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Regulating Emotions in the Classroom

Updated: Nov 24, 2022


The Early Career Framework states that teachers must learn that... "The ability to self-regulate one’s emotions affects pupils’ ability to learn, success in school and future lives."


Self-regulation is important both from the perspective of the teacher and how the adult in the room is regulating their own emotions. Are they predictable in their behaviours? Can students rely on a "typical" mood or attitude? You may have heard of or read about the Pygmalion Effect, the Golem Effect or Emotional Contagion - all of which contribute to the classroom environment, how pupils learn and more importantly, whether they can make progress. It's also important for students to be able to self-regulate in order for them to be successful in school and beyond in their post-school lives. Self regulation can be taught, and some argue it should be taught within schools. Consider how you can help your students to self-regulate within your classroom (and beyond - especially as a form tutor or whole class teacher).


Regulating Emotions as a Teacher


We all remember “those” teachers. The one teacher who was cheerful most of the time - sometimes painfully so, when our adolescent lethargy made it hard to keep up with their vigour in the early morning hours - but mostly luckily so. As students, we came to look forward to their highly engaging lessons, the topics they presented seemed interesting to us, and we came to see the subject matter they taught as meaningful. But we also remember that other teacher, who tended to react overly angrily to student disruptions, sometimes provided quite cynical answers to student questions, and was otherwise emotionally distant. As students, we loathed that teacher’s lessons, felt intimidated by them, and came to dislike the subject.


Psychology tells us that emotion is a complex state of feeling that impacts people physically and psychologically. For those of us beginning to understand emotions, it’s essential to realize the way emotions affect the mind, body, and behavior by learning how to recognize and accurately label what we’re experiencing at any given moment. Leveraging a tool like Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions can give us a good starting point for recognizing the wide range of emotions that cause us to feel fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, joy, and love (among other things).


Emotional contagion is a well-known reality but with little empirical evidence in an educational context. Becker et al. (2014) completed a crossover process in which they confirmed that emotions of teachers were contagious to the student in determining therefore their conduct. This occurs especially with the discrete emotion of joy, followed by anger, and then anxiety to a lesser degree. There has been recent writing on the Pygmalion Effect as well as the Golem effect which is what this "emotional contagion" refers to. I have written about similar topics in a previous blog post, so it may be worth referring back to that.


When adults act as a good role model, responding consistently to children's emotional needs, they're providing a learning process that is more likely to help them develop good emotional regulation. Adults who provide inconsistent emotional support to a child are more likely to have children who have difficulty with self regulation, and they may behave defiantly or disruptively.


Regulating Emotions as a Student


Emotions are an embodied response to a stimulus (whether real or perceived, external or internal) and are experienced along a continuum from positive to negative. In the learning environment, emotions can play a powerful role in supporting or undermining learning and teaching. Emotions are inherently linked to and influence cognitive skills such as attention, memory, executive function, decision-making, critical thinking, problem-solving and regulation, all of which play a key role in learning.


Positive emotions and the learning states they promote reciprocally influence the learner’s motivation. Motivation can be considered the drive and energy behind learning. Students can be motivated by both their internal goals for learning (mastery goals) or external factors such as grade recognition (performance goals). Mastery goals are often driven by personal interest, curiosity, relevance and effective learning regulation processes. Students who demonstrate mastery of goal orientation have been shown to have a more productive disposition towards learning, which results in more sustained experiences of learning success.


On the other end of the spectrum, negative emotional states such as anxiety, stress, sadness, disinterest, disengagement, worry and fear can impede learning processes and the motivation to learn, and stifle the development of effective learning dispositions. If a learner perceives a threat, their attention will be drawn to this, interfering with their ability to learn. In a learning environment, threats might be in the form of failure, being unprepared or feeling disconnected from other learners or the teacher. Unproductive negative emotions can lead to low motivation or disengagement, which can negatively impact a student’s learning experience and present challenging environments and dynamics for educators to navigate during class.


Self-Regulation and School Success


Self regulation is the ability to monitor and manage emotions, thoughts, and behaviours. The ability to self-regulate helps students get along better with teachers and other students. Students with good self-regulation skills get the most out of school, both in terms of academics and peer interactions. This can set them up for life success. Unfortunately, students who experience difficulties with self-regulation can also experience higher rates of school expulsion, especially in the early school years. They’re also at greater risk for low academic achievement, as well as emotional and behavioural problems.


Self regulation skills include:

  • The ability to understand and manage emotions

  • Understanding your own stress response - and then managing your behaviour in a positive way

  • Learning how to control impulses

  • Being able to not over-react when upset or excited

  • The ability to calm down after an incident

With a few proactive steps, we can improve our own emotion self regulation - and the regulation skills of our students as well.

  • Talk about emotions and feelings with your pupils. A better emotional vocabulary has been linked with improved regulation skills.

  • Role model what you do to self regulate. Talk about the regulation strategies you use so pupils can learn from your thought processes.

  • Talk about mistakes you've made in the past - and what a better choice would have been. This will help you connect with your pupils, and help them understand that learning from mistakes is a natural part of life.

  • Expect some of your pupils to struggle with the return to school and treat them with empathy and calm. Now is not the time to be the teacher who doesn't smile until Christmas!

Bandura is a key write in self-regulation theory and is worth a read when you have a spare afternoon!


References from the ECF

[Further reading recommendations are indicated with an asterisk.]

Aronson, J. (Ed.) (2002) Improving academic achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education. New York: Academic Press. Bandura, A. (1986) Social foundations of thought and action: a social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Campbell Collaboration (2018) School-based interventions for reducing disciplinary school exclusion: A Systematic Review. Accessible from: https://campbellcollaboration.org/library/reducing-school-exclusion-school-based-interventions.html .

Chapman, R. L., Buckley, L., & Sheehan, M. (2013) School-Based Programs for Increasing Connectedness and Reducing Risk Behavior: A Systematic Review, 25(1), 95–114.

Chetty, R., Friedman, J. N., Rockoff, J. E. (2014) Measuring the Impacts of Teachers II: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood. American Economic Review, 104(9), 2633–2679. https://doi.org/10.1257/aer.104.9.2633 .

*Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit: Accessible from: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit [retrieved 10 October 2018].

Hanushek, E. (1992) The Trade-off between Child Quantity and Quality. Journal of Political Economy, 100(4), 859–887.

*Institute of Education Sciences (2008) Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School Classroom. Accessible from https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/PracticeGuide/4 .

Johnson, S., Buckingham, M., Morris, S., Suzuki, S., Weiner, M., Hershberg, R., B. Weiner, Hershberg, R., Fremont, E., Batanova, M., Aymong, C., Hunter, C., Bowers, E., Lerner, J., & Lerner, R. (2016) Adolescents’ Character Role Models: Exploring Who Young People Look Up to as Examples of How to Be a Good Person. Research in Human Development, 13(2), 126–141. https://doi.org/10.1080/15427609.2016.1164552 .

Jussim, L. & Harber, K., (2005) Teacher Expectations and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: Knowns and Unknowns, Resolved and Unresolved Controversies, Personality and Social Psychology Review 2005, Vol. 9, No. 2, 131–1557.

Lazowski, R. A., & Hulleman, C. S. (2016) Motivation Interventions in Education: A Meta-Analytic Review. Review of Educational Research, 86(2), 602–640. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654315617832 .

Murdock-Perriera, L. A., & Sedlacek, Q. C. (2018) Questioning Pygmalion in the twenty-first century: the formation, transmission, and attributional influence of teacher expectancies. Social Psychology of Education, 21(3), 691–707. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11218-018-9439-9 .

*PISA (2015) PISA in Focus: Do teacher-student relations affect students’ well-being at school? Accessible from: https://doi.org/10.1787/22260919 .

Rathmann K., Herke M., Hurrelmann K., Richter M. (2018) Perceived class climate and school-aged children's life satisfaction: The role of the learning environment in classrooms. PLoS ONE 13(2): e0189335. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0189335 .

Rubie-Davies, C. M., Weinstein, R. S., Huang, F. L., Gregory, A., Cowan, P. A., & Cowan, C. P. (2014) Successive teacher expectation effects across the early school years. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 35(3), 181–191. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2014.03.006 .

Slater, H., Davies, N. M., & Burgess, S. (2011) Do Teachers Matter? Measuring the Variation in Teacher Effectiveness in England. Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0084.2011.00666.x .

Tsiplakides, I. & Keramida, A. (2010) The relationship between teacher expectations and student achievement in the teaching of English as a foreign language. English Language Teaching, 3(2), P22. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1081569.pdf .

Wubbels, T., Brekelmans, M., den Brok, P., Wijsman, L., Mainhard, T., & van Tartwijk, J. (2014) Teacher-student relationships and classroom management. In E. T. Emmer, E. Sabornie, C. Evertson, & C. Weinstein (Eds.). Handbook of classroom management: Research, practice, and contemporary issues (2nd ed., pp. 363–386). New York, NY: Routledge.

Zins, J. E., Bloodworth, M. R., Weissberg, R. P., & Walberg, H. J. (2007) The Scientific Base Linking Social and Emotional Learning to School Success. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 17(2–3), 191–210. https://doi.org/10.1080/10474410701413145

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