met before they—and teachers—can start innovating. That’s a myth.

It’s an injustice to wait for an entire system to be ready before sharing resources with educators. Since those “conditions of readiness” are not present in most schools, the vast majority of K-12 systems are cut off from tools and practices that could change their schools for the better. We need to make the relevant professional development available and give teachers who are ready the option to make a change.

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