A big part of my job as an administrator is working with students who struggle with regulating their emotions based on any number of events.  As anyone who has ever been in these situations can attest, it can take a significant amount of time for a student who is either highly escalated or just the opposite, in “shut down mode”, to reach a place where they are willing to begin problem-solving.  I have tried many of the common strategies: giving students time and space, talking about unrelated topics, setting a timer, etc. I can honestly say none of those strategies proved to be successful on a consistent basis. The Let’s Try… boxes we created are proving to be successful thus far.

The box idea originated from Rachel Brisbin.  She came up with the idea of traveling language teacher boxes to present at a professional development. We modified the idea to create a resource applicable to my role and the needs of the students I commonly work with.

I was planning a professional development session on student engagement in language learning for a group of elementary teachers of English learners. My goal was to make it applicable to all the teachers in the room. Some of the teachers have their own classroom where they pull students to work in small groups. Others push into classrooms and work with students at a back table in another teacher’s classroom. I didn’t want to show hands-on learning ideas if not all the teachers could implement them. I had to come up with a way for push-in teachers to realistically carry around manipulatives to bring language to life.

Once the language box was created, we talked about creating a box for his office with items applicable to meet the needs of his students. We wanted the items for administrators or social workers to be different than the typical calming kits. The Let’s Try… boxes are based on the premise of calming through curiosity. We have infused concepts from play therapy, whole child, and best practices in education. We believe when you spark students’ curiosity, they turn their focus from being upset to wanting to know more about what’s next.  

The box contains a variety of items because what sparks curiosity will vary with each student.  The first Let’s Try… box included: fidgets, timers, stickers, Play-Dough, bricks (generic Legos), 3D puzzle erasers, putty, squishies, dominoes, sand, blocks, googly eyes, brain puzzles, cars, slinkies, and ‘Super Scents’. With Super Scent, I put scented lip balm on a piece of paper for them to smell and we have a discussion on why they are receiving the reward.  

It looks like this:

*Available as a free resource on Teachers Pay Teachers - Back Table Bunch

We created the box over the summer and had it ready to implement at the beginning of the new school year.

Let’s Try Implementation:

When I work with a student who is emotionally not in a place where he/she is ready or willing to have a conversation I use Let’s Try....  I keep the box in a visible location in my office. This accomplishes a number of things:

1. It’s easily accessible

2. Students who have used it in the past know where to find it

3. It sparks interest for those students who have not used it

I have noticed that the multi-colored box almost always catches the student’s attention, even if they don’t want to let on that they are intrigued. I go to the Let’s Try… box in a number of different situations:

  • A student enters my office who is emotionally dysregulated and/or is “closed off” and not open to talking
  • A student becomes dysregulated or “closed off” while I’m working through an incident with him/her
  • I am finishing up a meeting, phone call, etc...when a student comes to my office and is escalated emotionally

I will commonly begin by saying something like, “Sometimes students like to use some of these items to help themselves relax, which then makes it easier for us to talk about what happened.  Would you like to try some of these?”  Next, I read off all of the items in the box. I do this regardless of the age of the student. I have found that even if the student is older, if they are dysregulated emotionally, it can be hard for them to read through the items. I have not limited the students to only using one item at a time, however, I have found that they typically use the items in isolation.

Once a student begins using one of the items in the box, I will either set up one of the sand timers, letting the student know that when the time runs out I will check in to see how he/she is doing. If the student is too dysregulated, I will just make a mental note of the time. I want the student to be able to use the objects to calm down without focusing on how much time is left.

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When it’s time to clean up the objects I require the students to clean up the items and place them back in their respective boxes. I have learned that the students who have truly benefited from using the items in the Let’s Try… box are very respectful of it. I believe they value the items and want to make sure they continue to be an option in the future if needed. I always let students know that the reason I have the Let’s Try… box is to help them when they need it.

A few weeks ago a student was brought to my office who was significantly escalated emotionally. He was repeatedly hitting himself in the head. When a staff member tried to stop him from hitting himself, he would begin banging his head against walls, all while arguing and yelling at staff members. This is a student who has experienced a lot of trauma in his life most recently.  I was able to persuade the young man to come into my office. Once in my office, I knew there was no way I would be able to have any type of a conversation with him in his current emotional state. Any attempt would only cause him to become more dysregulated.  I decided to place the Let’s Try… box on my desk in front of him. I said, “In this box there are a bunch of things you might be interested in trying.” I never once talked about calming down or said he needs to calm down.  I have found I am more successful in calming students if I direct their attention elsewhere.

As I went through the Let’s Try… items he stopped me at the brain puzzles, asking me how they worked. I immediately began to smile on the inside because I knew I had him hooked! I demonstrated how to solve one of the puzzles and that’s all it took. I said, “How about if we see how many of the puzzles you can solve?  I’ll finish up what I was working on and I’ll check in on you in a little bit.” As I said earlier, I don’t always use one of the sand timers to determine how long students can use an object. Every situation is different, so I read the student and take into consideration external factors.  Since he came in so dysregulated and while he had stopped hitting himself and seemed to be calming down, I could tell he was still at a place where he was emotionally unstable. I felt if I placed a timer in front of him with a visual time constraint it might cause some anxiety in this particular situation.

It only took about 10 minutes before he was calm and able to process through the events that took place that caused him to become so escalated. We were able to talk about why his actions were unhealthy and how he could have handled the situation differently.  He was even able to develop and practice some strategies should he ever find himself in that situation again. We finished up our problem solving by going through my self-awareness tool, Let’s Talk, that I routinely use when I finish processing with students. He said, “I am good because we talked and I was able to calm down doing the brain puzzles.”

I can’t put into words how powerful it is to both see and feel students’ emotions lower so quickly.  It is great to have a resource that is so effective in supporting students social-emotional needs.

I now have students who are requesting to take their scheduled breaks with me so they can use the items in the Let’s Try... box. This tool has helped me to develop positive relationships with students. These are relationships that have served me well as many of these students I find needing to problem-solve with me regularly.

Upcoming Changes with the Let’s Try… Box:

We have had classroom teachers interested in using Let’s Try… in their calming corners which meant we needed to go back to the drawing board and tweak a few things. Unsupervised playdough and sand can lead to undesirable results, therefore, our latest version we have changed the actual box and some of the contents.

We found a box that meets both the needs of classroom teachers as well as administrators and social workers. The initial multi-colored box was a great first attempt but we found it to be cumbersome for smaller students due to the size and weight and the actual plastic to not be durable. The new box is a stacking box which kids find fun to take apart and reassemble.

Instead of all the items in separate boxes, the items are easily accessible in the stackable container. This allows students to see all of their options quickly. The new Let’s Try… box includes: blocks, bricks, brick building base, cars, magnetic wand, magnetic objects, stretchies, brain puzzles, 3D puzzle erasers, a spinner, tweezers with pom poms, marble fidgets, a mini puzzle cube, gels pens, and plastic animals. We have included sand timers for the teacher or admin to use if needed.

With the initial Let’s Try… box, we were missing a data tracking component. We have developed a self-assessment for students to use before and after using the Let’s Try… box. It also includes a section for teachers to add date, time, notes, etc. We believe this will be a valuable data tool to use at intervention or RTI team meetings.

This guest post is by Jim Potthoff and Rachel Brisbin. You can follow Jim on Twitter @jim_potthoff. You can follow Rachel on Twitter @rachelbrisbin and on Instagram @backtablebunch. If you are interested in learning more about the Let's Try... Box, be sure to check out it out on Twitter @pbjlearninglab, Instagram @pbjlearninglab, or email them at pbandjlearninglab@gmail.com.