Emotional regulation can be defined as “the ability to self-regulate in order to adapt to the social environment or to accomplish present or future goals.” Simply put, it is our ability to acknowledge our emotions without letting them control our behavior. It is what allows us to address conflict and anger with a friend without physically attacking them, or to express sadness about an event without collapsing in tears. With emotional regulation, we are able to focus our attention and complete the task at hand without getting distracted by what we are feeling at any given moment. Without it, we would never excel in school or work, and would have immense difficulty maintaining relationships.
As one can imagine, emotional regulation is not innate, but rather developed, and is known to be an aspect of executive functioning. Executive functioning has been likened to an “air traffic control system at a busy airport” who manages the comings and goings of many different aircrafts and vehicles. It oversees and determines not only self-regulation, but also abstract thinking, decision-making, and the ability to sift through distractions. Located in the frontal lobe of the brain, executive functioning is among the last stages of neurodevelopment, thus not fully established until after the teenage years. This is why kids and teenagers often engage in risky behaviors and have difficulty managing their emotions.
These behaviors are accentuated even more in children who have certain special needs that limit attention and impulse-control, including children with ADHD and/or Autism Spectrum Disorder. Standing for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, ADHD is a prominent diagnosis in school-aged children that has been on the rise, with a 42% increase in diagnoses over the past eight years. Symptoms include poor impulse-control, difficulty paying attention, and poor working memory, which makes it hard to remember details. It is common for those with this diagnosis to lean toward having more attention deficit or more hyperactivity, though many have difficulties with both. Because impulse-control, working memory, and maintaining attention are all part of executive functioning, it is all the more difficult for children with ADHD to regulate their emotions.
Another disorder that has become prevalent over recent years is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), with 1 in 68 children having been diagnosed as of 2014. As its name suggests, ASD is on a spectrum, with those who have it ranging from low-functioning to high-functioning abilities. The disorder often affects the person’s communication, social, and impulse-control skills. Some children with ASD are nonverbal and have difficulty communicating their needs, while others can speak but have trouble interacting with their peers and understanding emotional and social cues from others. Like ADHD, kids with ASD have more difficulty regulating their emotions and expressing them in an appropriate way. Therefore, they tend to get in more trouble at school, taking them out of the classroom and depriving them of not only an education, but also the opportunity to grow in their abilities to interact with peers.
When kids get pulled out of the classroom for disruptive behavior, they are put on a track to continue getting in trouble in the future. Teachers who are uneducated about the needs of kids with disabilities are more likely to single out such kids and put them on this track. The older they get, the more kids will get in trouble with not only school, but also with the law, ending up in juvenile hall or jail. Dubbed the “school-to-prison pipeline,” this phenomenon that certain children who are more likely to get in trouble at school are at higher risk for getting involved in the juvenile justice system has become evident in recent years. It has been found that race and disability are some of the most common risk factors. One survey found that, on average, 33% of kids receiving education services in juvenile hall were in special education. Rather than be punished for their unregulated behavior, kids need to be taught to calm their own bodies down in a healthy and appropriate way. Additionally, teachers and parents need to be provided with the necessary tools to help their kids grow and succeed.
One app, Mightier, is looking to do just that. Engineered by Neuromotion Labs, Mightier teaches children emotional regulation through iPhone games. When using the app, the child wears a wristband paired with the phone that monitors their heart rate while they play. The more the game is played, the more difficult it becomes through visual distractions, more obstacles and enemies, and an increase in speed. This difficulty is meant to increase heart rate, which the child sees on the screen as they are playing. Once it is in the “red zone,” the game pauses and plays an animation in order to model deep breathing and calming exercises. The kid watches the heart rate fall as they calm down, and get to experience in their own body what it feels like to regulate their emotions rather than watch it be modeled by someone else. The creators of Mightier brought it to kids in Montreal who had disruptive behavior in the classroom. Before using the app, the students were leaving class for an average of six times per week. After using it, they only left the room for an average of twice per week.
Mightier is a useful tool for both parents and teachers who want their children to learn emotional regulation, and points us in the right direction of what our focus should be with how we treat children in school and at home. Rather than punish the behavior, it is essential for us to constantly look for new ways to show children how to be in control of their bodies and give them the tools they need to succeed. Though it is not a magical solution that makes every problem go away, it is progress. We must build off this progress that Mightier has made, and teach children how to generalize to everyday situations the tactics they learned from using the app. Further research would benefit from looking into VR technology as the next step in providing kids with real-life scenarios they would experience to help them practice self-regulation in the moment. The more we focus on moving in a direction that preemptively helps children who have difficulty regulating emotions rather than one that reactively punishes them, the less these kids will be thrown into the school-to-prison pipeline, thus giving them the education they deserve and need to reach their fullest potential.