Managing emotions when working with challenging people
The Sector > Quality > In The Field > How educators can manage emotions when it comes to working with challenging people

How educators can manage emotions when it comes to working with challenging people

by Dr Jane Foster

April 10, 2024

Managing challenging interactions with children, colleagues, and parents amid personal struggles can be overwhelming. Unrealistic expectations from parents and society contribute to this pressure, creating unachievable goals. Early childhood educators and leaders often struggle to maintain their well-being, negatively impacting their mental and emotional health. Leveraging my 45 years of teaching and research, I created ER (Emotional Resilience) to help individuals navigate these daily challenges.


Emotional resilience is crucial for managing emotions, whether facing tough situations or handling everyday experiences. ER uses driving as a metaphor to link abstract ideas (emotion management) with familiar concepts (roads and steering wheels), aiding comprehension while forming new neural connections. Regular use of this language fosters lasting brain changes, enhancing control over one’s emotional reactions. Just like a muscle, practising emotional resilience makes it stronger over time. The following illustrates how to embed ER into your daily language.


1. Finding yourself on a rough road out of control


It’s easy to overreact to people and circumstances, especially if you are already on a rough road. ER helps reframe emotions, people, and situations by replacing “good” or “bad” labels with “smooth” or “rough roads,” removing judgment and stigma. This shift recognises emotions as opportunities, each serving a purpose. Rough roads build resilience, while smooth roads promote emotional well-being, emphasising the value of every emotional path. Therefore, you are no longer failing if you are on a rough road, as there are no wrong roads.


The first step in managing emotions is recognising, without judgment, that you’re dealing with challenging feelings. Asking “What road am I on?” is less confrontational than “How am I feeling?” Initially, there’s no need to pinpoint the specific cause. Evaluate if you’re in control or overwhelmed. If overwhelmed, take a break and do calming activities like breathing, listening to music or watching a funny video. Any distraction will help shift you from the reactive part of your brain (amygdala) towards the rational/creative/thinking part (prefrontal cortex). Remember, staying on the rough road is okay, as regaining control shows progress in building resilience.


2. When others are out of control on a rough road.


When encountering situations where children, parents, or colleagues seem out of control on a rough emotional road, it’s essential to refrain from passing judgment. Instead, allow them space to process their emotions. Recognise that they may not hear anything you say because they are operating from the reactive part of their brain. If their behaviour is loud or aggressive, understand that it stems from their emotional state. They are on a rough road, not you, so you don’t have to join them.  


Just as you are the sole driver of your car, you should be the sole controller of your emotional steering wheel. Past triggers and demanding individuals like parents, children, and colleagues can unconsciously take over this control, impacting our emotional responses and direction. Sometimes, we may attempt to control someone else’s emotional steering wheel, believing we’re leading them to smoother roads. Yet, in doing so, we impede their resilience-building process. Consider the chaos if such a situation occurred while driving an actual car.


Your emotional steering wheel belongs exclusively to you. By taking charge of it, you regain control over your focus, emotions, and ultimate destination, which is incredibly empowering.


3. Feeling a victim of past/present people and circumstances.


We often give others control of our emotional steering wheel by blaming external sources for our feelings, using phrases like “You make me angry” or “It’s your fault I feel like this.” Instead, shift to saying, “I choose to feel angry in this situation,” to reclaim ownership of your emotional reactions and steer your own course.


While past traumatic events cannot be undone, you can regain control over how you react to them. For instance, recalling a traumatic childhood experience and stating that it has “made” you upset, angry, fearful, or ashamed effectively surrenders your emotional steering wheel to the triggering person or circumstance. Don’t give them that power. 


Instead of attributing your feelings to external causes, acknowledge that you are “choosing” to feel upset, angry, fearful, or ashamed due to past traumatic experiences. This shift empowers you to take control of your emotional steering wheel. Blaming external sources for your emotions can leave you feeling like a victim, often prompting reactive behaviour in an attempt to regain control. Altering your language in this way is profound, transforming you from a victim to someone in control, regardless of which road you choose to drive down.


Building emotional resilience to cope with challenging emotions begins with fundamental language changes. Replace judgmental terms such as “good” and “bad” with neutral descriptors like “rough” and “smooth” to promote objectivity in your life. Move away from a victim mentality by stating, “I am choosing to feel angry,” rather than “You are making me angry,” granting yourself a sense of empowerment and control.


ER embraces challenges, fostering responsibility and freedom through conscious choices. Mastering your emotional steering wheel empowers effective responses to people and situations, boosting strength, wisdom, and empathy while reducing self-judgment and judgment toward others.


Dr Jane Foster is a leading educator, researcher, presenter and author of  “It’s In Your Hands; Your Steering Wheel, Your Choice”. Combining her educational skills with neuroscience and positive psychology, Jane equips people with strategies to help build emotional resilience and manage their daily stresses, successfully changing perspective and creating new neural pathways. For more information, visit

Download The Sector's new App!

ECEC news, jobs, events and more anytime, anywhere.

Download App on Apple App Store Button Download App on Google Play Store Button