Emotion Regulation: what is it?

Sept. 21, 2018
Jacynth Bennett

Jacynth Bennett

Associate Dean, Custom Solutions

Jacynth discusses we’ve learnt through our Wellbeing programme about the psychology of emotion regulation, and how it might be used as by teachers as a tool to support their wellbeing.

What is an Emotion?

Emotions are just our reactions to cues in our day-to-day experience. They have three facets; experiential, physiological and emotional, which These three facets are what distinguish emotions from feelings. A classic example of this is the fight or flight reaction. At the cue of potential threat, we experience a physiological response, maybe quickened heart rate or breathing, as well a feeling of fear or anxiety. Our response is also determined by interpretation of the cue based on prior experience or understanding.  

So, emotions come in response to a cue that has some meaning for us; often, this means that our emotional responses relate to our goals. A teacher might experience the emotion of joy when a student successfully answers a tricky question. This response is linked to their ultimate goal of seeing their students succeed. Negative emotions can also be linked to goals though – for a teacher, disruptive behaviour in the classroom might cause frustration or anger, as it acts as a potential barrier to achieving the ultimate goal of student success.

What is Emotion Regulation?

Emotion regulation is the process we go through when interpreting and responding to cues, sometimes intentionally, but often automatically. Researchers, largely informed by the work of the psychologist James Gross, see this process unfolding along a timeline with clear stages.  

This timeline starts when a situation arises, we then attend to it, appraise it and formulate a response. For example, in the situation where a student successfully answers a tricky question, their answer acts as the cue; we attend to this cue and consider what it means to us. Our interpretation informs our response (joy!). 

Along the emotion regulation timeline, our responses and decisions can determine the course of our experience in some way. There are 5 different categories of behaviour along this timeline. They are:

  1. Situation selection 
  2. Situation modification 
  3. Attentional deployment 
  4. Cognitive change 
  5. Response modulation 
Emotion Regulation

What do these behaviour categories mean?

  1. Situation selection is pre-emptive and refers to the choices we make about situations. For example, if we predict that a situation will result in us feeling negative emotions, we might choose to avoid that situation altogether (and not ask tricky questions!). Conversely, if we expect that a situation will result in us feeling positive emotions, we might intentionally put ourselves into that situaion! This is the first step in the emotion regulation process and illustrates the fact that emotion regulation begins in advance of an event or an experience.  
  2. Situation modification has parallels with situation selection. It’s the process of making alterations to a situation as it occurs. In a teaching context, teachers will select specific strategies to respond to cues in the classroom or make decisions like prompting a student if they don’t at first know the answer to a question we’ve posed.
  3. Attentional deployment refers to the focus in a moment and how and where we choose to place our attention. In a classroom context, this might be focusing on the student we’re quizzing and giving them our full attention in that moment. 
  4. Cognitive change is about how we choose to interpret a situation. For example, when a student fails to answer a question, or gives an ‘silly’ answer we may interpret this negatively – assuming that they haven’t learned what we have taught them or that they’re being deliberately disruptive. Alternatively, we could choose to re-evaluate this and consider other possible reasons for their lack of a correct response – perhaps we just haven’t explained it well enough, or maybe they are too nervous or shy to answer in front of the class. So, the way we choose to interpret or appraise a situation impacts on our experience of emotion in this moment.    
  5. Response modulation is the final stage along the emotion timeline and it can take place in the moment, or even afterwards. For example, if you were frustrated with a student giving a ‘silly answer’, at the time you might just take a moment to stop yourself from snapping at the student. After the lesson you could still modulate your experience of that situation by venting to a colleague. All of these things are examples of response modulation, actions we take intentionally or not to deal with an emotion as it presents itself.

The better able we are to reflect on how we respond to cues in our day-to-day life, the better we can consider how we can alter our responses to them and we hope that understanding this process can help with this.

This article originally appeared on the website of the Institute for Teaching. In March 2019 the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

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