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.


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