June 4, 2019
June 4, 2019


WORDS: Merab-Michal Favorite

Imagine if being sent to the corner, or to time out, was less of a punishment and more of a therapeutic experience that included items meant to calm the senses and regulate emotions.

“When children start crying uncontrollably because they don’t get their way, the most primitive part of their brain is taking over and preventing them from making rational decisions,” said Marina Bunch, Clinical Director of Outpatient Mental Health Services at the Florida Center for Early Childhood. “Children need support from their caregivers and the environment in order to learn how to regulate their emotions just as they need support to learn how to speak or walk.”

Bunch and her team of early childhood mental health experts created calming boxes to give to their young clients when they are feeling upset and recommend that parents do the same in order to incorporate self-regulation into their child’s everyday routine.

A calming box is filled with items that stimulate all five senses, which can ease anxiety and teach children to rely on their senses in order to regulate their emotions and avoid, or recover from, an outburst.

“A calming box should have at least one item for each sense,” said Tara Motzenbecker, a licensed school psychologist. “It should be a special box that kids don’t normally have access to. It’s not a toy, it’s something special for when they are very upset.”

If a child has an episode, parents can send them to a quiet, comfortable place in the house and give them the calming box to use to settle down. If the child is not able to calm themselves on their own, Bunch recommends the parent sitting with them and showing them how to use the box until they develop the capacity themselves. The process is not meant to be a punishment, but a tool to help regulate their emotions. 

Motzenbecker said parents don’t have to spend a lot of money to buy a calming box, in fact, most of the items inside are things they probably already have at home or can create easily with household items. She recommended parents do the following:

  • Create the calming box itself. Before you start collecting calming contents, you will need something to contain them. Motzenbecker said children are more likely to treat the box as something special if they decorate it themselves, painting it with their favorite color or adorning it with pictures of things that make them feel good.
  • Make a do-it-yourself glitter bottle. Similar to snow globe, a glitter bottle can be made easily from an empty clear bottle filled with one third translucent glue, two thirds water and whatever type of glitter you prefer. A glitter bottle is visually stimulating and can also serve as a timer. Simply shake the bottle and watch as the glitter settles.
  • Use a stress ball or squishy toys to relieve tension. Teach children to squeeze the stress ball or toy as hard as they can as an alternative to taking their out aggression inappropriately.
  • Create an aromatherapy jar. All you need is a small container and a cotton ball drizzled with your child’s favorite essential oil. Sniffing it can positively affect the brain. You can also sprinkle essential oil in Playdoh to achieve the same effect. The Playdoh then serves a dual purpose, stimulating both the smell and touch senses.
  • Make some noise. Whether it’s a noise machine, a rain stick, a treasured toy that makes music, an old CD player or iPod with carefully a selected collection, sound has a big effect on mood. Choose something that makes your child happy or stimulates a cherished memory to help them calm down.
  • Serve something savory. Finally, once your child has calmed down, you may choose to give them something savory to snack on. You can even eat it with them, teaching them to chew slowly while describing the taste. For instance, if you are biting into an orange slice, you might describe how it’s juicy, tangy and comes from the citrus family. 

 “This process can also work for grown-ups,” Motzenbecker said. “If parents get upset they can ask to use the calming box too, it really just reinstates the importance of the box.”

Other items that could be included are family photos, a favorite book, a journal, a cherished toy – anything that would initiate happy thoughts or memories.

Bunch and Motzenbecker discussed the calming box technique at one of their monthly parenting classes at The Florida Center’s Starfish Academy, an inclusion therapy early education preschool where typically developing children learn alongside those with special needs.

The Florida Center for Early Childhood is the leading provider of therapeutic services for young children in Southwest Florida, delivering a seamless array of services for the whole child and their family. For more information visit 

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