What is self-calming to children?

Updated: Apr 9, 2021

18-month-old Hannah has been riding a bike in her daycare for some time and does not want to get off. A few of her friends are asking to use it but she absolutely will not budge. A teacher approaches Hannah and lets her know that this bike belongs to all our friends, so it’s time for her to let someone else ride and she can play with it again later. Hannah feels hurt, so she sits on the ground and starts crying - a lot. Woah there, Han! Those are some loud feelings! Let’s take a look at what Hannah’s teacher does to calm her - and in turn, the rest of the room, down:

She leads Hannah to the side to sit next to her on a bench.

She looks Hannah in the eyes to speak to her calmly and quietly.

She says,

Hannah, I see that you’re upset because you had to give up the bicycle. These toys are for all of the children to share. We all take turns playing with them, right? Remember the class rules? So when Tommy is done with it, you can take a turn or play with another toy.

I know it’s hard to stop doing what we want to do, but we have to try our hardest to calm down and wait our turn.

Why don’t you take a deep breath, fill your lungs, and slowly blow out the air like blowing a candle? The teacher clasps her hands together and extends her pointer fingers up like a candle to blow on it.

Why don’t you stay here until you are ready to play with another toy?

Let me know when you’re ready, OK?

Hannah takes a few deep breaths and blows on her fingers like a candle until her sobbing stops. After a few minutes, she calls the teacher and tells her she’s ready to play.

This whole scene was a perfect example of teaching a child how to calm themselves and build resilience. When we take the time to go through this process, a child will slowly begin to do it for herself. So, what was the meaning of all this anyway? How did it work? Here’s the process:

The teacher takes Hannah away from the scene of her upset and speaks to her calmly, looking in her eyes. This gives Hannah the time and space to listen to the teacher one-on-one. Speaking quietly, almost in a whisper, will incentivize a child to quiet down so she can hear you.

The teacher tells Hannah that she sees that she is upset. This is a key moment! Most of the time, children just want to be seen and heard, and can’t we all relate to that? A little validation? Sometimes adults tell children to stop crying and they have to learn how to share. This is a high-speed process that tries to force a child into an epiphany when they don’t even know how to get out of their feelings, much less know what feelings are. And then to be told they should know how to share? Wow - that’s sure asking a lot of someone who has only existed for two years! It’s like asking a new driver to get in the fast lane of a highway. So start slow and show the child that you see and hear their feelings.

The teacher reminds Hannah of the rules of the classroom - that the toys are for everyone to use and that everyone has to take turns. Here, the teacher appeals to Hannah’s cognitive skills and memory development. This does two things: reminds Hannah of the rules and reframes the situation to make her think. Even if she is still crying, Hannah can hear the teacher and will start the process of calming down while remembering that she can take a turn again.

The teacher shows Hannah empathy by saying she knows how hard it is when we’re upset. This is also very important for children to hear - and uh, adults too. I mean, couldn’t we all use a teacher like this right now? This acknowledgement is a reminder to kids that we have the same feelings, we empathize with them and we know how hard it is to deal with all these emotions. This also plants the seed of empathy skills, which Hannah can practice for her friends.

The teacher shows Hannah how to calm her body down by demonstrating “blowing the candle.” There’s nothing like taking slow breaths to calm down. And this particular image is fun for a child, like blowing a birthday candle.

The teacher instructs Hannah to stay seated until she is ready to play again. This is another important skill to grow in children: independence. By using this instruction, the teacher gives the power to Hannah to independently make herself ready to play. This is another self-calming technique because it gives the child an opportunity to self-reflect to see if she is ready to socialize again.

So that’s the equation: Diffuse the situation, See and name the feelings, Appeal to cognitive and rational skills by reframing, Show empathy, Share a skill to calm the body down, And then hand the power to Hannah to get herself ready to play.

Not to say that this is easy-peasy, right? This all takes time and energy and lots of patience. But once you get it down, it will give your child the valuable skill of resilience, not to mention saving yourself some frustration. All children have different levels of resilience and different ways of responding to stress. Some might become emotional, withdrawn, defiant, angry or resentful. Children with high levels of resilience are able to better cope with these natural responses and surmount them than children with low levels of resilience. When children are resilient and are able to bounce back from stressors, challenges or trauma, it makes them braver, more curious and adaptable. These are all qualities they’ll need to be successful adolescents and adults.

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