Rubber Bracelets to Support Emotional Regulation? Absolutely!

Wendy Turner teaches 2nd grade at Mt. Pleasant Elementary School in the Brandywine School District in Wilmington, Delaware. She is the 2017 Delaware Teacher of the Year and an Associate with Education Hall, providing trauma-invested and social emotional learning professional development for Kristin Souers and Pete Hall, authors of “Fostering Resilient Learners” and “The New 3 Rs: Relationship, Responsibility and Regulation”.

Monday morning arrives. Victor approaches the classroom door with a scowl on his face, his hands balled into fists, jawline tensed with stress. I greet him with my usual eye contact, firm handshake and cheery “Good Morning.” I am not surprised when he is unable to return the greeting. I let him enter the classroom without belaboring the point, understanding that he is in a difficult place and that getting into a struggle over anything at the moment would be counterproductive, even damaging. Slowly he walks over to a small container filled with different colored rubber bracelets with a sign on it that reads, “How are you feeling today?” Choosing a red one, he slides it onto his small wrist and stomps around the classroom as he places his folder in the collection basket and shows me his agenda. I now understand he is on “red,” the most difficult emotional state he can non-verbally communicate to me first thing in the morning.  

Students continue to stream into the sunny classroom. Some notice his red band and have a look of concern on their faces. A few moments later I ask Victor if he is ok. Stomping his feet, he firmly says, “NO OF COURSE NOT!” I ask him if he can tell me about it, and the story unfurls quickly as tears well up in his eyes. “I forgot it was dress down day and came in my uniform and I don’t have a blanket for the summer reading picnic. AND I ate breakfast early with my dad so now I am STARVING!” I nod, relating that all of that would put me on red too. I ask him if he would like to go out into the hallway to get breakfast and restart the day. He nods tentatively and walks towards the door slowly. In a few minutes he returns with a bag breakfast and starts to eat at his table. Morning work stays unfinished but that is OK because in this moment, I know my biggest job is to help Victor recognize and navigate his big emotions.

We start morning meeting, he finishes his breakfast quietly, as others do in the circle, seeming to relax with every bite and each passing second. When it is his time to participate in an activity with another student, he is able to do so. At the end of the morning meeting, we move into mindful breathing for a few moments to set the tone for the day. Watching, I see some of the stress leave his face and comfort move in and take over. Pride for Victor swells inside me and he changes his rubber bracelet to yellow before lunch.

I don’t think students can unlock their full academic potential until they unlock and understand their full social emotional selves. A significant part of this journey is working towards emotional regulation, the first step of which is identifying one’s emotions. We must find creative and powerful ways for students to do just that in our classrooms! Using non-verbal signals is an easy and powerful way to do so. The first step is teaching kids how their brains work, the science behind what is happening when we experience different emotions. Utilizing Dr. Dan Siegel’s hand model of the brain is a great place to start. Here he explains the model and what is means to “flip your lid.” This video does a nice job of explaining to kids what is going on in their brains when they lose control of emotions. Using tools and ideas such as these normalizes all emotions including negative ones! There are no bad emotions, just difficult ones and if we know what to do when they come, if we have a plan, we can deal with them! Connecting to emojis works well with kids of all ages because they are part of our daily lives.

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I love to bring conversations around emotions into the classroom in various ways. Literature is a powerful tool for any age and students love to connect to how characters are feeling through discussion and analysis. In elementary school classrooms, try Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse or The Color Monster for K-2 and The Name Jar, Harry Potter, or Wonder in grades 3-5. At the middle school level, great selections include Wonder, The Percy Jackson Series, or The Giver series. In high school, The Hate You Give works well, as do books by John Greene. At all ages, sharing narrative writing by students themselves offers a great opportunity for connections and discussion.                                   

My students put on a rubber bracelet each day to tell me about their emotional state without saying a word. They can let me and others know how they are feeling in a simple and powerful way and can even change their bands throughout the day. I make a point to check in personally with any student on red, they are free to tell me what is going on or not. I also realize that what means red for someone may be another person’s green or yellow. When we are aware of emotions without judging them, we are empathetic.

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We do an emotions check in at the end of our morning meeting each day. This is a valuable opportunity for all of us to notice how we are doing individually and collectively and think about ways we can support each other. It breeds awareness and a culture of empathy at the same time. I have seen students change their bracelet from green to yellow because one of their buddies is on red! I have seen a child put on a red bracelet because no one is listening to him or her in a group discussion. When others see the red bracelet they stop and listen! This can work for all ages. I wear one every day as well and have changed my bracelet in front of my students to model how I handle my emotions.

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Students need tools to identify and work to understand and control their emotions so they can be successful both inside and out of school! We need a plan for how we are going to do this. Using the hand model of the brain, literature, and rubber bracelets is a great way to start. You can buy rubber bracelets in youth and adult sizes here. Let me know if I can help you begin your journey! Contact me at wendymturner@gmail.com or find me on twitter @mrswendymturner.

Healthy Brains? It’s up to you!

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The human brain is pretty fascinating, isn’t it? Every day we seem to learn more about how the brain operates, where different elements of our life and psyche are controlled, and – very importantly – ways to optimize the performance of this chunk of gray matter between our ears. Over the last decade or so, I’ve worked very closely with Kristin Souers to help kids who have experienced trauma (and the adults who care for them) to develop resilience, grit, and a host of other characteristics. In that work, we’ve uncovered research supporting ten things that our brains need to be healthy, happy, and prepared for success (whether that means learning-ready, relationship-ready, and/or work-ready). Here they are, in no particular order (with primary sources inserted parenthetically):

1.       Sleep. On average, school-aged kids need 10 hours of sleep each night. That number decreases to 8 as we enter adulthood. During that restful time, our brains “log off” and clean out toxins (that might lead to dementia), sort and file important learnings and memories, and clear the path for neurons to communicate with each other. Don’t believe it? Try depriving yourself of sleep and watch your ability to recall information, mood, and processing skills dwindle, while your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity increase. So snooze away and let your brain “reboot.” (National Institutes of Health)

2.       Brain food. Not all foods are created equally, and some enhance brain function. The Cleveland Clinic lists foods that decrease likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s, increase our ability to focus, improve memory, and maintain mental acuity. Some examples: coffee, blueberries, oily fish, walnuts, chia seeds, quinoa, veggies, spinach, brown rice, tomatoes… Interestingly, easily accessible, cheap foods with high fructose corn syrup and trans fat don’t make the list – because they’re extremely unhealthy. Go ahead, read the ingredients – they matter for your gray matter! (Cleveland Clinic)

3.       Water. Fill ‘er up! And drink up! Water, that is. Our brains are roughly three-quarters water, and intaking sufficient water hydrates, feeds, cleans, and helps our brains to be more efficient, increasing mental alertness, processing speed, clarity, and creativity. If you’re thirsty, your lips are starting to chap, or your urine is dark yellow, you need to drink more water. And caffeinated beverages actually dehydrate us, so for each cup of coffee, drink a cup of water. (UC Davis)

4.       Exercise. It probably comes as no surprise that regular exercising is good for us. Not only does it build muscle and endurance and overall physical health, but regular exercising is shown to increase volume in the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex – the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory. Exercising strengthens brain cells, facilitates the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and can improve mood, sleep, and reduce stress and anxiety. Though the brain isn’t a muscle, don’t tell it that – it’ll get stronger the more we exercise! (Harvard Medical School)

5.       Breathe. Engaging in deep, controlled breathing exercises (such as pranayama breathing, typically used in yoga, meditation, and mindfulness approaches) can help calm the brain, affecting oxygen consumption and metabolism. This decreases the likelihood of psychological or stress-related disorders, increases the brain’s information processing functions, augments concentration, and puts us in a better mood. The key here? Breathing is an involuntary action; by becoming metacognitively aware of it and controlling it, we can gain significant benefits. (University of New Mexico)

6.       Teamwork. Brains, like many animals, thrive in the company of similar creatures. In this case, other brains. It seems that when we work together, cooperating in an attempt to achieve a common goal, our brains tend to get “in sync” with one another. Not only that, they release oxytocin, the feel-good neurochemical that is released when we eat chocolate, share a first kiss, or find out we’re the 9th caller to our favorite radio station, winning that amazing trip to Vegas! So go ahead and team up, link arms and brains, and win the day…together! (Science Daily)

7.       Challenge. This one seems like a no-brainer, haha. When you put your brain to the test – that is, learn a new skill, vary your routines, or engage in some rigorous research – you may in fact spur neuronal plasticity, which prompts the growth of new brain cells, creates new connections, and generally protects against cognitive decline. So there’s a good reason to learn the mamba, brush your teeth with the opposite hand, take a foreign-language class, or join a book club. Just like a muscle, these mental workouts will strengthen your brain’s performance. (Harvard Medical School)

8.       Limit screen time. Interested in developing your peripheral vision (which augments spatial learning, navigation, integration of information, and connections)? How about decreasing loneliness and depression? Want to sleep better? Increase mental acuity? The research in this category is still evolving (because let’s face it – screens have become ubiquitous and our lives with them are evolving), though the preliminary consensus is that excessive recreational screen-time impacts all the above. General guidelines offer an upper range of 1-2 hours per day, max. And none right before bed! (American Academy of Pediatrics)

9.       Laughter. Oh, indeed this is the best medicine! When we laugh, our stress response is relieved and our immune system is strengthened. Laughter stimulates circulation, relieves pain, and helps us to cope when the going gets rough. Imagine a healthy guffaw when you get cut off on the freeway or you’re facing a tight deadline at work! Then we can move forward in a healthier way – in fact, because the act of laughing triggers the release of endorphins, we can actually MAKE ourselves happy! An immediate mood-booster, all natural and in plentiful supply. (Mayo Clinic)

10.   Gratitude. We’re often told to count our blessings. Well, that’s actually a really good idea. Practicing gratitude improves our psychological health, increases happiness, enhances empathy, reduces aggression, and decreases the desire to seek revenge. Folks who write in a gratitude-journal right before bed report sleeping better, too. And who wouldn’t want better self-esteem and mental strength, two other benefits that are two simple words away from our grasp? You’re welcome. And thank you. (Psychology Today)

Pete Hall is one of the 99% who believes he uses a little more than 10% of his available brain power. He’s also a former school principal and co-author (with Kristin Souers) of two trauma-related resources: Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for creating a trauma-sensitive classroom (ASCD, 2016) and Relationship, Responsibility, and Regulation: Trauma-invested strategies for fostering resilient learners (ASCD, 2018). You can email his brain at PeteHall@EducationHall.com.