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For some children, navigating their feelings can be overwhelming and may lead to emotional dysregulation, which refers to difficulties managing and expressing emotions appropriately.

The repercussions in the classroom can be far-reaching – including disruptive behaviour and trouble concentrating or engaging in collaborative activities.

Renie Sutherland, Principal at The Bridge Assisted Learning School Morningside, says recognising the signs is crucial for creating a supportive environment that promotes academic growth. Acknowledging and tackling emotional dysregulation is increasingly recognised as a pivotal component in nurturing academic achievement,” Sutherland explains.

Also read Falling between the gap: when your child doesn’t fit in and guiding the gifted child.

What to look for

Sutherland says recognising emotional dysregulation can sometimes be challenging, but there are some general signs.

  • Intense emotional reactions: children may experience emotions more intensely than their peers. This can manifest as extreme anger, sadness, anxiety, or frustration that seems disproportionate to the situation.
  • Quick mood shifts: abrupt and unpredictable changes in mood can indicate emotional dysregulation. A child may go from being calm to extremely upset or agitated without an apparent trigger.
  • Difficulty recovering from upsets: children may find it challenging to calm down after becoming upset. Their emotional state might persist for an extended period, making it difficult for them to return to a baseline mood.
  • Impulsive behaviour: acting on impulse without considering the consequences is a common trait associated with emotional dysregulation. This may include impulsive decisions, outbursts, or even physical aggression.
  • Difficulty with transitions: Changes in routine or unexpected transitions can be particularly challenging. Children may struggle to adapt to new situations, leading to increased stress and emotional upheaval.
  • Poor frustration tolerance: Children may have a low threshold for frustration. Minor setbacks or challenges that others may handle with ease can lead to intense emotional reactions.
  • Social difficulties: emotional dysregulation can impact interpersonal relationships. Children may struggle to make and maintain friendships due to difficulties in understanding and responding appropriately to social cues.
  • Physical symptoms: Emotional dysregulation can manifest physically. Children may experience headaches, stomach aches or muscle tension, among other symptoms, in response to emotional distress.
  • Sleep disturbances: disruptions in sleep patterns, such as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. Emotional challenges may interfere with the ability to relax and unwind before bedtime.
  • Difficulty identifying emotions: some children may have difficulty recognising and labelling their emotions. This lack of emotional awareness can contribute to challenges in effectively regulating their feelings.

“While the above could be indicators of emotional dysregulation, they should serve as a starting point for investigation, not a diagnostic checklist, as every individual is unique,” says Sutherland.

How to help

“If concerned, parents should seek professional help from a qualified professional or educational experts to help guide them and their child. Emotional dysregulation needs to be approached with sensitivity,” she says.

Generally, the approach to supporting children dealing with dysregulation includes:

  • building emotional awareness
  • developing structured routines
  • teaching coping skills
  • engaging in collaborative problem-solving
  • building and maintaining healthy boundaries.

It may be necessary to find a school that understands emotional dysregulation and can assist children on their journey.

“A school that prioritises emotional wellbeing fosters classroom environments tailored to promote resilience, creating a supportive space where children feel understood and validated,” says Sutherland.

“Such environments will have teachers trained to recognise signs of emotional dysregulation and implement strategies that nurture resilience and equip children with essential life skills, enabling them to navigate challenges with resilience and adaptability,” she advises.  “Choosing a school that values and incorporates emotional wellbeing into its educational philosophy lays the foundation for children to thrive academically, emotionally and socially, setting them on a path towards long-term success.”


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