A third-grade teacher helps her students deal with anger and, in the process, learns a few lessons of her own.
By Kelley Dawson
“Let me go! LET ME GO!!!” Michael’s screams fill the entire second floor hallway. I imagine the noise bolting like lightning down the stairway, forcing its way through the double doors at the bottom, and arriving abruptly in the principal’s office.
Arms flail and a fist connects with my teaching partner’s ribs. I speak in what I hope is a soothing voice, although I know it is tinged with tension: “Michael, it’s gonna be ok. We just need you to settle down a little bit first, Michael. As soon as you settle down we can let you go.”
By the time Michael is allowed to bring his hoarse voice and his third-grade body back into our classroom the next morning, I had decided that I needed to teach my young students some strategies on dealing with anger.
Earlier in the year, after Michael’s first few outbursts, I had pursued a different strategy and sought help for Michael from people outside of our classroom. I was in my first year of teaching, trying to get my bearings. I was learning what kids were all about for the very first time. I was under the added pressure of going to school twice a week to meet the requirements of my alternative certification program. I simply didn’t feel I had the time or the experience to help Michael respond to his emotions more appropriately.
I referred Michael for Collaborative Support Team action. “What can we do to find out what is behind Michael’s angry behaviors? Is there some kind of anger management program he can participate in outside of the classroom?” I asked my principal and the members of the support team. “Can he receive counseling from the social worker or psychologist?” Michael did see the psychologist a few times after that. Both the social worker and I made calls to the family.
But the flare-ups continued. In the classroom, nothing really changed. I was not the only person in the classroom noticing Michael’s behavior. The students also were keen observers. They saw how Michael put his head down on his desk and covered it up with his coat from time to time. They took a step backwards as he pushed a chair out of the way, or hit another student on the playground and called it an accident. And several times, in situations when Michael exhibited angry behaviors, they had seen me give him a choice of “cooling down” and getting back to work or being asked to leave the classroom. More than once, they had witnessed him fly into a tantrum.
Other staff also were aware of Michael. During one episode, when there was a lull in Michael’s screaming, I overheard the comments of a specialist who had stepped in to supervise my students: “We have to be real careful of Michael when he comes back to the classroom. We don’t know what he’ll do, do we?”
I didn’t like the sound of that. As Michael’s classroom teacher, I had observed that he sometimes had a difficult time handling his emotions and dealing with what I perceived as anger. I did not think about him as an angry person, and I was determined not to allow his peers or other staff members to categorize him as such. I felt this was especially important in a classroom where I, the teacher, was Anglo, almost all of the students were Latino, and Michael was one of three African-American boys. I did not want our classroom to be a place where students or staff were allowed to reinforce stereotypes that link anger with boys and men, especially African-American boys and men.
In fact, Michael was normally an outgoing, upbeat kid who was well-liked by his classmates and teachers. But the emotionally-charged interactions that took place fairly regularly in our classroom indicated that something needed to change. As I tried to help Michael through a long process of learning how to identify his feelings and emotions and respond constructively, I also went through an important learning process.
I had to consider all the factors that contributed to our classroom dynamic. I had to examine my own beliefs, attitudes, and responses to Michael’s behaviors. I had to consider how my actions as a white teacher of students of color affected Michael’s emotions and responses. I had to try different approaches. These responsibilities weighed on me as I planned my course of action, and I continue to consider them as I reflect on what I did and what I might do differently next time. For example, at the time I characterized Michael’s outbursts as anger. Whether that is the appropriate emotional term, I am not sure; perhaps he was expressing frustration, or loneliness, or pain. I realize, in retrospect, that I used the term “anger” to describe strong emotional outbursts that may have had their origin in any number of emotions.
Teaching about anger immediately after a conflict with Michael didn’t make sense. All eyes were on him. If I taught about anger during these moments, I would only be singling Michael out and escalating the problem. The rest of the students would pick up on my cue and would probably label him as an angry person. I might send an incorrect message that the only people who feel angry are those who act out the way Michael did.
Instead, I tried to plan a few simple lessons that would help all students consider what anger is, what other emotions or experiences it is linked to, and how we can respond. Over the course of the next four weeks, I developed and taught four short lessons. I drew upon my own personal experiences with anger and tantrums to put the lessons together. The resources I used were minimal. I am sure there are much more extensive curricula on this topic. The important thing for me and my students was that these lessons helped us create a common framework for thinking about anger. Later I would refer to this framework in crisis moments or in interventions with Michael.
I wanted my students to be able to identify the experiences and emotions that lead to what might be described as angry behaviors. I wanted them to recognize different responses to anger that they and others use. Most important, I wanted students to consider the choices we have for responding to strong emotions such as anger. I wanted them to recognize that when we are upset, we can either choose a course of action that is unsafe or unhealthy for ourselves and others, or we can choose a course of action that is safe and healthy. I hoped this discussion would lead students not only to see that it is unacceptable to allow anger and strong emotions to explode in outbursts, but also to identify and practice safe responses when they feel angry.
I led three discussions with my students. First, we made a list of “things that make us angry.” Students cited a great many sources of anger, from the trivial to the unjust. Some of their responses: “I get mad when I can’t find the remote;” “when people treat me like I’m stupid;” “when we lose part of our recess;” and “when my mom hits me.”
Second, we made a list of “things people do when they’re mad.” I encouraged the students to share examples of things they personally do when they’re mad, and allowed them to share things they’d seen other people do. Many student responses were negative, hurtful or unsafe, such as: “I punch the nearest person;” “hurt myself;” “bang my own head against the wall;” “kick or slam a door as hard as I can;” and “yell at the person who’s making me mad.”
A couple of students offered up what I would categorize as “safe” responses to anger: “I go for a bike ride to blow off steam;” “I go in my room and read until I’m not mad anymore;” “I talk to my mom about what’s making me mad.” I asked the students, “Can you think of any other things like that, things that would help you to cool down or solve the problem?”
They suggested a few more: “You could talk to an adult you trust;” “go for a walk or go outside and play;” “tell the person who’s making you mad how you feel.”
Finally, we made a large poster to hang in the classroom that showed different responses to anger. The students each made their own copy of the poster for their own use. In the center, the question “What can you do when you feel angry?” prompted kids to remember the responses we had brainstormed in the previous activity. The top half of the poster was reserved for writing in safe or healthy responses to anger, while the bottom half was labeled “unsafe/scary.” While completing this activity, we had a chance to discuss the idea that each person must make a choice when she is angry about what course of action she’s going to take. I again reminded the students that some responses to anger are safe and some are not.
Several complexities surfaced in our discussions. Michael, who in addition to his tantrums had also been known to crumple his papers in frustration or to put his head down and “drop out” during class time, asked about how to classify these kinds of actions. “Is it safe to crumple up your paper? You’re not hurting anyone if you do that.”
“Well, let’s think about that one,” I responded. “It might not be physically dangerous to anyone, but is it hurting you in any way? Does it hurt you when you put your head down for hours and decide not to learn or do your work?” My hope was that Michael would slowly come to realize that he was hurting himself with some of his behaviors.
Michael participated during these sessions just as any other student. I did not single him out or use him as an example; in fact, I tried hard not to allow myself or the other students to refer to his behavior in our discussions. I did keep a close eye on him, and noticed that he participated actively. His brainstorming worksheets also gave me an idea of some of the things that made him angry, and some of his usual responses to anger at school and at home. This was important to my work with Michael because it allowed me to think about possible causes of his behaviors without having to do it in a moment of crisis, and without making him feel like he was being singled out.
Looking back on these discussions, it seems necessary to discuss with students some of the complexities of responding to feelings of anger. Rather than just telling students to respond “safely” to a situation that makes them mad, they need to be taught to consider the source of their anger and to develop a response that is not only safe but also effective. Routine bickering with a sibling might be effectively solved by some time apart, while a series of name-calling incidents or physical bullying by a classmate will not be resolved just by walking away one more time. Students should be encouraged to see the difference between a response which simply helps them blow off steam, and one that actively seeks to address the cause of their anger and solve the problem.
Our discussions around anger focused mostly on interpersonal relationships, and sought to understand what an individual can do when he or she feels angry. Looking back at this focus on individual interactions, I see that I missed an opportunity to guide students in an inquiry into other types of anger. I think it is important to help students understand that anger exists not only on an individual level, but can be related to societal issues of oppression and injustice.
This in turn could lead to a discussion of the role anger can play in the fight for social justice. As an activist for social justice, I use my anger at injustice to guide my own actions on a daily basis. Students can and should be aware that emotions often described as anger are not categorically “bad.” Just as anger on an individual level can compel us to address a problem or make a change, the anger we feel when we witness injustice on a societal level should guide us toward changing unjust and oppressive systems. Rosa Parks comes quickly to mind as an example any third grader can understand.
It was during our talks about anger that students’ questions provided a springboard to an additional discussion that could have turned into a whole unit of its own. As we looked together at the abundance of unsafe or violent responses to anger, a few students began to ask, “If we’re not supposed to throw tantrums, why do so many adults do it?”
They’re right, I thought. How can I tell them that they should choose safe responses to anger when so many adults choose verbal outbursts or even physical violence? I allowed my teaching to take a brief detour in pursuit of an answer to the students’ important question: how and when can we hold adults responsible for their angry behaviors?
I designed a lesson in which I talked about my own experiences with adults and anger, and shared a poem about a parent’s angry outbursts. Together we discussed a few key concepts about adult anger and tantrums. We discussed the fact that adults, just like kids, must make choices about how to act when they are angry. Some adults make poor choices, I said. I also wanted to make sure that my students didn’t internalize feelings of guilt over an adult’s anger, as if they were somehow to blame for the outburst. I pointed out that it is not a child’s fault if an adult they know responds to anger in a way that hurts others. I referred back to a previous unit we had done on human rights and asserted that as human beings, we have a right to live free from the threat of angry outbursts and violence. We agreed that it is important for us to talk with someone we trust if someone is threatening that right. Adults can change their behaviors, and may need help to do so.
These affirmations provided a very basic introduction which could have easily turned into a much more profound examination of anger and violence in families – our discussion only scratched the surface.
I should make clear that I did not assume or suspect that Michael was dealing with anger or violence in his own family. Rather, I planned this lesson in order to address the students’ concerns and to give students a clear message that adults are responsible for making safe choices when faced with anger. By helping students see the connection between their responses to anger and adults’ responses, I tried to encourage them to understand that each of us has a lifelong responsibility to resolve anger appropriately and safely. It is not appropriate to use our feelings as an excuse to lash out at others.
The school year went on. Michael did not miraculously change overnight, but he did make some changes, and so did I. In situations where he resorted to angry behaviors, we had a language in which to talk about his feelings and his choices for responding to them. I also had developed more sensible and effective strategies for helping Michael through tough times.
Later in the year when Michael was angry, he was no longer as likely to say to me: “Look what you made me do.” He knew I would respond by saying, “You choose what you do.” Many times, I said to him, “It’s clear to me that you’re feeling frustrated or angry. Are you choosing to deal with your feelings in a safe way?” Things got easier. The cooling down periods got shorter. He seemed to be taking more responsibility for his actions and developing some strategies for what to do when he felt frustrated or angry.
For my part, I tried to become more flexible and to stop trying to force Michael to respond exactly as I wanted him to when he felt angry. I gave him more time to cool down. I always tried to get to what triggered his discontent and to acknowledge his feelings. Perhaps most important, I learned not to touch Michael while he was angry, or to try to move him physically. I had seen that that simply did not work.
I was relieved that we had found a somewhat workable solution to Michael’s behavior in our classroom. Part of me continued to wonder whether there were circumstances in Michael’s life that were causing anger and frustration to build up. I kept working with his family and advocating with school support staff for additional help for him. I talked with Michael often about his feelings and tried to be alert to signs of a more serious problem without making unfounded assumptions.
Michael and I worked together for a year and I think each one of us made some progress. As I struggled to become an effective teacher in my first year on the job, I was willing to learn from anyone who wanted to teach. Michael proved to have a lot of lessons in store for me. How little I would have learned had I simply written him off. For his part, Michael could have just as easily have turned his back on me. I am thankful to him for giving me a chance to be his teacher and to learn from him.