How Administrators Can Support Emotional Regulation in Autistic Students
Emotional regulation is a challenge for many middle school students. For autistic students, sensory overload and overwhelm can make it even more difficult to regulate emotions and cope in stressful situations. Sometimes this can lead to outbursts and behavior incidents that negatively impact their learning and distract other students. According to the U. S. Department of Education, special education students are disciplined at a much higher rate than general education students. Addressing behaviors without addressing the root cause is like putting a bandaid on the situation rather than solving it. When you teach autistic students how to regulate their emotions and cope in challenging situations, the result is fewer behavior incidents, improved mental health, and more meaningful student-educator relationships.
As a district or school administrator, it can be difficult to know how to support autistic students and the school staff who work directly with them. Fortunately, you can make a major difference in your students’ lives by implementing school/district-wide initiatives that focus on strengthening emotional regulation skills.
Educate the School Staff
While emotional regulation is an individual responsibility, educators and other school staff can play a pivotal role in supporting their autistic students’ development of these skills. Set clear expectations regarding how school staff should interact with and support autistic students when they are experiencing overwhelm or sensory overload. These actions can reduce the number of disciplinary actions that stem from a lack of understanding and empathy for what the students are experiencing.
Let’s say an overwhelmed student yells at the top of their lungs during transitions. The other students laugh and get off task. You can write up the student and send a note home, but it’s likely the student would repeat the behavior because the underlying trigger wasn’t addressed. However, if you seek to understand the student, you can identify what triggers them about transitioning and make adjustments to the transitioning process.
While some educators may naturally choose the latter response, as an administrator you can set clear expectations and put procedures in place to ensure that autistic students are shown the empathy and understanding that they deserve.
Create Sensory Rooms
Traditional classrooms have bright lights, loud noises, and images everywhere. The environment can be overstimulating for autistic students with sensory sensitivities. Sensory rooms serve as safe havens where students can go when they feel overwhelmed or overstimulated. These rooms can range from simple to complex, depending on the school’s resources and needs. At their core, sensory rooms have a variety of items that students can touch, smell, listen to or view. Some items, such as noise-canceling headphones, can be used to lessen the student’s exposure to external stimuli.
Sensory rooms empower students to practice regulating their emotions independently, which is a skill that will benefit them beyond the classroom. It’s important to ensure school staff and students view the sensory room as a resource when students are overwhelmed rather than a place to punish them for behaviors. Avoid only allowing students to use sensory rooms when they’re “in trouble” or forcing them to go against their will. Many schools include fun items and technology in their sensory rooms. Some schools use our online social-emotional learning game Ava in their sensory rooms. Not only does Ava give students an engaging activity to do when they’re overwhelmed, but it also introduces them to a variety of coping strategies as they play.
Encourage Family Involvement
Consistent family involvement can be incredibly powerful for helping autistic students improve their emotional regulation skills. Parents and guardians can support their children by implementing the same strategies at home that are used at school. Parents and guardians can also offer valuable insight by sharing info about their child’s triggers and how they regulate their emotions at home. Family members are essential for co-regulation, which is necessary before students learn how to regulate their emotions independently. Co-regulation entails helping children develop their emotional regulation skills by offering a positive model of self-regulation and equipping them with tools to manage their emotions effectively.
District and school administrators can promote family involvement by hosting informative parent workshops, holding regular parent-teacher conferences (other than IEP meetings), and establishing a Parent Advisory Council. From day one, schools can set an expectation for family involvement by using a parent contract or discussing expectations at orientation.
Supporting emotional regulation in autistic students is about more than reducing behavior incidents. It’s about creating a learning environment where students of all neurotypes feel seen, supported, and safe, enabling them to develop the skills they need to navigate life inside and outside of the classroom.