Children who struggle to manage their anger can be quite intimidating. Outbursts can be violent, self-harming, loud and laden with profanities. Tantrums and outbursts can lead to other parents coming in complaining about their child being the victim of violence or having to witness/listen to inappropriate behaviour. It is only natural that a teacher wants to shut down these forms of angry behaviour as quickly as possible for everyone’s sake – not excluding the angry child themselves who can become very stressed and upset. The question is how?
There are a couple of fundamentals that can help. Allowing anger is an important concept. Everybody gets angry and this is a normal emotion like happiness, sadness and fear. Trying to suppress anger can lead to a volcanic eruption when it becomes too much. I have often found that children who struggle with anger find it hard to comprehend that anger is okay. Once they are calmed down and a discussion occurs, they might make a wild promise like “I’ll never get angry again”. It’s important to separate the behaviour and emotion. It’s fine to get angry but to hit or swear or scream is not okay in a school setting. The Zones of Regulation program, social stories and SPHE lessons are great ways to discuss anger and explicitly teach this depending on the age group you are teaching.
If you are trying to reduce certain behaviour, it’s important that you are trying to replace it. If you’re telling a child that anger is okay but the way they are demonstrating it is not, then you must teach them a way that is appropriate.
Letters of Anger
Letters of anger is a strategy that I found beneficial over the past few years with children old enough to write. It’s a very simple and empowering strategy. The premise is that if a child who struggles to contain his anger has a forum to express his anger in any way they want. The child can write a letter to the individual they are angry at, to the teacher to explain why they are so angry or a diary-style entry to vent their frustrations. They can swear and speak their mind in their writing without fear of reprimand. They can show the teacher at the end if they wish or they can put it away once finished. They are not allowed to show it to other pupils, of course.
The benefits of this exercise are the implied message that anger is acceptable when projected in the right way and the expression of anger is encouraged in a child who struggles to manage it instead of attempting to push it down. Writing a letter is like slowly releasing the lid on an over-fizzed bottle of Coca-Cola. Releasing the lid too quickly can result in a mess.
There are also the benefits that writing a letter takes time which will help the child gradually self-regulate their emotions while if the teacher is allowed to read the letter, they will learn to understand the child’s perspective which could build rapport and help prevent further similar outbursts. In my experience, the children wanted me to read their letters and there was an instantaneous improvement when I introduced the strategy as if they were relieved that their anger was being accepted.
Give it a go if you have a child in your care who struggles to contain their anger and let me know if you find it as beneficial as I have. This is one tool to add to your behaviour management toolkit which could come in handy one day.
Hat tip to Winning without Fighting by Papantuono, Portelli and Gibson where I found this strategy.