Emotional regulation includes the ability to express a range of emotions and react in appropriate ways in emotional situations. Children exhibiting emotional regulation skills usually adjust well to new people and situations, show a high tolerance for frustration, control their negative emotions, and consider the needs and preferences of others.
Young children who have difficulties with emotional regulation may portray few emotions, show signs of depression, cry excessively, have difficulty coping, worry excessively, or engage in inappropriate behaviors in response to intense emotions (Wittmer, Doll, & Strain, 1996). Internalizing behavior problems are characterized by social withdrawal, isolation, fearfulness, depression, dependence, and anxiety, whereas externalizing behavior problems are characterized by outbursts of emotional expression including anger, aggression, selfishness, and oppositional behaviors (Fox, 1994).
Identifying and expressing emotions verbally is the first step in learning to regulate emotions. Children may fail to express emotions verbally because they mistakenly think that others obviously know what they are feeling, they lack the words to use, or they are too emotional to use them (Kostelnik, Whiren, Soderman, Stein, & Gregory, 2002). Teachers help children learn to express emotions in acceptable ways by reminding them to use words to explain what they need ("Matthew, tell David, 'I'm not done with the fire truck yet,'" or "Holly, tell Angelica, 'I don't like it when you are bossy.'") and suggesting phrases to use in emotional situations:
"I want a turn, too."
"I want to do it my way this time."
"You can have it when I'm finished."
"Let's make a list for turns."
Sometimes, teachers need to acknowledge a child's feelings while insisting that hurtful actions are not tolerated, then suggesting the use of words to express feelings.
"Jacob, when Toby took your toy that really made you angry. But I can't let you hit Toby. Hitting hurts. You need to tell him what you feel. Say, 'I don't like it when you grab my toy.'"
Managing emotions also includes the ability to inhibit inappropriate impulsive behavior when experiencing strong emotions and calming down enough to use problem-solving strategies.
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