Reset and Renew: Improving Mental Health by Fostering Emotional Regulation Skills
By Laine Whitaker, MSL
May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States and has been observed as such since 1949 when it was started by the National Association for Mental Health, now known as Mental Health America (MHA). After two years of unrelenting stress and uncertainty, now more than ever it is essential to prioritize mental health and understand its role in our overall well-being.
According to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) most recent Stress in America survey, Americans of all ages are reporting record high levels of stress. This stress is tied to inflation and economic uncertainty, global tensions such as the invasion of Ukraine, and the ongoing fears and disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. These findings have only deepened the alarm of parents, educators, mental health professionals, and public health officials as children’s mental health problems continue to soar. At the same time, they underscore the reality that the mental well-being of children is closely tied to the health and well-being of the adults in their lives.
Far from the return to normalcy that many craved last September, the 2021–22 school year has been a slog for students, parents, teachers, and administrators. Mental health needs have outpaced the capacity of current treatment systems, both school-based and in the community. Waiting lists remain long and there is no quick solution to the shortage of mental health professionals. In response, both school and mental health professionals have been seeking creative ways to expand their reach, from building out school-based Tier 1 and Tier 2 MTSS services to designing single-session intervention models to assist those who are unable to access more traditional outpatient care in a timely manner.
This spring, as we emerge yet again from COVID-related restrictions, there is no doubt that students, families, and school professionals will need to find opportunities to Reset and Renew. Effective School Solutions (ESS) staff hope that exhausted educators and students will find ways to relax and decompress this summer, as districts consider how to further enhance mental health supports for both staff and students in the year ahead. It is natural in the face of immense need and limited resources to feel overwhelmed and even hopeless at times. It might be helpful to remember, however, that there are simple yet powerful tools to improve mental health and increase resiliency that can be adopted throughout the school community. One such tool we use at ESS is the Transition Reset which uses the building blocks of mindfulness and emotion regulation skills to help students and staff cope with both the planned and unanticipated changes they face daily.
What is a Transition Reset?
Simply put, a Transition Reset is a brief, re-centering practice that is used with intention multiple times each day to facilitate the change from one activity to another. We all get overwhelmed by emotions from time to time and/or have trouble letting go of distracting thoughts — it is a uniquely human experience. Adopting a Transition Reset ritual that is practiced throughout the school day can help students and teachers alike release unpleasant thoughts, emotions, and behaviors while maximizing the experience of staying “present” for each learning opportunity. It is the mental/emotional/behavioral equivalent of starting with a clean slate.
Transition Reset activities combine mindfulness and emotion regulation skills. Ideally these practices would be woven into daily school routines and would be mandatory for each transition throughout the day. These transition moments could include the arrival into the school building, the move from homeroom to first class, from class to class or subject to subject, dismissals from assemblies or the final class of the day, etc.
Mindfulness is defined as the capacity to stay present with one’s here-and-now experience, while adopting an accepting and non-judgmental stance. Mindfulness can be cultivated in many ways since virtually every human behavior (walking, taking a shower, eating a snack, washing dishes, listening to music, watching a video, etc.) can be framed as a mindfulness practice. One of the simplest ways to practice being “in the moment”, however, is a sitting meditation during which one observes the sensations and sounds that are associated with one’s own breath. The intention is to simply observe without judging or modifying the breath in any way, and gently bring focus back to the breath when the mind inevitably wanders.
A recently published meta-analysis of school-based mindfulness interventions showed promising results, especially in relation to improving students’ cognitive performance and resilience to stress. Those who cultivate mindfulness in their daily lives are less vulnerable to the “what if” and catastrophizing thoughts that are associated with anxiety. They are less vulnerable to rumination about losses or perceived failures, and to the self-blame, regret, and “why me?” thinking that worsens depression. They are better able to create a “then vs. now” distinction between the present and moments of trauma in the past. They are more likely to accept reality as it is, and to look for what is needed in the moment to solve a problem or to make things better. They are more “present” with others and thus more likely to be effective in interpersonal relationships. In short, there is considerable research evidence that points to the multiple benefits of engaging in regular mindfulness practices. These include decreased stress, depression, anxiety, emotional reactivity, and pain, along with improved immune function, emotion regulation, concentration, cognitive flexibility, and interpersonal effectiveness.
Mindfulness and Emotion Regulation (ER) skills overlap in some ways but are also distinct. The capacity to regulate emotion is a critical aspect of executive function and is necessary for navigating life’s stressors. ER skills are typically included in all effective Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) curricula.
The main targets of ER strategies are attention, emotion-relevant knowledge, and awareness and management of the physiological and behavioral manifestations of emotion. Some ER skills are categorized as antecedent, where the goal is to intervene prior to, or early in the emotional response, while others are response-focused, where the goal is to modulate physiological or behavioral responses after they occur.
Four major components of Emotion Regulation are:
- The ability to label, understand, and express emotions.
- The ability to observe and describe the physical sensations, thoughts, and behaviors that accompany various emotions.
- The willingness and ability to ACCEPT and TOLERATE all emotions without judgment, even uncomfortable or painful emotions, without labeling any emotion as “good” or “bad” per se.
- The recognition that ALL emotions play a useful function. A painful emotion such as sadness or hurt might signal the need to make a change (e.g., to leave a toxic friendship), to seek help, or to improve self-care. Anxiety and fear help us identify and move away from dangerous situations. Overwhelmed and confused feelings might motivate us to seek information, or to work harder on a project or task.
Mindfulness and Emotion Regulation are two of the four core modules of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). DBT is an evidence-based treatment protocol that has been used successfully for many years to help individuals with the most severe forms of emotion and behavioral dysregulation. Transition Resets on the other hand are meant to be used with non-clinical populations as part of a district’s robust Tier 1 intervention plan to promote mental wellness and resilience.
Why Adopt a Transition Reset Protocol?
Since early in the pandemic ESS staff have been fielding questions from districts around the country about how to support the mental wellness of the entire school community. The need to adapt to frequent changes while in a persistent state of uncertainty has made both students and adults more vulnerable to dysregulation. Fortunately, prior to the pandemic ESS had already piloted an exciting new initiative in a Bronx, NY middle school that has promise for meeting this need directly.
ESS’s Transition Reset initiative grew out of the realization that while we might routinely encourage others to “calm down”, very few children or adults have been explicitly taught how to do this. While SEL curricula often cover mindfulness and other self-regulation strategies, they typically are not structured in a way to support the daily practice and implementation of these essential tools.
Adopting a school-wide Transition Reset process, however, allows for these skills to be “baked in” to young minds as well as the minds of the adults who teach them. ESS has recently guided the successful district-wide implementation of such a process in Pennsylvania, and based on the enthusiastic feedback from students, teachers, and parents, we are confident that other districts can benefit as well.
Where to Begin?
Prior to beginning such a protocol — whether classroom-based, school-wide, or district-wide — it is important to thoroughly discuss the concept and benefits of Transition Resets with all students, parents, and staff members. Expectations must be clearly defined and multiple examples of Reset activities should be offered. Everyone should understand that each Reset will mark the beginning of a new subject or activity.
There are an infinite number of two or three-minute Reset practices to choose from, both active and quiet, both individual and group-oriented. A signal that marks the entry to and exit from a Reset activity should be included, for example a gentle chime or bell can be used, or lights can be dimmed and brightened again, or gentle music can be played for the duration of the Reset activity and then faded as the activity ends. Students can be invited to close their eyes and take 3–4 deep breaths before each Reset exercise, and after each Reset students should be congratulated and invited to share their observations. Students can also be given permission to use a quiet, individual Reset strategy during the class if they find themselves losing focus or becoming dysregulated.
Teachers should select at least a dozen or more Reset options to begin with, allowing for variety from day- to-day. Individual students or student teams can be encouraged to design their own Reset strategies as well. A variety of factors might influence the choice of Reset activity for any given classroom, e.g., the time of day. After lunch, for example, a more active Reset might be helpful.
Some examples of both whole-group and individual Transition Reset activities are:
- Deep or paced breathing
- Tossing/catching a bean bag
- Running in place or doing jumping jacks for 30 seconds followed by counting one’s pulse
- Tapping out a song’s rhythm or singing a song
- A game of Simon-Says
- Stretching or yoga poses
- Blowing bubbles
- Five Senses Exercise: Write 5 things you can see, 4 things you feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, one thing you can taste
- Guided Muscle Relaxation Exercise: gently squeeze and release muscle groups, from the feet up
- Individual writing, e.g., self-observation journaling describing thoughts, feelings, and sensations that are experienced in the moment
- Watching a video
- Quiet reading, e.g., in a comic book or an article online
- A teacher-led guided imagery that cues students, with eyes closed, to silently and non-judgmentally focus on their experience in the moment, e.g. “I am sitting at my desk, it’s a little warm in here, I have a pencil in my hand, I’m about to start math class, I hear some people out in the hall and a lawnmower outside”, etc.
- A teacher-led guided imagery that allows students to “cope ahead” for upcoming stressful moments. Students can be asked to imagine possible emotional triggers as well as coping strategies for each challenging situation (e.g., a classmate being noisy or disruptive, a math problem that feels impossible to solve, etc.)
- Coloring sheets
After students and staff practice these group resets 8–9 times a day as they transition throughout the day this becomes muscle memory; a transferable skill that is easily accessed when students are overwhelmed by big emotions. The more students learn the value of resetting they begin to learn to reset themselves and others. Over time, as students adjust to the regular practice of using Transition Resets, teachers can help each child develop a personalized list of activities that work best for him/her under a variety of circumstances. This will help students build capacity and teach them that different situations will likely require different coping strategies.
To ensure the success of a Transition Reset protocol, it is important for teachers and other staff to be “all in”, meaning that they need to embrace Reset practices for themselves as well. The full potential of this initiative will not be reached if educators don’t participate in each activity, using the time to re-center and settle themselves each time a transition occurs. Teachers and parents are less effective if/when they teach or discipline from a dysregulated position, so the full benefit of this simple but powerful tool will not be realized if only the children are expected to participate. And, based on the feedback that ESS has received from districts so far, it is well worth the investment of time and energy to implement this Tier 1 MTSS strategy.
Zenner, C. , Herrnleben-Kurz, S. and Walach. H. (2014) Mindfulness-based interventions in schools — A systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology/Educational Psychology. Volume5, Article 603. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00603.
Rathus, J. H. and Miller, A. L. (2015) DBT Skills Manual for Adolescents