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Resolving Frustration

Every child will eventually experience frustration in the classroom or while doing homework. Some children will move through this emotion relatively quickly while others will get bogged down. In my experience working with children of all ages, I have developed strategies for helping them to cope when occasional frustration interrupts their work flow. While processing emotions is not an academic skill specifically, managing frustration supports readiness for learning.

Help children to recognize frustration.

The first step in processing emotions well is being able to identify them. While we adults can recognize and name frustration easily, children may not have the skills to identify the source of their unhappiness. To help children understand when they are becoming frustrated, discuss the emotion during a calm time. One of your child's past experiences might be a good basis for the conversation. Guide your child through talking about what he felt in his body and what he thought about when he became frustrated. Some questions you might ask:

  • Did you feel like you want to yell?

  • Did you clench your fists?

  • Did you want to walk or run away?

  • Did your heart beat faster?

  • Did your face feel hot?

Younger children tend to learn best when they have concrete tools to help them. One social worker recommends that children color in silhouettes to map out where they feel their emotions.

After your conversation, model for your child how he will recognize frustration by noting if he is displaying physical signs of being frustrated. Skip this step if a meltdown is already underway; it may only serve to advance the frustration.

While your language should shift appropriately for older children, the steps are the same: note what frustration feels like and help the child to see when it is brewing. You might say things like "I've noticed that your voice is rising and you are having trouble focusing. Do you need a break?"

Offer something else to do.

If you have ever tried to meditate or push an unwelcome thought from your mind, you are familiar with the complex challenge of trying to do nothing at all. So of course telling a child to "take a break," while an important first step, is not enough to get him to reset during an episode of frustration. Below are some ideas for calming strategies. Before frustration hits, talk with your child about what he thinks will be most helpful for calming down. Choose a few go-to soothing activities together.

Inwardly focused activities

  • Count your breaths up until five and then start again.

  • Focus on your breathing by taking deeper and slower breaths each inhalation.

  • Think about a happy time or place and envision that in your mind.

  • Slowly tense and relax each muscle one at a time. Start with your face and work down to your toes.

  • Listen to a guided meditation recording

Sensory activities

  • Watch a glitter jar, hourglass, lava lamp or similar object.

  • Listen to calming music. (Have a pre-selected, song, album, playlist, or station available.)

  • Use a fidget toy.

  • Drink a glass of cold water and focus on how it feels.

  • Arrange a desktop Zen garden.

Physical activities

  • Take a walk.

  • Exercise for a short period of time at a high intensity. Jumping jacks, burpees, or running stairs can help dispel the energy of frustration.

Create a menu of calming strategies

When strong emotions take over, it is easy for people of any age to forget their strategies for self regulation. Children benefit from reminders of what their healthy options are. Once you have chosen a few activities with your child, make a menu of those activities with words or pictures. Then display this menu wherever it will be useful—near a work area, on a playroom wall, or in a bedroom. Keep any necessary supplies at hand near the list too— a yoga mat, glitter jar, iPod, etc. Expect that, even with pre-planning, you may need to remind your child to use his list of strategies rather than using less productive means of processing frustration.


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