Making decisions: how to regulate your emotions & behavior?
By Ms. Krissia Amador (Middle School Psychologist) and Ms. Raquel Gigena (MYP Learning Specialist)
We recently shared a workshop for parents of Middle School students on the topic of self-regulation and decision-making. This stems from a need we have identified and have been working on with sixth, seventh, and eighth-grade students. Middle School students are at a crucial age to develop and put into practice social skills that allow them to bond with their peers and understand the reality around them from a comprehensive perspective.
What is self-regulation and what is its importance?
Self-regulation is the ability to monitor and manage energy states, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in ways that are acceptable and produce positive outcomes, such as well-being, healthy relationships, and meaningful learning. From this definition it is important to focus on the highlighted words, namely:
- Energy: We all have different energy levels throughout the day and depending on our activities and circumstances. There are low energy levels, for example when we are sick or sleepy, which are not ideal for learning. There are moments of calm and focus that allow us to be more productive. However, if our energy level exceeds that calm state, we become emotional and even a bit anxious, making our behavior less organized. At the other extreme would be a state of very high energy that generates so much euphoria or even fear that it makes it impossible for us to function rationally. Each of these states is appropriate at different times, the important thing is to identify when it is socially appropriate to show one or the other level. That is, there is an appropriate place and a time for everything.
- Emotions: it is clear that emotions are what trigger many of our behaviors, and even influence the way we think and perceive reality. However, as we discussed with the workshop participants, sometimes we can also change our emotions depending on how
- we behave and how we think. This means that there is an intimate relationship between emotion, thought, and behavior. It is worth noting that emotions are not rigid, on the contrary, they tend to change in form and intensity as our day unfolds. In adolescence, in particular, emotions are at their peak and are experienced with great intensity, so it is recommended to validate them and support them in their management.
- Thoughts: the way we think is permeated by our perception of the world. This means that if we perceive something as negative or threatening, we will have thoughts that lead us to act defensively or even aggressively toward that element. During the stage in which Middle School students find themselves, it is important to consider that their ability to rationalize the situations that occur to them is still in the process of development, so it is preferable to communicate with them in terms of emotions, which is their most solid language. They should also be guided to avoid assuming about the thoughts or behaviors of others, as this can lead to misinterpretation and conflict.
- Behavior: our behavior is the most easily visible and recognizable element to others. Most of our behaviors have an evolutionary or emotional origin that explains them. Sometimes, it happens that our behavior does not match the way we think or how we are feeling. It is at these moments that it is important to analyze the emotional origin of such behavior and what rational or irrational thoughts are behind it.
How to support the development of self-regulation?
Self-regulation, although a cognitive process that develops naturally in interaction with the people around us, can be guided and shaped to manifest itself in socially acceptable ways. If we consider that the development of executive functions in adolescents is still in process, it is evident that they benefit from external support to manage their emotions and behavior.
First and foremost, adults who interact with adolescents can monitor their sensory integration and regulation. It is important to remember that our registration of the environment comes from our senses. Therefore, if any of our senses are saturated (e.g., by excessive noise, lights, crowds, etc.), our emotional management will also be compromised. This is where we can help adolescents learn what stimuli are overwhelming to them and what alternatives they have to deal with those (e.g., find a quieter place, stay in the place for a while, use headphones, etc.).
Secondly, adolescents need to develop emotional self-awareness. This is highly personal and involves knowing their own emotions in various situations. At times, adolescents may require our support to put into words what they are feeling. This includes understanding what they are thinking at the moment and what physical responses are associated with those thoughts. Once the adolescent can name what they are feeling, it is easier for them to cope and manage it at a cognitive level.
Another way in which we can support the development of self-regulation is by facilitating cognitive control strategies as part of the executive functions. Some of these strategies are related to the practice of mindfulness, that is, being aware of the present. It also helps to set goals and visualize possible outcomes according to different action plans. Also, adolescents can bring to the present situations from the past that help them to adopt strategies that have previously been useful or, on the contrary, to discard those that proved not to be useful. By having conversations of this nature with adolescents, we promote greater reflection and a sense of accomplishment by empowering them with their own emotions and experiences.
Decision-making during adolescence
As mentioned above, in adolescence, executive functions (those in charge of complex processes of reasoning, memory, behavioral control, and planning, among others) are in full development. A fundamental skill related to executive functions is decision-making. When dealing with adolescents, decision-making can have nuances of disorganization, impulsivity, and a high emotional investment in them. That is why we propose to support adolescents by following each of the steps involved in making a decision:
1. Identify the decision:
- Attack the problem when they are calm, not when emotions are exacerbated.
- Decipher their emotions.
- Make sure they can differentiate between what is a feeling and what is a fact. - Ask them questions focused on their goals and expected outcomes.
2. Understand the options:
- Brainstorm ideas. Allow them to be as creative as they want to be. At this point, there is no need to censor any option, no matter how irrational it may seem.
- Make a list of the positives and negatives of each option.
- Visualize what the options look like and how they would look if implemented.
3. Make a decision:
- Give them suggestions with their permission. This means that you should not barge into the process without first asking to hear them out; do so in a respectful way. - Make sure the decision to be made is age-appropriate. Help them see that decisions carry responsibilities.
- Intervene only when there is danger.
4. Act on the decision:
- Remain emotionally available. At this point, all we can do is stay connected and be open to hearing the news of the outcome of the decision. This may involve accompanying them with congratulations or being a shoulder to lean on in case they fail in the attempt.
5. Reflect on the decision:
- Recap on what they learned from the process and the outcome.
- Ask them what was easy and what was difficult. This will help them reflect. - Think about the future, analyzing what is the best course of action going forward or what are and will be the consequences of the decision made.
- Reinforce the effort invested in the decision-making and all those elements that reflect growth.
This is the first of many workshops that we want to share with our students, their families, and our colleagues at PAS. We understand that adolescence is filled with challenges, but it is also a very rewarding stage for the development and practice of everyday skills. We urge you to share this information with your sons and daughters, and even apply it in your personal lives. We hope to have created a space for reflection, recognizing that it is a process that is constantly under construction. We, as a school, together with families, are active agents in scaffolding growth and learning experiences for students; a learning that goes beyond the academic, a learning for life.