Teaching Emotion Regulation Skills to Special Education Students

Learning emotion regulation enables students to effectively manage intense feelings of anger, sadness, anxiety, and distress.  Like learning to walk, talk, and read, learning emotion regulation to successfully deal with distressful feelings follows a developmental progression. Emotion regulation development proceeds to a greater ratio of adaptive compared with maladaptive strategies, from adult initiated to more independent, and to increasingly complex coping strategies.  Emotion regulation difficulties can contribute to depression, anxiety, and behavioral disorders that interfere with learning.

Positive Behavioral Support programs have been used in regular education by teachers to significantly enhance students emotion regulation, behavioral and social skills. Because emotion regulation is interrelated with language, cognitive, and social skills students with developmental challenges are particularly vulnerable to emotion regulation problems.  Teachers in conjunction with occupational, speech, physical and mental health therapists have begun successfully helping special education students develop effective emotion regulation and behavioral skills. Students with developmental challenges can be taught emotion regulation in regular education classes while given supplemental support from special education teachers and therapists.

A valuable tool for assessing and promoting emotion regulation in special needs students is the FABTriggersCopingMaster  Assessment of emotion regulation can be done by asking students to choose 3 items from each page.  On the first page the student selects the 3 environmental triggers that most often precede their misbehavior, while on the second page they choose the 3 body triggers that most often precede their misbehaviors.  The environmental and body triggers provide warnings to the student and teacher of the trigger situations and body reactions that indicate the need for emotion regulation strategies.

On the third, fourth, and fifth page the student selects three coping strategies that best enable them to manage strong feelings with out getting in trouble.  The coping strategies presented also provide opportunities for students to learn new movement, sensory processing, and mindfulness strategies that can help them manage their feelings of distress.

For visual learning of emotion regulation strategies students can draw and post pictures to distinguish appropriate feelings from inappropriate behaviors


identify their environmental triggers                                and body triggers


and identify their most effective coping strategies.As students explore their most successful coping strategies for managing distress, they can (using the Pagano FAB Trigger & Coping Forms) cut out, paste, and post their most effective coping strategies in the areas where their triggers most often occur (e.g., math or holiday time).


Similarly, for special education students with several teachers and therapists it is helpful to construct coping cards. Using an index card they list their goal, preferred character, and coping strategies so all their teachers and therapists know their goals and coping strategies.


Working together teachers and therapists can combine their expertise to help special education students develop their emotion regulation skills.  Positive Behavioral Support strategies have successfully helped regular and special education students improve their emotion regulation, behavior, and learning.


Simonsen, B., Britton, L. & Young, D. (2010).  School-wide positive behavior support in an alternative school setting.  Journal of Positive Behavioral Intervention, 12(3), 180-191.

Kovacs, M. & Lopez-Duran, N. (2012).  Contextual emotion regulation therapy: A developmentally-based intervention for pediatric depression.  Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America, 21(2), 327.

Riggs, N.R., Greenberg, M.T., Kusche, C.A., Pentz, M.A. (2006).  The mediational role of neurocognition in the behavioral outcomes of a social-emotional prevention program in elementary school students: Effects of the PATHS curriculum.   Prevention Science, 7(1), 91-102.

Suveg, C., Southam-Gerow, M. A., Goodman, K. L. & Kendall, P. C. (2007).  The role of emotion theory and research in child therapy development.  Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 14(4), 358-371.


Classroom Exercise Improves Transitions and Learning

As greater educational demands are made on students and teachers, often beginning in preschool or kindergarten, it is increasingly important to embed brief exercise strategies into the elementary school curriculum.  Movement activities done before transitions enable students to integrate their learning and behave more appropriately.  Increasing time spent in seated teaching and testing along with the integration of special needs students into regular classrooms makes the inclusion of movement strategies increasingly important.

Transition strategies include signals, music and exercise activities that integrate and improve learning while preparing students for new tasks.  Some children require extra time to process information, especially developmentally immature children and those with developmental challenges. While thought by some administrators to take away from learning, twenty minutes of added daily physical activities embedded into the classroom curriculum significantly improves behavior, attention, fitness as well as math and reading achievement compared to classes given equivalent time to seated learning tasks.

Several FAB Strategies can be implemented in under five minutes in regular classrooms to promote student’s behavior and learning.


FAB classroom exercise strategies integrate mindfulness, stretching and movement activities Transition Strategies  Students are taught to move vigorously then transition back to academic learning.

MindfulClock2 MindfulClock1

Additional activities can be found for various grade levels at <www.pecentral.org>


Donnelly, J. E. & Lambourne, K. (2011).  Classroom-based physical activity, cognition, and academic achievement.  Preventive Medicine, 52, S36-S42.

Erwin, H., Fedewa, A., & Ahn, S.(2012).  Student academic performance outcomes of a classroom physical activity intervention: A pilot study.  International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 4(3), 473-487.


Activities Teaching Feelings Improve Behavior

Helping students understand and express feelings improves their behavior.  This behavioral improvement appears related to the neuropsychological processes of self-control (from the frontal cortex) and communicating feelings (between the brain hemispheres).  Positive behavioral support activities promote self-control through the Turtle technique, Simon Says, Freeze dance, and similar strategies that teach and reward movement self-control.

Communicating feelings is taught with pictures of feelings, feeling wheels, environmental and body triggers, coping strategies, distinguishing feelings from behaviors, and anger meters.  These strategies help regular and special education students understand and express their feelings in developmentally appropriate ways through art activities.

Angercartoon  ComicCoping Triggers MadvsKick


The FAB Switch hands toss strategies provides movement activities that involve self-control and the verbal expression of feelings for children and adolescents with behavioral, developmental, sensory processing, and/or trauma challenges.  The FAB Switch hands toss strategies combine passing a beanbag with the verbal expression of preferences, feelings, values, and choices.  Building on Positive Behavioral Support activities that teach emotions and express feelings, It involves fun movement that can be done individually with students and in groups.  Both the beanbag pass progression and expression of feeling can be developmentally individualized to promote developmental, social, and verbal skills.

The FAB switch hands toss strategies let kids who don’t like being still actively practice emotional awareness and expressing feelings in a fun way.  They can be easily graded by selecting the specific strategies at the client or groups level.  FAB switch hands toss strategies can address the verbal expression of: favorites (e.g., color, team, quality in a friend), best coping strategy, guessing the feeling or degree of feeling expressed by the therapist or peers, right now I feel _____, and I messages (e.g., when you yell at me, I feel sad, so please speak to me politely). The FAB switch hands toss strategies are a fun addition to Positive Behavioral Support activities to improve emotional awareness and the verbal expression of feeliings.


Bengtsson, S.L., Nagy, Z., Skare, S., Forsman, L., Forssberg, H., Ullen, F. (2005).  Extensive piano practicing has regionally specific effects on white matter development.  Nature Neuroscience, 8, 1148-1150.

Lieberman, M.D. (2009).  The brain’s braking system (and how to ‘use your words’ to tap into it).  Neuroleadership Journal, 2, 9-14.

Miller, A.L., Rathus, J.H., & Linehan, M.M. (2007).  Dialectical behavior therapy with suicidal adolescents.  NY, NY: The Guilford Press.

Riggs, N.R., Greenberg, M.T., Kusche, C.A., Pentz, M.A. (2006).  The mediational role of neurocognition in the behavioral outcomes of a social-emotional prevention program in elementary school students: Effects of the PATHS curriculum.   Prevention Science, 7(1), 91-102.

Sun, F.T., Miller, L.M., Rao,  A.A., Esposito, M.D. (2007).  Functional connectivity of cortical networks involved in bimanual motor sequence learning.  Cerebral Cortex, 17(5), 1227-1234.

Suveg, C., Southam-Gerow, M. A., Goodman, K. L. & Kendall, P. C. (2007).  The role of emotion theory and research in child therapy development.  Clinical Psychology: Science and   Practice, 14(4), 358-371.