Executive Function Strategies Blog

Emotional Regulation: The Hidden Success in a Student’s Failure

(Author’s note: the names and circumstances have been altered to protect the client’s anonymity.)

The mom calls me at 3:15 on a Tuesday afternoon. I am coaching another student at the time, but I listen to her voicemail message when I’m done with the session at 4:00. Marie is clearly anguished.

SuccessI have been coaching her daughter for more than two years now, and I feel almost like a member of the family. Marie and David’s daughter Lauren is a bright, enthusiastic 10th grader in a public school. She struggles to maintain her focus on tasks she doesn’t enjoy, but could spend hours painting her fingernails or drawing animals. (And she’s really talented!) Lauren also works hard to manage her emotions and to advocate for her needs at school. At times, she convinces herself that she cannot handle a particular teacher’s demands, or the scope of a long-term high-stakes assignment, and she shuts down, leading to missed school and stressful catching up when she returns.

I have been helping Lauren to recognize when she needs to reach out to teachers and learn how to do it effectively, and she has made substantial progress. She understands the accommodations she is entitled to on her 504 plan, and knows how to ask for them when they are not automatically provided. She knows where she needs to sit in the classroom to maintain her attention. Using strategies I’ve modeled and we’ve practiced together, Lauren has transformed from a freshman who barely took notes (there were more galloping stallions on the page than actual information about algebra or cell structure) to legible, comprehensive notes in a color-coded binder.  But we still have some work to do on her emotional regulation skills.

Her smart, loving mom worries a lot about Lauren. And that worry translates to intervening with teachers whenever she senses Lauren is having trouble managing her workload. I’ve been working with Marie to gain the confidence to step back and allow Lauren to negotiate extensions on assignments or asking for help (on her own) to understand difficult classroom topics. I explain to her that executive function skills (including emotional regulation) take time and effort to build, and that greatest gift we can give our kids is not to solve their immediate problems, but to instill a sense of confidence that they can find ways to solve their own problems...and here’s the real kicker...that even when something does go wrong, they are strong enough to deal with it, learn from it, and move on.

Now, back to that voicemail. It seemed that a not-so-liked English teacher had been unclear (or had been misunderstood) about when Lauren was supposed to do a presentation in front of the class. She was taken completely by surprise when the teacher said, “Lauren, you’re up!” She did the presentation but Lauren knew it wasn’t very good; some slides were incomplete, and she couldn’t answer any of the teacher’s questions about the topic when she was done. She felt humiliated and very upset, tearfully relaying the events to Marie that day after school. Marie wanted to contact the teacher and voice her displeasure and explain why Lauren was unprepared.

I called her back.

“Before you hit send on that email to the teacher, Marie, let’s talk this through, OK?”

I gently suggested that we could reframe the situation, and view it from a skill development point of view. Was Lauren able to get through the presentation (what we Executive Function Coaches call goal-directed persistence)? Did she demonstrate flexibility by rolling with an unexpected classroom demand? Was Lauren able to attend her subsequent classes instead of going to the nurse or asking to be picked up at school (resilience)? Yes, yes, and yes.

“It sounds like we have something to celebrate here.”

Instead of placing the focus on the perceived unfairness of the situation, I advised, reflect to Lauren what she accomplished by dealing with a very uncomfortable situation. It takes a lot of strength (and emotional regulation) to get through an embarrassment in front of peers. Yes, it was crummy and she made it to the end of her school day in one piece. I suggested asking Lauren what her self-talk was during the moment and the rest of the day that proved helpful. By shifting the focus from external factors (a teacher being unfair) that are largely out of her control to internal factors (managing emotions in a difficult situation), Marie could help Lauren continue to build her emotional regulation skills. What began as a disaster transformed into an opportunity for growth, and for recognizing Lauren’s progress in this area of executive function skill development.

Hey, crummy situations happen to us all: a boss is unreasonable, your car breaks down, a neighbor’s dog barks all night. Developing a personal toolbox of strategies to thrive despite unpredictable circumstances is one key to effective emotional self-management. Of course, a reassuring hug from mom doesn’t hurt either.

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photo credit: StockMonkeys.com via photopin cc

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