How to create a calm down space for your child
Whenever I see a family in therapy, and they mention that their child is having trouble with things like: anger, aggression, anxiety, frequent meltdowns or tantrums, getting worked up over small things, or taking a long time to calm themselves down, this is where I start. With the calm down space.
In fact, I pretty much tell everyone I see to set up a calm down space for their kids. Sometimes even for the grown ups! I think every home and classroom should have (at least) one.
What is a calm down space?
A calm down space is exactly what it sounds like. A space to calm down. You can call it a chill out space, or a calm down corner, or a cool down space, or a take 5 spot. Or Bob. It doesn’t really matter. As long as the goal remains the same. It is a calm, relaxing, quiet, and welcoming space for your child to retreat to when they are feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, or distressed. They should want to go there.
What is the goal of a calm down space?
Well…to calm down. Obviously. A calm down space helps kids develop their self regulation skills, learn social and emotional skills and manage their behaviour. And these spaces work just as well in a classroom as they do at home.
In many of the classrooms I have been into, when children become overwhelmed, or distressed, or disruptive, and they need assistance to calm down, they are generally sent outside. Perhaps to go and see a school counsellor, or the principal, or another trusted teacher. While this strategy certainly has its place, I strongly encourage teachers to also set up a calm down space inside the classroom if they can.
In doing so, the act of taking time out to regulate yourself is normalised. It becomes a shared space for everyone. No child is singled out. The message is that everyone needs to take a little break occasionally to clear their mind, reset their focus, or feel better.
It also helps a child learn how to take responsibility for managing their own emotions. They may need prompting at first, but the ultimate goal is for them to seek out and use the calm down space when they notice themselves becoming overwhelmed, or losing focus. The goal is for them to use the space before the teacher needs to intervene and help them out. Or discipline them. And of course, this goal is the same at home, too.
What is a calm down space NOT?
A calm down space is not for time-out or for discipline. At least not in the traditional sense. A child who is in their calm down space is not being punished. They are not in trouble. They are not there to think about their actions, or to make amends with anyone. And they are not being separated from the class, or removed from a situation due to misbehaviour.
Their behaviour may be less than ideal in the moment, of course. But that’s not why they are using the space. They are in the space because they are feeling overwhelmed by big emotions and they need some help to calm down. This is an important distinction that everyone needs to understand.
How does a calm down space work?
When a child experiences big emotions, such as anger, or frustration, or disappointment, they can become easily overwhelmed by these feelings. When the brain becomes flooded by big emotions, the part of the brain responsible for thinking and reasoning, goes offline. The more emotional part of the brain takes over. This makes it hard for kids to think clearly. They can become irrational. Make poor choices. Lash out. They are unable to listen to reason. They have trouble controlling themselves. And they don’t have the skills they need to calm the emotional brain and bring the “thinking brain’ back online.
The goal of a calm down space is to calm the emotional brain down, and engage the thinking brain once again. In doing so, children are able to regain control of their bodies and their minds. Only then will they be responsive to any teaching the situation may require. Once they are calm, they can learn strategies for coping with the situation. They can learn more appropriate behaviours, and they can listen to what you have to say to them.
Over time, the thinking brain becomes strengthened by repeating these activities. Emotional outbursts will become shorter, and less frequent, as the child learns techniques to better manage their emotions.
How to use a calm down space
Now, in an ideal world, children would retreat to their calm down space at the first hint of overwhelm. This would make it much easier for them to calm down again. In reality, children will need a lot of help to use their calm down space at first. Especially if they are young.
If you are using a calm down space at home, especially with a young child, you may like to use the space with them at first. You want to make the calm down space as positive as possible for your child. It should be a warm, inviting, and safe space.
When you notice your child becoming overwhelmed, take them to the calm down space and sit with them. Explain why you are going to use the calm down space. For example: “I notice you’re feeling a bit frustrated right now. Let’s go to the calm down space together and see if we can calm your body.” Encourage them to use the tools available, and remain with them until they are calm.
There is no expectation on them to remain in the space for any particular amount of time. We want to be careful that we don’t rush children through the process of feeling their emotions. This process will take a different amount of time for everyone.
There should also be no expectation that they apologise for their behaviour or explain anything to you. By all means, address any inappropriate behaviour, but this should happen later. Keep discipline separate from the calm down space.
In the classroom:
If you are using a calm down space in the classroom, you will need to remind students to retreat there when you notice they need it. The signs of dysregulation will be different for each child. But you may notice them becoming agitated, or losing focus, or you may see some slightly disruptive behaviour, or an increase in frustration. Gently ask the student if they need to use the calm down space.
Once they are there, you may like to have them use a scale to rate how they’re feeling. The How Big is My Feeling? Scale included in the Mindful Little Calm Down Kit is perfect for this step. Then, ask them to try using one of their calming tools and re-assessing how they feel afterwards. They are to repeat this process until the strength of their feeling reaches below an agreed upon number on the scale (maybe you want it to be right down at 0, maybe you’ll agree that 2 is ok).
I suggest you check in with them every 5 minutes or so, until they feel able to return to the group. This doesn’t have to take long, just a quick question to check where they are at on the scale and to ask if they are ready to rejoin the class yet. Again, if discipline is needed when they return to the class, keep this separate from the calm down space.
Over time, with appropriate assistance and coaching from an adult, children will be able to recognise their own signs of overwhelm, and retreat to the calm down space without reminders. That’s the ultimate goal. The very definition of self regulation!
How to set up a calm down space
A calm down space can be set up just about anywhere. A cosy corner. A few comfy cushions on the floor of your child’s room. I’ve even had some kids use the space inside their wardrobe. My kids used to have a fabulous calm down space in a little nook under our stairs. We have also used a tent in our lounge room in the past.
But you actually don’t even need a “space”. My husband and I moved our family into a much smaller house a few years ago and we no longer had room for a large calm down space. So we have our toddlers calm down space set up along a small wall. And my older children have calm down boxes in their rooms instead of separate spaces. When they need to calm down, they go to their bedrooms and use the items in their box. The boxes take up very little room, and slide under their beds when they’re not using them.
What to include in a calm down space
Your calm down space should include tools that help your child identify their emotions and then choose appropriate calming strategies. The Mindful Little Calm Down Kit contains everything you need to do this: Feelings charts, feelings cards, calm down cards, the “What Can I Do?” Poster, mindful breathing exercises, mindful colouring activities, mindful breathing posters, and much more. I recommend grabbing your printable kit here and getting your child to help you choose the printables they’d like to include.
And then you’ll want to include a range of calming tools. These items should engage all the senses: sight, touch, hearing, taste and smell. They should be items that help calm your child’s body and mind. Activities that engage the thinking brain. Items that help your child feel safe. And activities that help to focus your child’s attention.
Sometimes it takes a bit of trial and error to find the most helpful items for your child. Keep tweaking until you find what works. And don’t be alarmed if something that used to work, stops working. Sometimes that happens. Just replace it with something new.
Here are some ideas for you to try with your child:
- Cushions with different textures eg velvet, plush, sequins
- Colouring Books and pencils
- Books about feelings
- Favourite stuffed animals
- Stress balls
- Mind Jar
- Activity books (find -a-words, crosswords, sudoku, mazes)
- Favourite small toy eg cars, action figures, small dolls
- Calming stones
- Rubik’s cube
- Picture books
- Small puzzle
- Emotions chart
- Mp3 player with headphones and their favourite music or meditations
- Yoga cards
- Scented playdough (lavender is calming)
- Photos of family members
- Scratch and sniff stickers
- Gratitude journal
- Notebook and pens
- Chapter books
- Fidget spinner
- Scented textas or pencils
- Emotions magnets with a small whiteboard
- Small chalkboard with chalk
- Printable mindful breathing cards
- Blank sketchpad
- Meddy Teddy
- Bubble wrap
- Paper to rip
- Scented lotion
- Essential oil spray
- Chewing gum or hard lollies/lollipops
- Chewable necklace or toy
- Slime/gak/silly putty
- Small blanket
Click here for a free printable version of this list
Do you have a calm down space in your home or classroom? Or do you plan to set one up? I’d love to hear how it goes! And please, if you use the Mindful Little Calm Down Kit to set up your calm down space, send me a pic or tag me on Instagram @mindfullittleminds so I can share your beautiful space with our community!
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.