The September celebrations are all over and the workload at school has intensified. Now, even with the challenges and opportunities school leaders and teachers experience each day, classroom management has been a topic of great discussion amongst colleagues, since children continue to demonstrate behaviours that are unacceptable. Reports of conflict between children in the classroom are escalating and to some extent teachers are “at their peak”, sad to say, with a few students. The causes of the conflicts include provocation, name calling, racial insults, wounding caused by scissors and pencils, rough playing on the playground, old beefs, wrestling techniques such as the sleeper, and the list goes on. As educators are caught in the midst of these situations, and having to investigate cases on a weekly basis with due process having been applied, the question that leaps to the surface is, why are our children so angry and aggressive? Before addressing this question we will look at the concept of anger.
Based on online research, anger is an emotion. It is an affective state of feeling experienced when needs are frustrated or when well-being is threatened. Anger is emotional energy that can motivate a person to attempt to remedy the situation that has brought on the anger. It can range in severity from intense rage to cool anger that doesn’t provoke arousal. Furthermore, anger is one of the six basic human emotions, along with sadness, happiness, fear, surprise and disgust, that all humans experience regardless of culture and age.
Aggression is often a derivative of anger. Aggression is generally defined as a behavioural act that results in harming or hurting others. However, there are numerous types of aggression, depending on the intentions of the aggressor and the situation that stimulated the aggressive response. Motives for aggression have traditionally been divided into two general categories: proactive and reactive. Proactive or instrumental aggression is goal-directed behaviour designed to achieve an objective beyond physical violence. Reactive or hostile aggression, on the other hand, is performed in responses to retaliation or provocation.
In any given circumstance, three components are associated with anger. These components encompass an emotional state of anger, the expression of anger and an understanding of anger.
Fabes and Eisenberg (1992) describe several types of stress-producing provocations that young children face daily in classroom interactions:
• Conflict over possessions, which involves someone taking children’s property or invading their space.
• Physical assault, which involves one child doing something to another child, such as pushing or hitting.
• Verbal conflict, for example, a tease or a taunt.
• Rejection, which involves a child being ignored or not allowed to play with peers.
• Issues of compliance, which often involve asking or insisting that children do something that they do not want to do – for instance, multiple tasks.
The second component of anger is its expression. Some children vent or express anger through facial expressions, crying, sulking, screaming, talking, doing little to try to solve a problem, or confronting the provocateur. Others actively resist by physically or verbally defending their positions, self-esteem, or possessions in non-aggressive ways. Still other children express anger with aggressive revenge by physically or verbally retaliating against the provocateur. Some children express dislike by telling the offender that he or she cannot play or is not liked. Other children express anger through avoidance or attempts to escape from or evade the provocateur whilst others resort to adult intervention to mediate the situation.
The third component of the anger experience is understanding. The role of school leaders and teachers is very critical as it pertains to this component. Arguably, research implies that most children react violently without thinking or having an understanding of the implications of their behaviours. Since this is the case, teachers are required to guide students effectively so that they develop this understanding to prevent future occurrence of the unwanted behaviour.
Now that we have a better understanding of what anger and aggression are we will now look at the factors that contribute to such unwanted behaviours in the classroom. Across the country of Belize, teachers become overwhelmed by the rigorous workload and expectations of them on a day to day basis. Conflicts between students are unforeseen even when mechanisms such as behavioural plans and classroom rules are enforced. Conflicts at school require time and efforts in mediation which ultimately, minimizes instructional time and increases distractions which affect learning. According to several theoretical views, the root of anger and aggression is said to be derived from numerous factors:
• The first is peer relationships. Peer relationships are an important influence. Research examining aggressive children’s peer relationships has consistently found that aggressive children tend to associate with other aggressive children. That tendency increases the probability that their aggressive behaviors will be maintained or will escalate as a result of modeling effects and reinforcement of deviant behaviors.
• Second, children who are subjected to abusive behaviors, either through direct victimization or as a witness to domestic violence, are also at increased risk for angry, aggressive behaviors. It is also noted that children display anger and aggressive behaviors at teachers who use sarcasm as a discipline tool to break children’s spirit.
• Third, the school environment also has been shown to affect children’s aggression. In the books, Developing Self-Discipline and School Disciplinary Systems, Barth, Dunlap, Dane, Lochman, and Wells (2004) found that the aggressiveness of children’s classmates directly affected children’s own rates of aggressive behaviors. In addition, teachers’ management style of the classroom has also been related to the prevalence of students’ aggression toward classmates. If teachers don’t exhibit strong and effective classroom management skills, then the possibilities of major issues arising will increase. Teachers are agents of change and they are expected to create a democratic society where learning will take place and where peaceful measures will be incorporated to solve issues.
• In similar fashion, exposure to neighborhood violence also has been shown to increase children’s aggressive behaviors. For example, Guerra, Huesmann, & Spindler (2003), in their study on aggressive children found out that children living in urban neighborhoods which had exposure to violence displayed an increase in aggressive behavior and in social cognitions supporting aggression. We have noted of late that younger children have become not only the victims of crime, but also the perpetrators who commit heinous crimes.
• Exposure to various types of violent media, including movies, television, video games, and music, is equally associated with increased aggression in children and youth. Studies have shown immediate effects as well as effects over time, as a result of exposure to violent media during childhood, which inevitably leads to aggressive behavior in young adults. Exposure to violent media affects aggression in a number of ways, including physical aggression, verbal aggression, aggressive emotions, and aggressive cognitions.
• The loss of a loved one leaves children in turmoil. Imagine! Growing up without your dad/mom. We have too many orphans in our schools and the children are having a difficult time in dealing with grief. Absentee parents are a contributing factor as well.
Dr. Kagan Spencer’s approach to Win-Win discipline identifies several additional core causes to which chaos, disorderly conduct and misbehaviours by children in the classroom can be attributed. Kagan theory suggests that all disruptive behaviour can be classified into one of four types: ABCD -Aggression, breaking the rules, confronting the teacher or Disengagement, and Win -Win through differentiated discipline. This theory simply means that a strategy that works well for one student many not work at all for another.
In dealing with aggressive children teachers need to understand the root of the problem. Children don’t act out aggressively because they want to; they react in this manner because needs are not met. It could be that the teacher’s mode of transmission is too monotonous. It could be that the child is consistently denied an opportunity to participate in activities and so feels rejected by the teacher. It could be that the child simply got a harsh beating before departure from home and is walking around like a time bomb. At the end of the day, teachers need to be more empathetic towards the many situations affecting children and strive to find the best possible solutions to teach children how to cope when emotions related to anger are aroused.
Kagan additionally recommends that teachers use the three pillars of addressing anger and aggression. Using the pillars dictates that teachers will be on the same side of the student, that they will use collaborative solutions in solving problems and that in the end the student will learn responsibility.
Parents, on the other hand, have to cherish their children and treat them like treasures. There are many children who have taken on the burdens of their home-life and thus these additional responsibilities have created some serious breakdown in the mental and cognitive development of our students. As I read various researches on aggressive children and qualities of a successful school, a striking statement caught my attention. The research states that all schools should have a mental health nurse in addition to a school counsellor. This statement speaks volumes because it clearly suggests that even children can experience degenerative brain conditions similar to health issues affecting adults who end up on the streets homeless and experience difficulty due to not having the capacity to manage and cope with life’s challenges. Is that what we want as parents for our children? Why aren’t we striving as a people to address these issues affecting our most precious resource?
Anger is normal, but it is often perceived as an unpleasant and stressful emotion (Ballard, Cummings, & Larkin, 1993). Young children who express anger are signalling to their teachers and parents that they are trying to deal with their stress by attempting to remove whatever is blocking the achievement of their goal.
To assist children in becoming emotionally competent so that they are ready to learn, educators need to:
• First develop an understanding of what anger is and be in a position to recognize triggers that catalyse acts associated with anger. Example of triggers can be in the form of an insult, humiliation, beating, accusation, ridicule of family, and destruction of property.
• Teachers and parents have to create a safe emotional climate. A healthy early childhood setting permits children to acknowledge all feelings, pleasant and unpleasant, and does not shame anger. Healthy classroom systems have clear, firm, and flexible boundaries.
• Use books and stories about anger to help children understand and manage anger. Well-presented stories about anger and other emotions validate children’s feelings and give information about anger.
• We need to teach children how to understand their anger and the emotions of others.
• Teachers need to develop positive social interaction skills.
• Have students realize that they are responsible for the choices they make.
• Encourage children to express anger in ways that aren’t harmful to themselves or others.
• Model acceptance of each child as a valuable human being worthy of respect.
• Accentuate each child’s strengths.
• Make your expectations compatible with children’s level of development.
• Provide a safe, responsive, predictable environment.
• Provide children the opportunity to make choices.
• Send honest, congruent messages, making sure your words match your facial expressions and body language.
• Be fair, supportive, firm, and consistent. Never ridicule a child. Creating division in a class is totally unacceptable.
• Watch for and acknowledge appropriate behavior.
• Teach decision-making and problem-solving skills.
• Use role-playing, puppets, or videos to teach social skills. For example, how to treat each other or how to work out disagreements.
• Involve children in making rules so that they develop ownership.
• Make the rules clear and follow through with meaningful consequences which are appropriate for the age of the child.
• Be aware of nonverbal signs that a child is angry such as a flushed face, tensed muscles, or clenched fists.
• Understand that a child’s headaches, upset stomach, or withdrawn behavior may be a symptom of repressed anger.
• Watch the child carefully, noting the antecedents to aggressive behavior. Ask yourself:
o What happened right before the outburst?
o How was the child feeling?
o What does he or she need/want?
o What can I do to make the situation better for the child?
• Anticipate angry outbursts and arrange activities to reduce them. For example, if the child gets angry when it is time to go inside, talk with the child ahead of time and share your expectations. Then comment when the child acts appropriately.
• Arrange the seating to decrease conflict. Separate children who arouse angry responses in others.
• Help children understand that anger is a natural emotion that everyone has. Say things like, “It’s okay to feel angry. Everyone feels angry sometimes, but it is not okay to hurt yourself or others.”
• Stop any aggressive behaviors. Say, “I can’t let you hurt each other,” or “I can’t let you hurt me.” Then remove the child or children as gently as possible.
• If the child is out-of-control, provide a quiet place where he/she can calm down.
• Resist taking a child’s angry outburst personally. Deal with the child in a calm, matter-of-fact way.
• Acknowledge strong emotions, helping the child control him/herself and save face. For example say, “It must be hard to get a low score after you tried so hard.”
• Assist the child in using a vocabulary of feeling words. Read books that ask the children to verbalize a time when they felt various emotions.
• Use feeling words to help the child understand the emotions of others. For example, “Ana is sitting alone and looks very sad; she may be lonely,” or “When Cory tripped, he looked embarrassed.”
• Help children understand their own emotions by putting their feelings into words. For example say, “It made you angry when they called you names.”
• Listen, reflect and validate without judgment the feelings the child expresses. After listening, help the child identify the true feeling underlying the anger such as hurt, sadness, disappointment, fear, or frustration. For example, “That hurt when your best friend was mean to you,” or “It was scary to have them gang up on you.”
• Encourage the child to accept responsibility for the anger and to gain control over him/herself by asking him/herself the following:
For example: Did I do or say anything to create the problem? If so, how can I make things better? How can I keep this from happening again?
• Facilitate communication and problem solving with the child or between children by asking questions such as:
o What do you want/need?
o How can I help you?
o What can you do to help yourself?
• Help children understand that they can choose how to react when they feel angry. Teach them self-control and positive ways to cope with their negative impulses. The following are choices they can make:
o Stop and think.
o Calm self by breathing deeply.
o Count slowly.
o Tense body and relax.
o Find a quiet place or sit alone.
o Write about feelings.
o Tell someone how you feel.
o Draw or play with clay.
o Exercise, walk or run.
o Play music or sing.
o Rest or take a shower.
o Hug someone, a pet or a stuffed animal.
• Stress that the children must accept responsibility for their actions. Reinforce any constructive steps.
• Establish an open, caring relationship with other adults who care about the child, so that jointly you can help the angry child meet his/her psychological needs of being accepted, secure, and recognized as a valuable human being.
• Help the parent or guardian understand that giving in to a child’s outburst or exposing him/her to verbal or physical violence can be detrimental to a child’s growth and development. If needed, provide parenting information or suggest a parenting class.
• If the problem is beyond your scope of expertise, seek additional assistance and/or recommend professional help.
Confronting an angry, potentially aggressive student can increase or decrease the potential for problems. Research suggests that school leaders are to develop de-escalation procedures, such as the following, with their staff in an attempt to alleviate crisis brought on by aggressive behaviours.
• Reduce the student’s potential to engage in face-saving aggression by removing any peer spectators.
• Take a non-threatening stance with your body at an angle to the student and your empty hands at your sides in plain sight.
• Maintain a calm demeanor and steady, level voice, even in the face of intense verbal disrespect or threats from the student.
• Acknowledge the student’s emotional condition empathetically—for example, “You’re really angry, and I want to understand why.”
• Control the interaction by setting limits—such as, “I want you to sit down before we continue” or “We can talk, but only if you stop swearing.”
• Provide problem-solving counseling with a school psychologist or counselor at the earliest opportunity.
Lastly, find healthy outlets for your own strong emotions, so that you will be open to the needs of the children with whom you work.