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Low Stakes Ways for Kids to Practice Emotional Regulation Before Going Back to School

Endless summer. Whoever came up with that phrase must not have had kids in grade school. One minute you’re signing your little one up for day camp, the next you’re at Target for some last-minute back-to-school shopping. On the other hand, after cleaning up yet another summer-activity-related mess, you might be muttering to yourself, when do they go back to school again?

Amidst all the summer hustle and bustle (and hopefully a few quiet moments for Mom), it may be easy for you and your child to forget that they’ll be back behind a school desk before you know it. That’s probably for the best. School means learning and friends and 6-7 hours a day when parents don’t have to worry about where their kids are, but it also means that kids have to tamp down some of the more colorful and loud aspects of their personalities, the things that really make them unique.

For kids who struggle with emotional self-regulation, school can be especially challenging. They may have a hard time sitting still and staying focused, or not losing their cool when they can’t quite grasp new material, or dealing with conflicts with classmates. Luckily, summer break offers plenty of opportunities for kids to hone their self-regulation skills. Here are a few ways you can help your child do just that before sending them back to school: 

Pay attention during playtime.

Have you ever found yourself mesmerized while watching your child interact with their peers? It’s like seeing them in a completely new light. This summer, when you’re watching your kid at the park or at a pool party, focus on all the different social dynamics at play. Notice which aspects of socializing they excel at, and which ones they could work on. Are they easily frustrated while playing games? Do they get a little too excited when there’s a lot of stimulation around?

Afterward, perhaps when you’re back home, talk to them about what you observed. You could say, for example, “I noticed you got upset when Aiden stole your spot in the line for the slide. What was happening in your head? In your body?” Asking your child to self-reflect in this way helps them develop awareness of their feelings and how they react to them. You can also encourage them to think of other ways to react when a situation triggers BIG emotions, such as taking deep breaths or pausing before they act. 

Movement as a way to calm down.

Newsflash! Kids have a lot of energy. As a parent juggling a million different responsibilities, you probably wish your kid could transfer some of that energy to you. Sadly, that’s not possible. What is possible, though, is for kids to use that boundless energy to calm their bodies and minds. At that point in the summer when your kid has gotten bored with all their toys and video games, see if one of the activities below will help them blow off some steam: 

  • Tug of war
  • Wrestling with a therapy ball 
  • Playing catch 
  • Pushing against the wall like you’re trying to make the room bigger
  • Climbing a tree or up a slide 

Activities like these, known as “heavy work” in the occupational therapy world, have been shown to have a calming effect on children, particularly those with autism spectrum disorder or sensory processing disorder. They can also improve a child’s ability to focus, which is especially important as the school year nears. Take some time this summer to figure out which heavy work activities your kid enjoys and see if they can incorporate them into the school day. 

Staying present.

I’m so Type A that the thought of meditating gives me hives (figuratively speaking). That said, I can definitely appreciate the value that mindfulness has for coping with difficult emotions. Hopefully, your kid will spend lots of time outside this summer, enjoying the sun, grass, sand, and water. When you and your kid are at the beach, tell them to focus on how the sand feels in their hands and between their toes. Or, when you’re in the pool, ask them what it’s like to have their bodies suspended in water.

Then, the next time they throw a tantrum, remind them of these conversations. Show them how their emotions are like sand, or water, or wind — they’re very real, but you can just let them wash over you without reacting. Kids can apply this same lesson when a classmate hits them or says something mean.

Finding their happy place.

Summer is often a time for road trips, theme park visits, and camping excursions. These adventures give children the chance to see new places and experience new sensations. Even if the farthest you’re going is the playground across town, help your child find their happy place.

As the school year approaches, ask them about their favorite day of the summer, or have them write it down. Encourage them to return to this place in their heads when they’re at school and feeling frustrated, sad, or bored. Even when summer is over, they’ll still have the memories. 

Low Stakes Ways for Kids to Practice Emotional Regulation Before Going Back to School

Erina White, PhD, MPH, MSW

Erina White, PhD, MPH, MSW, is a clinical researcher at Boston Children's Hospital, therapist in private practice, and holds faculty appointments at Harvard Medical School and the University of New Hampshire. She often uses Mightier, a program of bioresponsive games to help kids build and practice calming skills. She is also a mom.

In her private practice, Erina is committed to helping individuals and families find strength in their vulnerabilities.

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APA Reference
White, E. (2019). Low Stakes Ways for Kids to Practice Emotional Regulation Before Going Back to School. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 20 Aug 2019 (Originally: 20 Aug 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 20 Aug 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.