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).



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  2. Ditto. Love both the name it & tame it and the motivational signs. If they are not your creations, will you please let us know where you found them? Thanks. :)


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