How To Teach Students to Self-Regulate and Navigate Conflict

A crying boy puts his hands on his head.

For teachers, supporting students through conflict can seem like a full-time job. How do you focus on a lesson when your students return from recess shouting and crying? All teachers know that—for learning to happen— students need minimal distractions and a sense of safety. Not to mention, teachers can feel triggered by their students. Teachers need their own self-regulation tools and ways of de-escalating conflict. We’re here to help.

Current Events Escalate Conflict

Conflicts arise as we clash over current events: the pandemic, racial injustice, the 2020 election, and more. Children hear about these topics from multiple sources—their peers, their family members, and their teachers. Sometimes, they simply overhear adult conversations or a TV station. Full of questions, they often feel worried and confused.

Current events tend to dominate lunchtime conversations amongst their peers. Yet, children are still developing their communication, conflict, and self-regulation skills … not to mention, their understanding of these complex topics. Just as we explicitly teach math skills, we can teach students the skills they need to navigate these difficult conversations, manage conflict, and self-regulate. 

Tools to Help Students Navigate Conflict

Girl holds up her hand to ask someone to stop during conflict.

1) Speak Up & Set Boundaries

Before children can self-regulate or resolve a conflict, they must speak up for themselves. When something happens that makes children uncomfortable, they might shy away from saying anything at all. On the contrary, they might explode by yelling or using physical force—which only serves to escalate the conflict. You can teach your students simple phrases to use when standing up for themselves.

Practice using them in the safety of your classroom. By doing so, your students will feel confident to use them on their own. Phrases might include:

  • “Stop. I don’t like that.”
  • “I need to take a break.”
  • “That makes me feel uncomfortable (unsafe, hurt, etc.).”

Teach children that the way we say something is just as important as the words we use. A tone of voice that is confident, calm, and firm will be more effective than yelling or whispering. Using body language—such as making eye contact and standing up tall—will be more effective than hunching over or looking at the ground.

Children will learn to use these skills more effectively when they have a chance to practice using them. In my classroom, I’d come up with common conflict scenarios and have children act out how to stand up for themselves. They’d have time to brainstorm ideas beforehand, act it out for the class, and then receive feedback.

This is especially helpful in conversations around the election, racial injustice, or the pandemic. Often these discussions become very heated and can feel like a personal attack. Teaching kids to speak up when they feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed can help them create healthy boundaries when a boundary has been crossed.

2) Self-Regulate & Cool Down

A young girl closes her eyes and breaths deeply.

After speaking up and setting boundaries, the child needs a moment to cool down. Children feel their emotions intensely. Any attempt to talk through a conflict at this stage will come from a place of pure emotion, not logic. In this heated stage, people tend to instinctively react instead of thoughtfully respond. On that note—adults benefit from this cool down step just as much! Ever said something you regret when you were angry? Yep. We all benefit from a few moments of cooling down. 

Research shows that the first major area of the brain to fire when in conflict is the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain focused on our emotions and feelings. When we are angry and explode or say something that we regret, we are stuck in the amygdala part of the brain.  The goal is to shift to using the prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of our logical, decision-making skills.

The research shows that our brains need a moment to switch from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex. That’s where cooling down comes in. When we take a moment to pause, breathe deeply, and release stress from our bodies and minds—we can return to the matter at hand with clarity and calm. Cooling down might be just a few seconds of deep breathing or 30 minutes of alone time. The time needed varies based on the situation.

In Michele Borba’s book, Unselfie, she explains …

“When children feel stress, their judgment, memory, impulse control, and compassionate instincts are impaired. It is therefore essential that we create time and space for children to decompress and learn their stress triggers.”

Children kick, hit, scratch, or bite because they don’t know how else to express and release their feelings. The same can be said for older children—verbal attacks or cyberbullying come from displaced anger, sadness, or insecurities. We can teach children healthy ways to cool down and release their feelings, so they do not hurt themselves or anyone else.

While cooling down, children can learn how to check in with the sensations in their bodies. If they feel anger, where does it show up in their bodies? (Red face, clenched jaw, rapid breathing, the feeling of high adrenaline, etc.) If they feel anxious, where does that show up? (Tight chest, shallow breathing, sweat, upset stomach, etc.) This teaches children how to be in tune with their bodies and minds and recognize when something doesn’t feel right. They learn to look inward, acknowledge what they are feeling, and choose how to respond. 

  • To cool down, children might:
    • Squeeze a stress ball
    • Run in place
    • Scream into a pillow
    • Punch a pillow
    • Draw/write about what happened
    • Take deep breaths 
    • Stretch
    • Cuddle with a stuffed animal or blanket
    • Read a comforting book
    • Listen to soothing music
    • Cry
    • Go on a walk
    • Get a sip of water
    • Go to a safe, quiet space

You can set up a cool down spot in your classroom where children have access to self-regulation tools (stuffed animals, pillows, blankets, stress balls, comforting picture books, supplies to draw or journal about their feelings, etc.). If you teach virtually, ask your students to set up their own cool down spot at home.

Students can ask to use the cool down spot. Set a timer for a few minutes, so it doesn’t affect learning time. I tried this in my classroom, and I was amazed at how students would self-regulate for a few minutes and then come back to the lesson refreshed and ready to learn. 

3) Express Feelings & Needs

Two boys sit and talk about their feelings at school.

Now that each child involved has had a chance to cool down, each child should have the opportunity to share feelings. I recommend using I-Statements. An I-Statement focuses on your own feelings, rather than jumping to blame how someone else wronged you. An I-Statement might sound like this: “I felt _______ when you ________. I wish you would please __________.” This could be used during a conversation about current events or during a personal conflict.

  • For example, if a child felt attacked for political beliefs, she might say, “I felt hurt when you told me that my political views are stupid. I wish you would please listen to my ideas with an open mind, even if you don’t agree.”

 

  • For a personal conflict, a child might say, “I felt angry when you grabbed the iPad out of my hands. I wish you would please ask if you can borrow it instead of grabbing it.”

4) Repair Relationships

Four elementary school kids doing a high-five after a conflict.

Now that children have expressed their feelings, they can discuss ways to repair the problem. For issues without clear-cut solutions (such as arguments over political beliefs), they can find respectful ways to disagree. It is helpful to discuss ideas for how to solve common problems ahead of time so students have a reference.

In the moment, students often feel stumped when seeking a way to repair the damage done. If they have a set of tools to draw from, they will be more successful.  In my classroom, I created a poster with my students that addressed healthy ways to repair different types of problems. Because students created it with me, they were more invested in it and more likely to use it. 

For personal problems, ideas might include:

  • If you break it, fix it (Ex: If you pushed Jack and he scraped his knee, get him a bandaid and an ice pack. Or, if you knocked over someone’s block tower, help them put it back together.)
  • Write an apology note 
  • For trouble sharing, set a timer and each child gets to play for a set time
  • Find a different friend to play with or play alone
  • Do an act of kindness for the person you harmed 

For current events:

  • Create a poster with your students around how to resolve conflicts that arise from sensitive topics, such as racial injustice or the election. 

Not all conflicts have a clear-cut solution. This is especially true for the election and other current events. In this case, we can teach children how to respectfully disagree.  Just like when we explicitly taught children phrases to use when standing up for themselves, we can guide them with phrases for these complex discussions. 

Have your students practice using these phrases:

  •  “I understand that’s your opinion, and I respectfully disagree.”
  • “It’s okay for us to have different opinions.” 

You might dedicate a lesson around this and once again have students act out scenarios. You can even do this around silly topics, such as debating if ice cream is better than cookies.  While we want to empower children to solve conflicts on their own, we know that sometimes adults need to step in. Teach your students the difference between conflicts they can solve on their own and conflicts that require reaching out to an adult for help.

Teachers and caregivers must intervene when:

  • Children are in danger or are physically hurt
  • Children are under significant emotional distress
  • Children are repeatedly targeting another child on purpose (bullying)

Have Realistic Expectations

You can do your best to create a safe environment in the classroom and teach your students these tools, but you can’t prevent every issue from escalating. Especially in regards to current events, arguments might get out of control at recess—and that’s not your fault. You can only do your part. You’re not responsible for everything that happens.

Remember to have reasonable expectations for yourself and set boundaries for what you’re capable of achieving or preventing.  It can take a lifetime to master these skills—know that your students will need time to practice them, make mistakes, and try again. Still, you never know what pearls of wisdom they will bring with them! 

Teachers Need These Tools for Themselves, Too

A tired and stressed teacher sits at her desk and closes her eyes.

Teaching these skills to students is important, but don’t forget yourself.  Teachers often feel triggered by student conflict or by discussions around current events. You, too, can use these self-regulation & conflict skills to notice when you’re triggered, ground yourself, and manage conflicts with grace. We’re here for you. The JabuMind mindfulness app for teachers is full of guided meditations to help you relieve stress, regulate emotions, and restore peace of mind.

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