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The Oversimplification of Emotional Regulation

As educators, we often strive to create a calm and positive learning environment for our students. We work hard to regulate our own emotions and model healthy coping strategies for our students. However, the quote

"An elevated (or dysregulated) adult cannot calm (or regulate) an elevated (or dysregulated) child"

has been circulating on social media. While this quote may seem helpful at first glance, it oversimplifies the complex interactions between adults and children and can perpetuate the idea that teachers should be consistently regulated no matter the circumstance.

I’ve wanted to address this quote for a while. First, I want to say that it is true. I understand the quote and what it’s trying to do: help teachers understand that keeping their emotions in check will help them when a child is dysregulated. I wouldn’t say that there would be much argument against the quote. Most people that work with children understand that fire that meets fire will only create more fire. They’re asking the adult to be the water…calm and serene…in the middle of a fire. I get it. I’m not arguing with its validity.

However, I find that oftentimes we want to break down mental health into a meme or quote because it feels more tangible in such a big, abstract topic, and you just can’t break it down that way. It’s too serious, too encompassing, and too important to hold it to a sentence or two. I’ve found that there are usually three reactions to this quote:

  1. It’s brilliantly said and I’m in total agreement. But, now what do I do?

  2. I feel guilty because I sometimes feel overwhelmed and become elevated and I’m not sure what to do about it.

  3. I am angry because I cannot simply be responsible for the constant regulation of all the students in my class at all times.

The issue with the quote is that it doesn’t recognize a few truths:

  1. Teachers do not intentionally dysregulate.

  2. Overwhelm, burnout, and demoralization can lead to higher/more frequent incidents of dysregulation, which is where we see a significant number of our teachers right now.

  3. If a teacher as a human was never taught to regulate fully, they are not going to be able to help others regulate as effectively and they will struggle to coregulate with students.

I want to say to anywho who feels guilty: getting elevated in a situation that is frustrating is human. Let that teacher guilt go. It happens to the best of us.

The quote also implies that emotional regulation is a binary state – either an adult is calm and regulated, or they are dysregulated and unable to regulate a child. However, emotions are not that straightforward. It's normal and healthy for both adults and children to experience a range of emotions, and it's not always possible or necessary for adults to be in a completely calm state to support a child. In fact, modeling healthy coping strategies can include showing children how to manage difficult emotions in a healthy way, rather than hiding them altogether.

Finally, it puts the responsibility for emotional regulation solely on the adult. While it's true that adults like educators play a key role in supporting children's emotional development, children also have agency in their own emotional regulation. Educators can work collaboratively with students to identify and use coping strategies that work for them, empowering them to take ownership of their own emotional well-being.

The Bigger Discussion

This quote should only be presented within a larger discussion that answers reflective questions such as these:

  • What strategies can we adopt to try to stay calm in frustrating situations.

  • What can we do if we become dysregulated?

  • How can I evaluate and improve my own emotional regulation?

  • What support do I need from my team?

Here is where I am going to take a moment to create definitions to level set on these topics.

Emotional regulation refers to the process by which individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express their feelings. Emotional regulation can be automatic or controlled, conscious or unconscious, and may have effects at one or more points in the emotion-producing process” (Chowdhury, 2019). People who are more emotionally aware tend to have better emotional regulation.

Emotional dysregulation refers to the inability of a person to control or regulate their emotional responses to provocative stimuli. It should be noted that all of us can become dysregulated when triggered…When a person becomes emotionally dysregulated, they may react in an emotionally exaggerated manner to environmental and interpersonal challenges by displaying bursts of anger, crying, accusing, passive-aggressive behaviors, or by creating conflict” (Psychological Care and Healing Center, nd). It’s important to note that people who have suffered trauma may have more difficulty with their reactions to triggers and dysregulation.

"The definition of co-regulation is the ability to regulate emotions and behaviors to soothe and manage stressing internal sensory input or external situations, with the support and direction of a connecting individual. Co-regulation is a nurturing connection of another individual that supports regulation needs through the use of strategies, tools, and calming techniques in order to self-soothe or respond in times of stress" (Kinne, 2022). If a teacher is able to stay calm, the concept of co-regulation says that through their calmness and collectedness students should be able to be calm and collected as well. However, there are strategies to employ or enhance co-regulation that should be taught to teachers so co-regulation could be more effective.

[Recommended Read: Co-Regulation]

So, what can we do?

One of the best strategies we can employ if we know that there are times we become dysregulated is be proactive to increase practices that regulate our systems. Examples of these practices would be:

  • Mindfulness

  • Meditation

  • Increasing your self-awareness

  • Practicing self-compassion

  • Identifying triggers and employing healthy coping strategies

  • Learn effective strategies for co-regulation

Learning to recognize your emotions, name them, accept them, and recognize when you’re beginning to get elevated can be another way to be proactive. If you know you cannot handle the situation without becoming elevated, consider setting up a “buddy system” with another adult in the building, like your administrator for example, that can come and relieve you so you can use your strategies to regulate again. Understand that you are not superhuman and should never be expected to show superhuman powers. Understand also that it would be considered superhuman to never be triggered or elevated in a frustrating situation. Therefore, it would be reasonable to expect help if you find yourself getting dysregulated.

From a systems standpoint, there should be a plan for teachers who are struggling whether it be with their mental health and/or student behaviors and dysregulation in the classroom. I wish it would be more common for districts to employ professional learning that blatantly tells educators what emotional regulation is and strategies they can try WITH their students to improve their self-awareness and add to their de-escalating strategies.

The quote "An elevated (or dysregulated) adult cannot calm (or regulate) an elevated (or dysregulated) child" oversimplifies the complex interactions between adults and children and should really only be used in conjunction with support and understanding of emotional regulation and strategies to regulate. Becoming dysregulated is not a pleasant experience for anyone, and there are opportunities to support educators as humans as they are sometimes in frustrating situations, Educators can strive to model healthy coping strategies, work collaboratively with children to support their emotional development, and value children's emotions and experiences as valid and important while still getting the help the teachers need to be successful.


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