Mental Modifiers: Calming Tools to Help Students Regulate Emotions

It seems that our students are coming to us with a lot more on their minds than when I was an elementary-aged student. Our district has been beginning to really focus on trauma informed teaching to help our students be successful in school (and hopefully beyond). A lot of the tips we've gotten we are already doing...we just need to be more consistent with them. One thing though was creating a calming box of sorts to help students regulate their uncomfortable feelings and keep them in class. 

We just started implementing this the last couple of months, but I've noticed that students who typically would want to leave the room, have a melt down and refuse to do work, or get stuck in an emotion for far too long are now staying in class, regulating themselves, and continuing their learning.

Below I'll share a few tips that my school and myself have done so far to help our students manage their emotions.

We've read the book Moody Cow Meditates and our instructional coach gathered supplies for us to make our own mindful jar. I'm sure you've seen them around. They are jars with glitter and oil and when you shake it, the glitter goes all over and you watch it all settle while deep breathing. I had a student make one and bring it in to share, so I have two now. The book talks about a cow that is having a terrible day but through the mindful jar and some basic meditation strategies, he is able to let go of those uncomfortable emotions a bit and regulate himself.

The book was a nice introduction to our "mental modifiers" (which you will see below). After reading the book and modeling how to use the mindful jar, I also showed them the other items in our bin and how to use them.

Why do I call them mental modifiers? Well for one, I love a good alliteration (what teacher doesn't). But second, I want students to know that they can feel these uncomfortable emotions and it's ok. I don't want to send the message that it is not ok to be disappointed, or frustrated, or anxious. To modify something, it means to make minor changes as to improve something or make it less extreme. I want to teach my students how to properly regulate these emotions- not avoid them completely. That is how these items got the name "mental modifiers." What we have in our bin are:

  1. Our mindful glitter jar
  2. A small pin-wheel
  3. A ball (Koosh ball in this case)
  4. Hand fidgets (a toy called a Tangle and a marble in a sleeve)
  5. Play-doh
What's awesome is that since we started this, students have brought and donated other fidgets to our bin. We have a glowing rose that changes colors and another squishy ball that is a favorite of students. I created a resource to help students know which tool can be used with different emotions (although students ultimately decide for themselves)

First, they have to identify the emotion they are feeling. I used the "Inside Out" emotions as a starting point and then made these overlapping emotion equations that name other emotions students might feel. Sarah Pecorino's illustrations were PERFECT for this! I would strongly encourage you to snag her illustrations if you haven't yet.

I have them on a master sheet that will be at the calming spots as well as individual equations that will be put on a ring that give ideas on which mental modifier might help them with that emotion.

I think it's really important for students to be able to name the emotion they are feeling (not necessarily to me, but for themselves). I love the idea of using the Inside Out feelings as a starting point, but knowing that if you are feeling surprised, it is because you have a little joy and a little fear happening at once. I added which tools might be most helpful for that emotion too. My amazing instructional coach came up with a little handout to go with the Play-doh to guide students into making a pot to help them process the situation. They go step-by-step through making a pot, filling it with the situation or uncomfortable feeling, and then squishing it away. Instead of kids just going and playing with the Play-doh, they are processing and regulating it for themselves.

One last tool that I introduced this year were these privacy stands/motivators. These standing plastic frames allow me to slip in some motivational words to help those students who get easily distracted or students who want to give up. Students come and take one to their space to give them a little sense of privacy while also getting some inspiration.  Even better, they can pass on the good vibes to a classmate on the other side since I have words on both sides. These are used often since I introduced them, especially with our flexible seating this year since they don't take up a lot of space.

Above all else, one of the greatest strategies to help our students with trauma or really big emotions is  to set and hold high expectations for them and build a relationship with them. Of all the research I've been doing on the topic, high expectations and relationships are mentioned in it all. So although all these tools are a great addition to our room, I want to continue to work on these two strategies to provide a safe space for students to grow and take risks. If you don't have funds to start your own mental modifier bin, start with the relationships with your students- there is always room for improvement (as I'm reminded of daily).



Reestablishing Routines Without Boring Your Students [Freebie]

I wrote this post last year on the iTeach Third blog and thought it would be great to share it again here to help you plan for when you head back to school after winter break! Enjoy!

background image credit to: Worth a Thousand Words
Happy New Year iTeach Third Readers! There's nothing better than coming off of a long break and feeling rejuvenated and refreshed! I hope you all had some time to take care of yourselves and enjoy some well-deserved time off!

But with our nice long break comes getting back into a much needed routine. Our students have been away from our normal day-to-day for some time now, and it's important that we reestablish our routines that make our classroom run efficiently! A common mantra in our school is, "Go slow to go fast." We might not jump right back into heavy content on day 1 of returning from break, because we know that if we take the time to reestablish our classroom and revisit our hopes and dreams, that we will be able to obtain more later in the year. I'm not sure about your district and pacing, but our second half of the year is often filled with brand new content that our kiddos haven't really been exposed to yet. I'm talking multiplication, fractions, and we can't forget the state tests. We've got to have our classroom running smoothly in order for us to fully devote our focus to these concepts.

But I also know, that when students come back from this break, they know how our classroom works already... they just need a little fine tuning. So I'm here to share a few different ways to get your students involved in reestablishing routines that can be done in fun, engaging ways!

I like to have students move and mingle when possible. I myself am a busy body, so to sit still for a long period of time just doesn't cut it! This activity is a great way to get students to both move and mingle while reviewing little tid-bits that they might have forgotten. 

This works best for things that have 1 answer. I like it to review lots of random little things such as pencil etiquette, parts to a routine, etc. The object is to find somebody who knows the answer to a certain statement. Some of my specific examples include:

Find somebody who...
  • knows how many books we take home in our baggie
  • knows the 5 parts to our 5-star greeting
  • knows where sharp and dull "lost" pencils go
  • knows what to bring to _______ time

If they ask someone and that person can give the answer, they then write their classmate's name in the box and go on to a new one. Here's mine that I'll be using this year in full.

You can either take mine as is (although it is pretty specific to my room) or use it as inspiration to do you own. I included mine as an example as well as an editable version so that you can type in things that you want your students to review in a fun way.  Click the appropriate link below.

Side note: the editable version may look a little fuzzy on your computer screen, but it should print clearly.

We follow the Reader's and Writer's Workshop model and there are many different components that go with it. Instead of us doing a whole group review over each of them, I like to first see what they remember about our expectations. I've done this in the past (and you can read about them here) where I put Y-charts with different focuses around the room. If you are not familiar with the Y-chart, it asks students to think about how something looks like, sounds like, and feels like. 

Students move around the room, write an idea on the different posters on how an aspect of our work shop looks like, sounds like, or feels like. I try to emphasize for them to write down what they SHOULD do as opposed to what they SHOULDN'T do. For example, instead of having students say, "Don't talk." I try to have students say, "Have a zero voice." We like to reinforce the correct behavior, so I often try to have students rephrase if they give the negative by simply saying, "If we aren't going to talk, what will we do?"

After students have time to go around, add their ideas, and read others, I give one Y-chart to each table group. They read all the responses, discuss, and highlight the 3 "most important" things to remember. Then, they report back to the rest of the class. By doing this graffiti activity, the students are in charge for the vast majority of it and are engaged throughout the reviewing process. They get to move, chat, and respond in a meaningful way. 

If you want to use any of these Y-charts for your classroom, you can grab my examples below.

I hope the first weeks back for you are smooth and that you can find time to enjoy your students while slowly getting them back into the swing of things!



Books Teachers Love: January's Owl Moon

I know you are probably days away from enjoying a well-earned long break! I have until next Thursday (I'm trying not to be bitter), but how good would it feel to have a few read alouds planned for when you return in January?! If you are looking for a rich mentor text to help your writers, especially with narratives, then Jane Yolen's Owl Moon is where it's at.

It's a classic if you ask me, as I remember reading it as a kid and I find myself now as a teacher turning to it year after year. Here are the top 4 ways to use Owl Moon as a mentor text in your classroom this month:

This story focuses on one specific evening out. If your students are struggling with coming up with an idea to write about for a personal narrative, give them the prompt, "It was late one (season) night." Have them make a 4-square in their notebook and label each box with a season. Then have them brainstorm memories they've had in the evening of that season. This will help them focus in on one specific night and tell it bit by bit. Last year, I taught 3rd grade, so the focus was on personal narratives in our curriculum. This year, I'm in 4th grade and so they are encouraged to write realistic fiction. This strategy could still work where students think about possible events you could do in the evening of those seasons and pick one to write long about.

Owl Moon slowly builds. It sets up the hook of a story beautifully. There are lots of ways to start a story, but I love the description Yolen uses to open the scene and set the mood. She uses almost all the sense: hear (the train whistle and dogs), see (trees and moon), feel (no wind and woolen cap). She then moves to telling the story bit by bit. You can feel the suspense build as they wait to encounter the owl. You can map this out with students on chart paper and then have them plan out their possible story arch. Want a free template? Visit this past post to download one. Using a triple timeline with the senses can help students think of the same moment in different ways.

Yolen includes loads of similes and metaphors throughout the book... and some are a bit more abstract. We study them together and then replace them with that they really meant so that students could see the impact these figurative language examples have on setting the mood and making us feel like we are a part of the experience. We then find spots in our writing where we could replace what we really meant with a more figurative example. You can make a chart like this one to show students how to form their own similes and metaphors.

Need I say more? Again, some of these are actually examples of figurative language, which is often one of the tools we use to help students show instead of tell. I love how Yolen incorporates so many senses throughout the story. You could do a great lesson on types of adjectives to use and which sense it goes with. For example, short and round go with sight; icy and cold and wet go with touch and so on. I often would write these sentences without the adjectives at all and then we place them back in to see how our mental image changes.
As you can see, this book is a gem when it comes to studying the craft of writing a realistic fiction or personal narrative story. You really get your bang for your buck with this one. If you don't have it in your library yet, you are missing out!

Want to win your own copy of this book and 3 other books? By entering the giveaway below, you could win any 4 of the books presented this month by the ladies of the Book Teachers Love group! Which teacher wouldn't love to win free, amazing books that they could use?!

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