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Behaviour management: Angry children

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Authors: Paul Dix
Behaviour management: Angry children

Children who battle with anger are constantly given bad advice by adults. Explanations of anger are never consistent, mostly concocted from shards of half truths, stuffed with confusing metaphors.

Just ask the next five people you meet to explain anger to you and you soon realise why the most troubled children are confused. For one teacher it is a firework with a variety of fuses, for another a five-stage cycle, for others a volcano, an iceberg or red mist. 

Many adults will go further in their amateur psychology and link blame to the anger: it is because of your ADHD, your dad leaving, or your energy drink consumption.

We need to do better. Confusing chaotic children with inconsistency is never going to end well.

Children deserve a consistent explanation of anger, one that all adults are able to give with confidence. After all, if nobody seems to know the answer, it is easy for the child to assume the problem lies with them.

Children need to be taught about what is happening when they feel anger. Allow them to understand how the rational brain is hijacked by emotion, how thoughts guide emotions and how the amygdala can accelerate a furious loss of control. 

Let them depersonalise their anger, and see it as something they can and will control. Show them that they are not alone in their struggle; that anger is a human condition. Spend more time teaching the child to take control and less on the futility of routine punishment. 

Children who struggle to contain their anger often carry the invisible shrapnel of traumatic lives. Their deep mistrust of adults is well founded. Their hyper vigilance is driven by real experience of abusive behaviour. They are quick to react to every shift in tone, every misunderstood nuance of body language, every assumption.

For children who have well-rehearsed anger routines, the explosion is addictive. It is designed to make everyone back off quickly.

Take care when you try to step into this space that the child in crisis has made. Improvising interventions with angry children is a dangerous game that teachers often lose.

Anger is fuelled by unrealistic expectations. Adults who effectively manage the behaviour of angry children understand that their first principle is to manage their own response so it is predictable, consistent and empathetic. 

Predictable, consistent, scripted interventions allow everyone to step through the difficult moments while retaining their dignity. Micro scripts start with ‘I’ve noticed’ and ‘I need you to’. Experienced teachers know that beyond the craft of selecting the right language lies a world of skill in tone, inflection and physical approach.  

There are critical moments that can be lost in the tension of improvisation: reminding the child of their previous good conduct, kneeling down to reduce your physical dominance, giving time for the child to stop crying or shouting, to calm down and take instruction.

If they are lost in their anger then ‘I’ll come back when you have stopped crying…’ can buy everyone time.

Diligent follow up gives you the opportunity to reframe and reflect on behaviour. The guidance you give to the child at this point is important. Some of the best learning is done in these calmer moments.

Teaching self talk is a great starting point. Simplify and refine the mantras you teach the children: ‘I can choose to walk away. I can stop myself. I am okay.’

Give the child rituals to fall back on even in the most ferocious moments. Simple physical routines of tapping and clapping, clenching and releasing tension can save the inevitable punching of walls and smashing others.   Teach 7/11 breathing (breathing in for a count of seven and out for 11) that physically calms the child rather than the often rushed, ‘One, two, three ... I AM STILL ANGRY!’ 

Some children follow rules and boundaries. Angry children follow people first, then follow rules. 

Think back to the last time you were in contact with an angry child. What strategies did you use to calm the situation?

Do you explicitly teach students strategies for coping with anger?

Sue 31 July 2015

Excellent advice - will certainly be trying the 7/11 breathing. Teaching children about the amygdala and hippocampus etc really works - thanks for this Paul.

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