By Andrew Hawk
I believe it is the intent of most educators to create safe and happy learning environments. Classrooms should be places where students can set aside the outside world. However, this is easier said than done. Every day, students from all walks of life enter classrooms carrying baggage from their outside lives. The problem is that it is tough to concentrate on learning if you are worried or anxious. In many cases, anxiety boils to the surface in the form of anger.
Anger shows up in many ways in classrooms. I have yet to encounter a teacher who does not have a story to share about an angry student. During my time student teaching, a new student was enrolled in my class. When we were introduced, he told me he liked to be called Pat. Later on his first day, when I was leading the class of third graders in a math lesson, I called on him. But I mistakenly called him Patrick. He started to scream at me that I had called him the wrong name. Days later, I found out that his father had been taken to jail the night before.
I learned that day that teachers need to be ready to encounter anger with little to no warning. Even when anger pops up unexpectedly, most situations can be deescalated. Here are some tips you might try if anger issues ever impact your learning environment.
In the Moment
- Breathe. If you are caught off guard, take a second to gather your wits. It is better if your initial reaction is calm. If you meet anger with anger, you will most likely escalate the situation. Count to three, and then follow the next tip.
- Evaluate the situation. How bad is it? Are the other students safe? If not, clear the room before addressing the angry student. If you have to clear the room, send one of the other students to get another adult.
- Encourage the student to talk. Recognize that the student is upset, and ask what is troubling him. If the student tells you, encourage him to give details. This allows him to vent some of his anger.
- Validate the student’s feelings. Never tell an angry person that she has nothing to be angry about. I guarantee this will make the majority of angry people angrier. Typically, angry students are being irrational. It is not necessary to agree with students’ anger to validate it. Simply tell the student, “I bet that would make a lot of people angry.” You cannot reason with an angry student. You have to drain off the anger first, and then talk about what to do next time.
- Ask for something small. Ask the student to do something minuscule. Compliant behavior has a way of snowballing, but do not start off too big. If the student is standing, do not start by asking him to sit down. Instead, ask the student to hand you something or to walk to another part of the room with you.
- Ask for deep breaths. In my opinion, taking deep breaths is the fastest way to calm an upset person of any age. The person has to comply with the request, though. Once you get your first compliant request out of the way, ask the student to take a deep breath. Encourage her by counting in for ten seconds and out for ten seconds. If your student complies with the first breath, repeat the process until she is calm.
After an Angry Outburst
- Discuss what happened with the student. Tell the student that his behavior is concerning to you. Do not use this time to lecture. If you start lecturing the student, he will shut down almost instantly—or it may lead to another angry outburst. Make consequences logical and restorative, not punitive. If the student made a mess, have him clean it up. If the student said something hurtful, have him apologize.
- Communicate with parents. Your first communication with parents should be something positive. This strategy can help you build a relationship with parents, which can make difficult conversations a little easier. Tell parents what happened and see if they can offer some insights.
- Teach a coping mechanism. Many students who have regular angry outbursts lack a coping mechanism. They simply do not know how to calm themselves down. Popular coping mechanisms include deep breathing, positive imagery, and walking away from difficult situations to calm down. Whether you try one of these strategies or something else, role-play with the student so she can practice using it. Also, you will need to prompt her to use the mechanism when you see her becoming angry.
- Collect data. The antecedent to angry behavior is not always obvious. If you have students who are angry a lot, collect data about their behavior. Pay attention to the time of day, what was happening in the classroom, and who was involved. The goal of this type of data collection is to identify your students’ triggers.
- Plan for triggers. Once you know a student’s triggers, you can plan accordingly to help him overcome his anger. For example, if a certain activity creates frustration that leads to anger, be sure to plan a preferred activity before and after it. Tell the student about all three activities ahead of time. This kind of planning can help the student work through the difficult activity.
- Use response to intervention. If anger problems are happening regularly even though you are doing all the things mentioned here, refer the student to your school’s response to intervention team. You can report to the team the strategies you have been trying. Chances are that someone on the team will also have a good idea. This is a great step just in case things take a turn for the worse.
- Request a functional behavior analysis (FBA). If the student receives special education services, you can ask your school psychologist to complete a functional behavior analysis. The student’s parent or guardian will have to agree. If the analysis determines that the student’s behavior negatively impacts her learning, the case conference committee will work with the school psychologist to write a behavior plan that will become part of the student’s IEP (individualized education program). This is an important step as students change grades or schools, because the plan stays with the student. In addition, the plan will be updated annually.
Above all, try to stay positive. A strategy might work fine for days or months then, without warning, stop working. This can be frustrating, but if you keep working at matching the right strategy to the needs of the student, you can help most students be successful.
Andrew Hawk has worked in public education for sixteen years, starting as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He has taught first, second, and fifth grades as a classroom teacher, and for the past five years, has worked as a resource room teacher, providing services for fourth and fifth graders. Working as a special education teacher has given him the opportunity to work with a variety of age groups and exceptionalities. Andrew earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University, and in 2016, he completed a second master’s degree in educational leadership, also from WGU. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter.
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