Six Ways to Help Children Maintain Emotional Control During School

I recently shared a guest post, How to Homeschool ADHD, over at The Successful Homeschool.  One of the most challenging aspects of the school day (and really any day) for children with ADHD is regulating their nervous systems throughout the day.

Really, this can be a challenge for all children and us adults, too!  To learn and function well overall, we need to be in a calm and focused state. One where we feel grounded and are living in the present moment, curious about the world around us.

Help Children Maintain Emotional Control During School

When irritations occur and we become frustrated, we start to move into a dysregulated state. You may have heard this described as ‘fight or flight’. To be successful in life, we need to have strategies we can use to pull us back into a calm, focused state. Children often need help building these strategies.

Here are six strategies to help your child stay in a regulated state during the school day and move back into a calm, focused state when they do become dysregulated.

Boy sitting with face in hands with school work in front of him and the text Help Children Maintain Emotional Control During School.

Plan Ahead for Challenges

Before starting each school day, think through what challenges may occur.  Include your child in this thought process, if appropriate.  Look over the day’s plan together and talk about what may be challenging.  Maybe it is a certain subject or task during the day.  Or maybe transitions are hard or a certain time of the day like right before lunch.

If your child starts the day worried, have them spend a few minutes writing down what they are worried about. (If they want to.)  Just getting the thoughts out of their brain and on paper may help them focus their brain on the tasks at hand.  It also gives both of you ideas for planning ahead for the challenges of the day.

Help your child have some control over the day such as choosing the order of assignments.  You may talk about starting the day with an easy assignment if your child is having trouble getting started.  Or suggest they start with the most challenging assignment if their brain is fresh and ready to go. Use a competence anchor for the challenging tasks…

Competence Anchor

As mentioned above, children with ADHD often go into ‘fight or flight’ mode when they encounter a challenge in school.  This may occur as soon as a difficult subject is begun (hello, math!) or they encounter a specific task such as the need to write a paragraph.  One way to plan ahead for challenges is a competence anchor.

A competence anchor is triggering a memory of a similar activity from your child’s past where they did very well.  It could also be a trigger of a memory where they persevered through a hard task and were successful.

Before, beginning the day’s subject or task, remind them of the memory and how good it felt when they accomplished that task successfully.  Talk about what strategies they used that helped them be successful and tie those to the current task at hand.  You can learn more about competence anchors here from Dr. Jerome Schultz.

Provide Support to be Successful

Parents and teachers often wonder how much help should they give their child.  Too much and they won’t learn the skills they need to develop, grow and become independent.  Too little and they won’t be able to successfully complete tasks and will become frustrated.  So here is the answer to that question:

Give your child the least amount of help needed to be successful.

Write that down somewhere so you can chant it to yourself when problems arise.  You want to let your child struggle some.  That is where the learning occurs.

You don’t want to make the work too easy as this will affect your child’s image of themselves.

But you will need to think about where a meltdown might occur with a particular task and provide for that task before the meltdown occurs.  Or you may need to keep an eye on them while they are completing a task and catch them before they become too frustrated and ask them what help they need.  (A future goal would be for them to catch themselves and ask for help before becoming too frustrated!)

Here is an example from our homeschool life: My son often becomes frustrated doing math problems.  If this is occurring, I write one of the problems on the board and have him tell me how to solve it while I write down the numbers.  He is still doing the ‘math’ part of the work, but I have taken over the ‘writing’ part of the work.  I am also giving him simple cues such as “Now, what do we do?” to keep him moving forward through the problem.  Typically, after we do a few problems this way, he is able to go back to doing similar math problems on his own.

The type of assistance you give your children will depend on the task and your individual child’s needs.  But, remember: Give your child the least amount of help needed to be successful.

Plan Ahead for Ways to Calm Down

While our goal is for our children to not become too frustrated during the work, inevitably this will happen.  So it is important to have a plan for what to do when frustration occurs.

When your child is in a good, controlled mood, talk to them about how they sometimes become frustrated during the school day.  Ask them to brainstorm some possible ways to let their frustration out so they can move ahead in their day.

If they don’t have any ideas, suggest some calming techniques from the list below and see what they think.  Then, post these near their work area so they can pick one when needed.

Or if you have a child who has trouble making choices, you may write each technique down on an index card.  Then, when they become frustrated, you can hold the cards out and let them pick a calming technique randomly.

  • Tight Deep Breath: Take a deep breath in, tense all your muscles, count slowly to 20, then breathe out and shake your muscles.
  • 20 Second Hug:  Hugs release the ‘feel good hormone’ oxytocin.
  • Exercise:  Check out this post for some ideas.
  • Laughter: Get goofy, tell jokes, light tickles, talk about a funny memory (remember the time….).
  • Big Ol’ Cry:  Sometimes you just have to cry it out!
  • Get Creative: Draw, play music, etc. for 5 minutes.
  • Change Activities: It may be best to pause the current activity and complete an easy one.  Once a child feels that sense of completion, they can try the more difficult activity again.

Cover image for How to Use Movement to Help Your Children Learn showing a boy riding bike..


We all enjoy receiving praise.  Unfortunately, our children with ADHD hear lots of correction throughout the day.  The natural opportunities to receive praise may be a lot less than neurotypical children.  Therefore, we need to make sure we are looking for opportunities, no matter how small, to praise them.

When children are praised, they gain confidence and their nervous system moves into a “I can” mode.

Even when you need to correct your child, think of how you can start with praise. Instead of correcting your child for just stuffing his paper in his three-ring notebook, say something like…”I am so proud of you for putting your paper back in your notebook.  Let’s make sure it is in the right place.”

Praising our children more than we correct them requires us as parents and teachers to really monitor the words coming out of our mouth. But it can make a huge difference to our children’s ability to build self-confidence and regulate themselves.

Decrease Use of Rewards and Punishment

And finally, let’s talk about a popular behavior modification approach that can actually make children with ADHD have less emotional control!  That is the idea of rewards and punishment.  “If you complete all of your tasks today by such and such time, we can make cookies after school.”  “If you make a bad choice, you will move from ‘green’ down to ‘yellow’.”  (This latter statement is a common approach in the lower grades of elementary school!)

We think that our children will be motivated by the reward or the desire to avoid punishment.  But really, the promise of the reward or lack of punishment can make the child feel stress about whether or not they will be able to earn it.  This can start to feel like so much pressure they begin to shut down and may just give up. When they are stressed, they will be less likely to take on challenges and regulate themselves.  It is really a recipe for disaster.

Instead, use the strategies outlined above to navigate through the day.  And if you have a good day and everyone wants to make cookies at the end, then go for it!  Just don’t dangle it out there during the day as something your child should work for!

Did one of these strategies jump out at you?  Do you have other strategies you use to help children maintain emotional control during the school day?  Please share!  For more ideas on self-regulation check out this post.

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