Sneak peek: These calm activities can help kids learn how to manage big emotions, both in the classroom and at home.
I walked into my son’s kindergarten class to volunteer for the first time and was a bit surprised. Some of the items looked familiar from my own school days–a play kitchen and cash register, plenty of blocks and markers. Many things were new, of course. A big-screen TV on the wall, big tables where groups of students worked together instead of individual desks.
I settled in to help the teacher. She explained an assignment and then students went off to work–some at tables and some, to my surprise, under a table.
I soon learned that this area was what the teachers called a “cave space.” This definitely didn’t exist when I was in kindergarten, except during nap time (which also no longer exists in kindergarten). Basically, the cave space is a quieter, slightly secluded space where kids could work. Come to find out, all the classrooms in the school have these designated spaces. Kids can use cave spaces when they need a quiet space, a place to do calm activities, or just some time alone. Now that I’ve learned more about the science of social-emotional development in kids, I see the brilliance of the cave space.
Calm Activities at School and Home
Fast forward a few years and many of us are schooling at home (not exactly homeschooling). Like many kids across the world, my kids are doing their public school curriculum but at-home online. When we first started this process last spring, I thought at-home learning would be an end to the dreaded after-school meltdowns.
Now the after-school meltdown could happen at any time of day. But why?
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Why Do Kids Have Meltdowns?
Each child is unique, of course, so you know your child best. Emotional meltdowns can happen for basic reasons like hunger, fatigue, big changes in routine, etc. Most parents have a good sense about these are they are easier to cope with since the source of the meltdown is a basic need that can be met fairly easily.
Beyond these basic needs, meltdowns in kids can occur for a variety of other, less obvious, reasons:
Lack of self-regulation skills
When you really think about it, self-regulation is a pretty advanced skill. When you are able to regulate your emotions, you can inhibit some of your immediate responses to difficult situations. For example, if an adult stubs her toe on a chair, she might yell out for a second in pain, but usually is able to find calm activities to bring herself back to normal functioning rather quickly. On the other hand, if your toddler stubs her toe, a 20+ minute emotional meltdown can occur. Why?
Young children’s brains are not yet mature enough to handle these big emotions well and inhibit hardly any of their immediate emotional reactions. If they feel it, they usually express it (often loudly). They don’t yet have the emotional maturity to control these impulses well. The good news is that with practice and guidance these skills can be learned (plus a few more years of maturity helps).
Lack of understanding of emotions
As adults, we take our understanding of emotions for granted but young children haven’t yet learned these lessons. When they feel big emotions like anger or sadness, they can become confused or even scared about how they’re feeling.
They simply don’t have enough life experience to know, for example, that the shaky, clammy feeling is from being scared or that kind of hot, energized feeling is anger. Young children just react to their environment and their bodies’ responses.
Related reading: Surprisingly Helpful Calming Activities for Super-Active Kids
Young kids especially, but even older children (and adults) sometimes meltdown due to overstimulation. Overstimulation can come from too much noise, too much screen time (hello, virtual learning), too many people, or other factors.
We’ve all experienced that feeling of overstimulation. Many of us are perhaps feeling it often during these pandemic days of Zoom calls and kids begging for our attention. Kids experience this too and are even less capable of coping with it. Based on a child’s temperament, they may become overstimulated more or less easily. Having calm activities available for kids during these times is crucial.
What are Some Calming Activities for Kids?
The goal of having calm activities available for kids is not just a “touchy-feely” approach to parenting (yes, I hear those questioners out there 🙂 The real idea of these calming strategies is that they help address the underlying need or lacking skill that causes meltdowns. If we can foster the skills kids need to better handle big emotions, then meltdowns and emotional outbursts will start to subside.
This idea is basic but it works! We can model self-regulation and coping for our kids by practicing it ourselves. It can be challenging at times to control our own emotions, especially when our kids are struggling with their own emotional breakdown. Over time, however, if we can model how to express emotions in ways appropriate to the situation, our kids will notice.
Related reading: Want to be a More Patient Parent? Start Here…
Plus, research really does back this up. Studies have shown that parents who tend to overreact to toddler tantrums are more likely to have kids who continue struggling with emotional outbursts for years. While other factors, like genetics, can be at play here, the message is clear–modeling emotional regulation matters for kids.
The study’s author described it this way,
“Parents’ ability to regulate themselves and to remain firm, confident and not over-react is a key way they can help their children to modify their behavior,” she said. “You set the example as a parent in your own emotions and reactions.”
Why it works
- Modeling works because parents are the primary emotional attachment for kids. We and our kids are emotionally linked. This is a crucial part of healthy attachment but it also means kids are acutely tuned to our emotional state too. If we can stay calm, the relationship acts as a regulating force for the kids. Over time, kids will develop their own strategies and calm activities that work for them, but while they are young, we act as an external regulating force for them.
Just as my experience in my son’s kindergarten classroom shows, the presence of a “cave space” or calming corner can really help kids learn self-regulation. The best part about this calming strategy is that it can be set up at a school or at home.
With the start of at-home learning, we recently set up a calming corner in our home. It’s a really nice place for my boys (ages 7 and 11) to take a break from screens and calm down or just relax. It includes ready-to-hang (no frames needed!) posters that offer suggestions for calm activities, a nice cushy bean-bag chair, a stuffy and some sensory items that can be used for calming like this motion bubble timer and bubble wrap to pop (so fun!).
Why it works
- A specified place, like a calming corner, works to help kids learn self-regulation primarily through practice and visual cues. This calm activity provides kids the time and space needed to practice their own self-regulation. They can decide which activities help calm them down and over time, they will become better at recognizing their own emotions and how to handle them. The visual cues of the posters are an added resource to help them focus on their emotions. The posters show kids the different emotions they might be feeling and offer some ideas for calming. Research shows that visual cues such as facial expression cards can be useful in helping kids improve their emotional recognition.
Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of at-home learning is the fact that it’s very easy for kids to not get enough movement in their day. Although our school schedules in several movement breaks throughout the day, it’s still not really enough to keep kids’ bodies and minds healthy. I’ve even found my super-active, baseball-playing 11-year-old glued to his laptop for too many hours because he just wants to get the schoolwork DONE.
Regular movement breaks throughout the day, not just at the end of the day, can be a wonderful calming activity for kids. Although it’s counterintuitive to think that movement can be calming, it really does work. If my kids are on the verge of an emotional breakdown, a quick walk around the block or a run up and down the stairs can switch their moods quickly.
Why it Works
- Although we don’t often think about the link between the body and the mind, they are inextricably linked. Studies show that changing the movement of the body and the intensity of exercise produces all sorts of changes in the body. These changes, such as the release of endorphins and changes in neurotransmitters are linked to better feelings, including a reduction in stress and anxiety.
Whether at school or home (or school at home), most kids struggle at times with managing big emotions and dealing with stress. As parents, the answer is not to push aside these struggles or ignore them. Instead, we can offer them a toolbox of strategies to help foster self-regulation and emotional skills that will guide them through these challenges and the ones of the future.