Reacting vs. responding in the classroom and how to co-regulate blog header

Reacting vs. responding in the classroom and how to co-regulate

In a recent webinar, we were joined by Marcelle Waldman, educator and founder of My FeelLinks! Marcelle is certified in youth mental health first aid and has extensive knowledge in child psychology and development. She shared deep insights into what exactly a child is experiencing in their brain when they are demonstrating big emotions and what co-regulation strategies educators can use to support a child in these moments. We gained actionable insights on how to strengthen children’s social-emotional development and increase their confidence. 

Watch the webinar that inspired this blog post here


As educators, we often see children feeling their emotions and presenting challenging behavior. There are two different strategies we can use when this occurs. We can either react or respond. 

Reacting versus responding 

Reacting is:

  • Meeting someone’s actions with another action (often another tough action) 
  • Instant 
  • Survival oriented 
  • Can be a defense mechanism 
  • “Without thinking” or the unconscious mind 
  • Based in the moment 
  • Does not take into consideration long term effects 
  • Often something you regret 

Reacting does not work well when a child is experiencing tough emotions, thoughts, or behaviors. In most cases, it will not lead to calm for the child or the adult. What we really want to do is respond instead of quickly reacting, which can be difficult, especially when our own emotions are heightened. 

Responding is: 

  • Comes from the word ‘responsibility’
  • Calm 
  • Slow 
  • Deliberate 
  • Considerate of your own and others’ well-being 
  • “Thinking before you act” or taking information from both the conscious and unconscious mind
  • Weighs long-term effects 
  • In line with core values 

Think about your “why” and core values when you experience a challenging situation. Be the calm, trusting, and responsive adult. 

Emotion co-regulation 

Co-regulation is a supportive, soothing process between an adult and a child. Your affect, gesture, and tone matter. Coming in calm and supportive to a tough situation is our duty as adults. The child’s brain is not developed enough to handle intense emotions well; this is something they must be explicitly taught through countless amounts of modeling and practice. 

Co-regulation builds:

  • Compassion
  • Models patience
  • Builds trust
  • Safety
  • Provides a feeling of belonging

How to co-regulate 

It starts with ourselves learning how to regulate our own emotions in order to co-regulate effectively with a child. We know how important social-emotional skills are for children. Education has come a long way since we have grown up. We want to come into the situation as a warm, caring, responsive adults showing respect. 

We want the child to feel our unconditional commitment to them. 

Our emotions are signposts of what we care about.”

Dr. Susan David, Emotional Agility

Co-regulation requires the following: 

  1. Structured environment: physically and emotionally safe, predictable, consistent routine, clear expectations and goals, and logical consequences
  1. Teach and coach self-regulation skills: modeling, explicit instruction, practice, support, coaching, scaffolding, and successful use of new skills
  1. A warm, responsive relationship: caring, affectionate, trusting, responding with calm affect, words and actions, validation, respect, unconditional commitment, and empathy

Please remember, even in the toughest of moments, when you may react instead of respond. Repair is extremely important. We hope that the children we are caring for learn to repair from our modeling, as we would like to see them be able to repair with others in their life. Modeling is key!

Try to ensure you teach and talk about co-regulation skills with children when times are calm, as this is when children learn best. Then, once a child has been successful in co-regulation, we need to ensure we let them know. Co-regulation is a skill we can use our whole lives. 

Emotional self-regulation skills 

Co-regulation is building towards the ultimate goal of emotional self-regulation. We want to raise children who can self-soothe and manage their emotions by responding instead of reacting. 

Self-regulation consists of: 

  • Self-soothing
  • Managing emotions and impulses 
  • Responding vs. reacting
  • Ability to cheer yourself up after disappointments
  • Act consistent with values
  • Success in relationships, home, school/work

Learning to self-regulate your emotions is an important skill for the rest of your life. Supporting your children to develop these skills while they are young, sets them up for current and future success in life – in school, work, relationships, and overall physical, emotional, and mental health.

Watch the webinar that inspired this blog post here

Want to learn more about important topics in early education such as hiring and retaining educators? Sign up for the next webinar below, it is FREE! Even if you can’t join live, you will be emailed the recording and slides just for registering!

Marcelle Waldman

Marcelle Walman lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest with her husband and two children. She is a certified K-5 elementary educator, having the incredible opportunity to teach some of our youngest learners in kindergarten and preschool, and also served as a preschool director. She is Youth Mental Health First Aid certified, has extensive coursework in psychology, and child development. She is also the owner and creator of FeelLinks; a small business strengthening children’s social-emotional connections and confidence. Marcelle is a parent and community educator - focused on children, brain development, behaviors, emotions, emotional intelligence, and overall emotional health and well-being. As an avid community volunteer, she has served on her school’s PTA board as vice president and president, contributed to many School District committees, currently sits on the Issaquah Schools Foundation programs committee, and volunteers for the Ladybug House, an end of life, hospice and palliative care program. Find out more at myfeellinks.com. Follow along @myfeellinks on Instagram and Facebook.

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