School life can be hectic and demanding at times. A student’s equilibrium is challenged by factors such as peer relationships, academic challenges, adult expectations and issues coming from home. The emotions that these factors evoke can sometimes be intense, and become more than a child can manage in a classroom space. When this happens, a child is invited to visit the Emotions Room, and given space and time to process their emotions safely in the company of a warm, caring adult.
Note: this information has been prepared using protocols from the Centre of Excellence for Behavioural Management https://www.cebm.ca
What is an emotions room?
An Emotions Room is a small room or space in the school where a student can be taken to help process their emotions.
What is the purpose of an emotions room?
- to provide a safe place for a child to release emotional energy without “getting in trouble”
- to give students room to understand how emotions feel in their body and to learn to express their emotions safely
- to help a student get to the other side of the emotional “storm” and find release.
- to pre-empt a full crisis in the classroom where a student may give in to their impulses and attack property, staff or other children.
What is the philosophy behind an emotions room?
The philosophy behind the emotions room comes from the Neufeld Institute in Canada, which carries an attachment-based developmental approach to child and adolescent growth and development.
Psychologist, Gordon Neufeld, believes that “the first step to emotional development is the experience of living and feeling each primary emotion without have to temper it.” (Neufeld, 2011). By permitting emotions to be expressed, no matter how ugly, the child is given the chance to move through the emotion to the other side of the “storm” rather than trying encourage the child to hold it in. Asking a child to hold in their big feelings, and rewarding this behaviour or “consequencing” it if they fail often backfires, and results in huge outbursts at inappropriate times and places. Instead, the Emotions Room provides an “appropriate place” for that emotion to be safely released.
Once a strong emotion has expressed itself it often results in tears or sadness. Grief is a powerful emotion that helps a child begin to accept the frustrating and distressing things they simply cannot control or change in their lives. These “futilities” they cannot control range from as simple a thing as having to join the rest of the class for PE, to having to accept that Mum and Dad have split up. Finding their tears about these things in a safe space, allows for the beginning of adaptability and builds resilience and resourcefulness.
The child may then move on, with adult guidance, to find other ways to express what is happening in their emotional world.
What does a student actually do in the emotions room?
Each child has a different way of expressing emotion. Some need to hit, some need to scream, some need to stamp, some need to cry. Each of these options is valid and invited in this unique space. Materials are provided to help students get their emotions out.
Permission is given for the student to express their emotions however they choose to at the time. For some this may be creative expression such as through art or music. For others this may be through an eruption of physical energy.
Suggested materials and physical set-up of the room will be detailed in the Emotions Room Workshop with Adrienne.
Why must an adult be present?
A caring adult is present in order to allow a child to feel held and safe, instead of feeling left alone with their Big Emotions to manage them all by themselves.
An adult “invites out” the expression of the emotion giving permission within the “bubble” of the Emotions Room to behaviours such swearing, kicking, throwing, hitting, ripping, stomping, punching.
Each of these release options are carefully curated and made available in the space eg kicking a soft ball, hitting with a pool noodle, ripping up an old phone book, punching a punch bag etc
Note: This process must be done under careful supervision by a caring adult trained in supporting a child in emotional distress. Adrienne trains staff on best practise guidelines on how to accompany a child in emotional distress in the Emotions Room Workshop.
Are there protocols around the Emotions Room?
One student only at a time
Students must always be accompanied by a caring adult
Express emotions safely (ie The student must not hurt others, hurt themselves or damage property unless they are invited to – eg tearing up a phone book, crushing bubble wrap etc)
The student may stay as long as they feel they need to until their emotion has “got itself out”.
Staff Training Workshop
It is important staff are trained in the use of the Emotions Room first so that emotional expression and eruption is managed safely. Adrienne offers workshops for key staff members on how to best use an Emotions Room in order to facilitate emotional outbursts safely.
How to set up an Emotions Room
Protocols in an Emotions Room
Facilitating Emotional Outbursts safely
The workshop covers:
Using an Emotions Room in our School
We have had an Emotions Room in our school for the past three and half years. Prior to creating this space we had students who were tearing offices apart or turning classroom upside down. Dealing with a student’s foul frustration in this safe space has allowed for the expression of the frustration without the need to impose consequences after the fact.
It can sometimes mean a child bursting through the door and into the safe space followed by slamming doors, screams, a run of language, throwing (safe) items or hitting soft chairs.
We join the child in their eruption. We have scripted, modelled, come alongside and made room for student’s frustration while attempting to preserve their dignity and reduce the need for social consequences.
We have worked very hard to help our students find their way to the safe space when they feel or their teachers see their frustration growing. Most students are now accessing this space...and they are finding an outlet for their frustration.
For many students we have seen a significant reduction in the frequency and severity of their eruptions. I can’t thank Dr. Neufeld enough for the insight and foundational understanding around foul frustration and aggression and the importance of caring adults willing to walk the maze.
For many students the Emotions Room has now become a safe place to have their tears.
- J Hann, Teacher. Chinooks Edge School Division, Alberta
The Origins of the Emotions Room
Eva de Gosztonyi
Coordinator: Center of Excellence for Behaviour Management, Canada.
I have worked in schools for over 40 years as a school psychologist. My role was to help schools work with children who faced a variety of challenges, both academic and behavioural. The students who caused the most concern were those who had frequent and violent explosions at school. These students would react intensely to seemingly innocuous situations such as being asked to finish a task, to take off a hat, being told that they had to stop a certain behaviour or being told they could not have something they wanted. And then it began: swearing, shouting, screaming, throwing things, turning desks over, grabbing and ripping papers and more.
The adults did the best they could to manage these outbursts, but it seemed that nothing really helped. Rewards and consequences worked in the short term but then actually seemed to make things worse. Isolating the child kept everyone safe, yet the child often left the room quieter, but more distant. Some schools tried very hard to prevent situations that could lead to these explosions. Many schools created “calming” spaces and rooms, but when a child was in crisis, the room was destroyed. Over and over again, I asked myself, what else could we do to help these children who were clearly in distress. Something was missing.
It wasn’t until I studied Dr. Neufeld’s course, “Heart Matters: The Science of Emotions”, that I came to the realization that what was missing was a place where the children could express the emotions swirling inside of them. For most of our children that emotion was frustration, the emotion that is evoked when something in our life does not work. And so much in their lives did not work: a mommy who was sick with cancer; a daddy who “forgot” to come to pick her up on the weekend; not enough food in the house, etc.
When a child comes to school already full of frustration, handling the demands of being in school can be a challenge. There are so many frustrating things about being in school, waking up early, riding on a bus, having no friends to play with, taking off a snowsuit in a crowded hallway, being asked to sit still, having to wait for your turn, being asked to do something that is difficult, not having the right pencil or crayon for doing the work, having to stop something that you like doing, a change in your daily schedule, and on and on it goes to the end of a very long day of things not working.
And so, it is not surprising if at some point in the school day the frustration comes to the “boiling point” and flows over, or rather erupts in an explosion. In the eruption all the adrenalin, cortisol and other chemicals that are secreted by our brain when we are “moved” by frustration to try to change what is not working can lead to an expression of attacking energy.
Instead of seeing this eruption as something to avoid or “calm” as soon as possible, Dr. Neufeld tells us that the emotion needs to find expression before it can move to a resolution. The two resolutions for frustration are effecting change or adaptation, which leads to resilience and resourcefulness. Adaptation is the response to having hit a “wall of futility” and it needs to be registered in the brain. When it registers, what is experienced is sadness and very often tears. And since there is not much that children can change in their lives, they need to find a way to get to their tears. But, before a child can find their tears, some of that frustration needs to be let out.
The answer seemed clear, we needed to create a space in our schools where children could let out the attacking energy evoked by the frustration they were living. A place where that expression would not result in any kind of repercussion. And so, the “Calming Rooms” and the “Isolation Rooms” needed to become “Emotions Rooms”. (Of course, there is nothing wrong with having a “Calming Room” in a school but this is not the space to send a child who is full of emotion, especially attacking energy).
Now, it is one thing to have a good idea, it is another to find someone who is willing to implement that idea. I was fortunate that a school I was working with was in the process of moving and wanted to create just such a space for their students, all of whom were diagnosed with significant behavioural difficulties. They painted the room in appealing colours with a blue sky, fluffy white clouds and a lovely large tree. It was definitely a room that would appeal to children.
The staff were comfortable with using the room as a space where emotional expression would be allowed and encouraged. Of course, the children were leery. The staff spent time allowing them to visit the room and explore the materials that were provided: pool noodles, small stuffed animals, various sized pillows, bubble wrap on the floor. It was explained to them that sometimes we all need place where can let out our “hits” and “screams”. Some need to yell, others to throw things, some like to hit, and some need to stomp. This was to be the place where those could be let out without hurting anyone. The children were skeptical. The staff had to model and at times brought a child who had not yet “exploded” into the room and encourage him to “let it out”.
Of course, one may ask, if we encourage children to yell, stomp, throw and hit, are we not training them to always express their frustration in this way. It could be, if we just left it there. However, the children are not left alone with their big emotions. Staff are there to help them “get it out”; to name the emotion; to provide space for truly feeling their emotions such as frustration and alarm, and ultimately to lead them to their tears and sadness. When the children are able to find their tears, then staff can, if appropriate, gently guide them to their mixed feelings and to reflecting on what happened.
It took a while, but bit by bit the students started to trust that when things were not going well for them, they could use the Emotions Room to get help with all that was going on in their emotional world. The Emotions Room has been now used for over 5 years at this school. It has made a big difference. Whereas classrooms had to be evacuated pretty regularly, this is no longer the case. There are fewer suspensions for explosive behaviour. The children are coming to their tears more easily. Children now have words for what is going on in their emotional world. They know they have a safe place to vent when things are not going well, and a safe place to have their tears with a caring adult. Growth in the children has been noted, not only behaviourally and emotionally, but also in terms of their academic engagement. Their conclusion: the use of an Emotions Room does make a big difference in the lives of children and adults in a school.