Self-regulation for staff and pupils

Staff members need to consider their own self-regulation before understanding that of their pupils. Adele Bates identifies key places to start to help you regulate yourself and model it to your pupils

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Adele Bates is a teacher, speaker, writer and educator for students with emotional and behavioural difficulties. She is a TEDx Speaker 2020 and forthcoming author of Miss, I don’t give a sh*t with Sage publishing. With over 17 years’...

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Stressed? Anxious? Overwhelmed? Nervous? Overworked? Tired? That’s just the description of teaching staff before we even get to the pupils.

We are humans, and we have emotions. We feel things. We have highs and lows.

These are all perfectly normal. They make us human. Teachers (and pupils) are allowed to be human.

However, most of us know that taking our emotions out on a class isn’t the best way to approach conducive learning. This article lays out some key places to start to help you regulate yourself and then model that to your pupils.


1.Check in regularly

Sometimes it is not until after you’ve bitten someone’s head off, or you’re a melting mess in the corner, that you realise there is something amiss.

Before you can soothe yourself and your systems you need to recognise that they need soothing in the first place. This may take some investigation.

  • What does it feel like to be calm?
  • What does it feel like to be stressed?
  • What happens to your breathing? Your posture? Your heart rate?

They sound basic questions, but often we don’t check in with these things until it’s too late.

Setting up regular check ins helps this. My top tip is to put this into an existing routine. Prime opportunities that don’t require you getting a new diary could be:

  • waiting for the kettle to boil
  • every time before you step out of the door
  • every time you go to the bathroom
  • every time you finish a work task
  • at the end of every lesson.

These aren’t long drawn-out moments – they could be anything from 30 seconds to 5 minutes. So, what do you check?

It will be different with everyone. I know when I’m stressed my shoulders go up, so I check that.

You might be a toe curler, a hair twiddler, a jaw clencher – look out for these early warning signs that your body is giving you.

In addition, I always add breathe. Begin by taking three long slow breathes. Try it. What happens?

2.Something is amiss: short term regulation

The more regularly you check in, the more quickly you will start to notice the signs of wobble – and then it’s what you do with it. Begin with the short term – what can you do in the next 5 minutes?

  • Drink water?
  • Have a snack?
  • Do some shoulder rolls?
  • Stretch?
  • Jump?

You will notice that these are all connected to the body. This is because we can override our defensive nervous system that we know is on (because we’ve spotted the ‘stress’ signs in our body) by getting into manual mode – i.e. consciously giving our body signals that it is safe and it can drop the stress response.

And what if this is not a one-off?

3.Regulate for the long term

Stress and burnout are common reasons teachers leave the profession. This is a build-up of us ignoring our body’s signals, until it can no longer cope and forces you to switch off in some way.

If you feel this coming, then something must change. There are many health and wellbeing practitioners who offer advice on this. Here I will share a typical teacher-focused issue.


Before we even look at boundaries with pupils, we need to look at our own self-care boundaries.

  • How many times did you get lunch this week?
  • How late have you stayed back marking?
  • What time did you go to bed?
  • Are you having regular headaches or colds?
  • Are your periods pain free?
  • Do you say yes to every request from your manager – even when you don’t want to and know it will cause more stress?

Learning to hold your own self-boundaries is the key to any issues we might have with boundaries and your pupils.

Resources for long term self-regulation

A great resource for negotiating boundaries in the workplace is the Setting healthy boundaries cheat sheet from the founder of Inspiring Women Changemakers (the resource works for all genders).

It looks particularly at negotiating and communicating our own needs in busy workplace environments.

Other useful resources include:

Your pupils

It is not a coincidence we began with you. Until we can regulate ourselves it is impossible to influence others.

No, that’s wrong. We always influence others, but if we are not regulating well ourselves our influence will increase anxiety and stress in our pupils and be more likely to bring up *tricky* behaviour.

1 .Modelling

The first piece is modelling: gritted teeth, false smiles and ‘stiff-upper lip’ attitudes are not authentic, and the pupils can see straight through them.

If you’re lucky enough to work with teenagers with behaviour issues they will in no polite terms let you know about it too.

Sometimes you will be stressed in your classroom (remember that human permission slip). Name it. Don’t pretend.

  • “I’m a bit on edge today, so it’s best to listen first time otherwise I might snap” is a lot more effective than the bark-bark-bark lesson.
  • “I had some bad news at the weekend in my family, it’s not appropriate for me to share it all, but I want you to know that if I seem down that it is not you and I am doing my best.”

Appropriate honesty like this can be miraculous in the classroom because you are modelling humanity. It does two things.

  1. You give permission for your pupils to have emotions.
  2. You give them the opportunity to step up.

One year, in the run up to the exams, I was suffering from very bad period pains (hello-my-body-giving-me-a-stress-warning). One afternoon, I needed to go home but it was Year 11 and we only had 546 minutes’ worth of learning until the exam.

I got a bright pink Bagpuss hot water bottle from the nurse and went back to my classroom. I was honest with them. I told them that I am a woman, and sometimes this happens but I wanted to help as best I could – just don’t expect me to move from the seat or let go of Bagpuss.

The pupils were amazing. They got it.

Until we can regulate ourselves it is impossible to influence others

One pupil – who usually gets very distracted – offered to ‘teach’ the entire double period. I fed her the work; she went about giving out worksheets and practice papers and I talked through slides from behind my desk. I had never seen her so engaged in learning for such a long period of time.

It is of course up to each individual teacher how comfortable they feel with what they share, and I don’t suggest you do if it doesn’t feel right.

However, even creating a vocabulary for you and your pupils to use could be useful: I’m red today, I’m fizzy etc. This year has given us the opportunity to talk more about wellbeing and mental health and we can use this in our classrooms.


Like with ourselves, we also need to teach ways for pupils to self-regulate. One way is by building a framework in which to do so.

My top tip for this (which involves no extra planning, workload, research or marking) is use the register.

When I take the register, I do not need to hear ‘Yes Miss’ times 33. Instead, I ask each pupil to use one word to describe how they feel.

At the beginning (especially if you’re in secondary) you will get ‘meugh’ times 33. However, keep the routine up. Over time, pupils will realise that it’s safe to share little bits and that becomes gold dust for you in your planning, formative assessment, behaviour management and pupil wellbeing.

In the run up to exams I often hear words like ‘stressed’, ‘nervous’ and ‘overwhelmed’ – at this point I know that I need to insert a transitionary activity into my planning. An activity that brings pupils back into a ‘ready to learn’ state.

That activity can be learning focused, or it may be like your stretches, water and jumping jacks that you put into your own self-regulation. One of my favourite activities is Free Writing as it helps both academic progress and wellbeing (and it’s free and has no planning).

Sometimes the pupils may need to chat something out: a fight at lunch, a difficult time at home etc. Our job as educators is not just to teach pupils a subject, but also teach them how to be ready to learn.

3.Something is amiss: regulation for pupils

Again, as for yourself, sometimes pupils will need quick, mostly physical, opportunities and invitations to re-regulate. They are children and sometimes you will have to remind them, as they won’t recognise the signs themselves.

One pupil of mine sometimes got stressed in my lessons. I would know because he would scrunch up the nearest paper, whatever it was – his book, the textbook, his mock paper.

I began to recognise the signs, so as soon as I saw it, I would ask him to do a ‘quick errand’ for me like take a book back to the library – something to enable him to stretch his legs and get two minutes fresh air.

On his return he could concentrate and learn. I provided the opportunity for him to be ready to learn before trying to correct or punish him, which saved time and meant he got to the learning quicker. Prevention rather than cure.

Our job as educators is not just to teach pupils a subject, but also teach them how to be ready to learn

For some pupils self-regulation will be a much bigger issue. For your pupils who have experienced trauma, abuse and neglect or have mental health problems there may be long term issues that mean that they are unable to self-regulate in a ‘normal’ way.

This is another article, but for now I invite you to consider this wonderful quote from Dr Rosamarie Allen:

“When children don’t know how to read, we teach. When they don’t know how to write, we teach. When they don’t know how to ride a bike, we teach. But when children don’t know how to behave, do we teach? Or do we punish? We punish.”

She refers to the many pupils who are punished and excluded from our schools ‘due to their bad behaviour.’ Why can’t they behave? Why can’t they sit still?

Be patient. For a pupil who has experienced maladaptive environments, you may be asking them to do things that go against the very techniques they’ve found in order to survive.

If this is the case, as Allen suggests, then it’s our job to teach. It’s our job to teach our pupils how they can look after themselves and their bodies.

It may not be straightforward, they may not trust us at first, but it’s our job as educators.


Last Updated: 
17 Jan 2022