Regulation of emotion refers to the processes whereby individuals monitor, evaluate, and modify their emotions in an effort to control which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express those emotions.
Before discussing regulation of emotion, it is important to first define emotion. Unfortunately, there is no clear consensus among affect researchers as to the one best definition of emotion. Instead, research and theory on emotion have been characterized by much conceptual and definitional confusion . This confusion is due, in part, to the fact that emotion has been studied from a diverse set of disciplinary perspectives, including, for example, psychology, neuroscience, sociology, and philosophy . However, in terms of organization and association with other constructs, emotion is often considered a subset of the more general term affect. In particular, affect has been organized into three levels: affective traits, moods, and emotions, with moods and emotions considered two distinct types of affective states . Further, the distinction between moods and emotions is often based on intensity and duration, with moods being longer, more diffuse, and without a particular referent; whereas emotions tend to be shorter, more intense, and in response to a particular referent [6, 11]. Using this conceptual framework, then, emotion can be defined as an acute, intense, and typically brief psycho-physiological change that results from a response to a meaningful situation in an individual’s environment . Importantly, emotions are experienced from an individual’s point of view; that is, they are subjective. Of course, as mentioned previously, not all affect researchers subscribe to this conceptualization of emotion (for alternative perspectives, see ).
Using this definition of emotion as a foundation, emotion regulation simply refers to the processes involved with managing one’s emotions. These regulatory processes can be automatic or controlled, conscious or unconscious . Ultimately, emotion regulation involves processes that change the dynamics of the emotional response . That is, emotion regulatory processes affect the latency, intensity, frequency, and duration of emotional responses in the psychological and physiological domains .
Several aspects of this definition of emotion regulation warrant further clarification. First, emotion regulation can involve increasing, maintaining, or decreasing both negative and positive emotions [7, 17]. Second, emotion regulation is generally concerned with regulation of “self” and does not include attempts to influence others’ emotions (although some theories of emotion regulation do include consideration for “other” regulation; ). Finally, emotion regulation can occur along a continuum that spans from conscious, effortful, and controlled regulation (the prototypical form of emotion regulation) to unconscious, effortless, and automatic regulation .
Emotion Regulatory Processes
An essential goal for affect researchers is to better understand the processes involved in emotion regulation. That is, what do people actually do when they attempt to regulate their emotions? Although there are a multitude of emotion regulatory processes one could conceptualize, Gross  proposed a parsimonious model that includes five sets of processes: situation selection, situation modification, attention deployment, cognitive change, and response modulation. Situation selection involves approaching or avoiding certain people, places, or objects in an effort to regulate emotion. An example of situation selection would be taking a different route to the playground to avoid an altercation with a bully. Situation modification refers to efforts aimed at directly modifying the situation to alter its emotional impact. An example would be convincing a schoolmate to play in a different area of the playground to avoid an argument with a bossy child. Attention deployment processes include strategies that change attentional focus away from emotion-inducing situations; for example, distracting oneself from an emotional situation or concentrating deeply on another non-emotional task. Cognitive change involves modifying cognitive appraisals to adjust the emotional response. Examples include denial, reappraisal, and optimistic thinking. Whereas situation selection, situation modification, attention deployment, and cognitive change all happen before an emotion is elicited; response modulation processes transpire once an emotional response has occurred. As such, response modulation is meant to directly influence psychological and physiological responding. Examples of response modulation include biofeedback, relaxation, and exercise .
In psychology and education, regulation of emotion has been conceptualized from several different theoretical perspectives. For instance, according to Skinner’s behavioral learning theory, emotion regulation is a process in which individuals learn to respond to observable stimuli depending on the antecedents and consequences of actions as they either are reinforced or punished . Although, according to Skinner’s behavioral learning theory, emotions have a genetic connotation, the expressions and regulation of emotion depend on the individual’s history of reinforcement and stimulus control. In contrast, social cognitive theory conceives emotion regulation as a learning process that occurs largely by observing others . Moreover, social cognitive theory considers cognitive factors, beliefs, values, perceptions, interests, and expectancies as critical aspects of emotion regulation. In this view, emotion regulation is a triadic, reciprocal process whereby individuals control emotions in an effort to influence their environment and their own behavior. In turn, the environment and behavior reciprocate by influencing how individuals experience and express their emotions to ultimately become effective social agents. Finally, from the social cognitive perspective, emotion regulation depends on individuals’ self-efficacy; that is, their beliefs in their capability to effectively manage particular situations and their emotional responses to those situations.
Relevance to Childhood Development
For children, there are many developmental pathways to effective emotion regulation. These pathways evolve from efforts of external agents to manage the emotions of children, as well as from the child’s growing capacity to self-regulate . During childhood, children gradually acquire the emotion regulation skills and strategies necessary to cope with various developmental challenges . In early childhood, the child’s ability to regulate emotions is dependent on the caregiver’s awareness, flexibility, and responsiveness to the child’s emotional needs. As the child ages, her ability to self-regulate grows as she gains independence, control, and an identity of her own . Thus, like other forms of self-regulation, emotion regulation is initially supervised by caregivers and teachers at early stages of skill acquisition, but as children mature, they begin to develop competent emotion regulation by internalizing the regulatory strategies they have observed in others.
The importance of emotion regulation becomes clear as children progress through adolescence. In particular, many adolescents experience emotional conflicts during the transition from elementary to middle school or from middle school to high school . Although most children successfully navigate these stressful transitions, for some the emotional conflicts are not adequately handled and can result in maladaptive behaviors (e.g., school delinquency, overeating, and drug abuse). Consequently, it is important for adults to assist children as they develop and learn to manage their emotions. For example, preadolescents often need assistance understanding that emotions such as anger, fear, and frustration are a natural part of growing up. By simply acknowledging these feelings and helping children identify appropriate strategies for managing their emotions, adults can help children develop adaptive emotion regulatory processes. Ultimately, the hope is that children will learn that although they cannot always control what happens to them, they can control how they think about what happens to them and how they react emotionally .
Influences on Learning and Performance
From the perspective of learning and performance, emotion regulation is considered a critical competence . Although affect has historically been deemed important to theories of learning and development, moods and emotions have been largely neglected in educational research . Recently, however, educational psychologists have acknowledged the importance of affective states and their impact on learning in academic and non-academic settings. Accordingly, researchers and practitioners have started integrating emotion and emotion regulation into theories of learning and development. In fact, research conducted within the last decade has made it clear that emotions are intimately involved in virtually every aspect of teaching and learning . As such, understanding the nature of emotions as they unfold and are regulated in various learning contexts has become an important goal for educational psychologists .
In general, emotions are thought to influence learning and performance through several mechanisms. First, emotions affect memory processes such as retrieval and storage of information ; that is, memory can be enhanced if the individual’s affective state at the time of retrieval matches his affective state at the time of encoding. Second, emotions influence the type and amount of cognitive and metacognitive strategies employed by individuals. For example, positive emotions are generally hypothesized to facilitate the use of flexible, deep processing strategies like elaboration, organization, and metacognitive self-regulation, whereas negative emotions are thought to result in the use of more rigid, shallow processing strategies like simple rehearsal . The third way emotions can influence learning and performance is through an increase or decrease in attentional resources, as well as through general interference with working memory functioning (i.e., excess cognitive load; ). Finally, emotions can have an effect on motivational processes, such as self-efficacy beliefs and goal orientations . Although somewhat oversimplified, positive emotions are thought to lead to more adaptive motivational processes, whereas negative emotions are assumed to result in decreased motivation (although some negative emotions, such as fear, may actually increase the extrinsic motivation associated with a task; ).
It is clear from the dynamic, reciprocal links between emotion and cognition that emotion regulation – under the broad rubric of self-regulated learning – is an essential competency for children to master as they develop and learn across a variety of academic and non-academic contexts. Through effective self-regulation of emotion, children move closer to becoming autonomous, self-regulated learners.
Emotion Regulation and Self-efficacy
Emotion regulation is a hallmark of being human and developing as a productive agent in society. From the social cognitive view, self-efficacy beliefs are essential for the effective development of human agency and are the social foundations of all emotion regulation . With this in mind, caregivers and teachers can help children develop self-efficacy for managing and exercising self-control of their emotions. Adults can also help children develop the willingness and ability to delay gratification in order to postpone immediate impulse behaviors and wait for an appropriate time to express their emotions in socially-acceptable ways . In doing so, caregivers and teachers help children develop emotional self-efficacy, which is the belief that they are in control of their emotional experiences .