Student Discipline & Co-Regulation


Co-regulating Students

Correcting student behavior is part of our work as educators yet often it can lead to escalation of student behaviors. As teachers we can learn ways that can lead to students actually hearing what it is we say.

Note: For anything positive to come of our concern both the adult and the young person need to be in the executive center of our brains!!

I intentionally use the term "care-fronting" rather then confronting. As teachers and administrators we want to learn skills to break the chain of typical adult correction---

NAG---NAG---THREATEN---PUNISH! When we nag we are in our emotional center, our limbic system!

Students who carry-into our schools toxic levels of stress enter our classrooms already in a persistent state of alarm . More often then not, we inadvertently escalate their behaviors by not understanding the brain science behind discipline. Adverse childhood and adverse community experiences change the brain. Your most difficult students, the ones that often are repeat offenders in school discipline procedures are always in a persistent state of alarm!!

Co-regulations involves our ability to regulate another persons brain. It takes a calm brain to regulate another brain. As Dr. Bruce Perry Suggests: the discipline chain goes like this:


The practice of co-regulation

In practical terms, how do adults co-regulate with young people?

First, the adult needs to focus on the emotions driving the behavior rather than the behavior itself — for example, the anger rather than the swearing.

The young person is having difficulties regulating emotion and needs a calming and soothing presence instead of anger and threats. In crisis, the brain is focusing almost entirely on perceived threat and the need for revenge or safety.

The goal is to de-escalate, not to punish or “teach a lesson” that a person flooded by emotion would be unable to understand in any rational way.


Co-regulation is particularly challenging with young people in crisis. It runs counter to the “tit-for-tat” inclination to hurt those who hurt us. Co-regulation requires recognition and safe management of one’s counter-aggressive impulses.

It is hard to provide support to someone who is fighting against it. But, as Cozolino (2006) suggests, the willingness to absorb the rage of a furious adolescent is a gift that can be given, modeling the self-restraint they so desperately need. We ( the adults) must first drain off the emotions of the child or adolescent!!


Co-regulation can take many forms. It typically involves warmth, a soothing tone of voice, communication that acknowledges the young person’s distress, supportive silence, and an invitation to reflective problem-solving. As with a mother tending her young infant, the defining characteristic of effective co-regulation is that it is calming and designed to help the young person manage overwhelming emotional arousal.

If they have not learned this as smaller children, emotional control can also be taught as children grow older through this same process of co-regulation. There is good evidence that the brain retains its capacity to learn new self-regulation skills throughout the life span (Schore, 2003).


Co-regulation alone is not enough. Young people also need to be actively taught ways to exert rational control over their emotions and impulses. For example, they need to learn verbal skills for labeling feelings and for generating rational responses. There are a number of such intervention approaches to both model and actively teach skills for self-regulation. Greene and Ablon’s (2006) Collaborative Problem-Solving approach for intervening with “explosive” children involves a few simple steps that soothe the child through empathic engagement and set the stage for rational negotiation. Likewise, the various Life Space Intervention approaches (Brendtro and du Toit, 2005; Holden et al., 2001; Long, Wood and Fecser, 2001) provide verbal intervention formats to help youth self soothe, gain insight, and effectively manage turbulent emotions.

Does your school discipline practices know about co-regulation and the brain?


As always let me know what you think......

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Love the article, Michael.  As  a long time school psychologist, I am very familiar with the dance up and down the discipline process, as adults (both teachers and parents) are very much partners with the student in how the trajectory goes for students were are already suffering and lacking skills.  Often our responses can lead to further disengagement in school and adult level conflicts which the student observes, which further detracts from their ability to have agency in their developing independent life.  

While verbal strategies/problem solving methods that engage/develop the pre-frontal cortex are incredibly useful, I'd like to advocate for the first step to co-regulation work is teaching people-teachers, administrators, parents and students themselves mindfulness skills- 'bottom up' practices that help us remember or develop the kinds of deep self-awareness that can bring us back to our senses.  These fundamental human capacity is critical to bringing authenticity and depth to the discipline process.  Mindfulness skills sets are increasingly embedded in many educational and clinical programs such as restorative justice, DBT and others.  If folks are keen on learning more about it please email me and I'd be happy to discuss.  If you're in Michigan, please check out the work we've been doing here, with good results. 

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