"Do not teach your children never to be angry; teach them how to be angry." —Lyman Abbott

As a School Counselor, one of the most frequent questions I am asked by teachers and parents is how to respond effectively when a young person is upset or emotionally overwhelmed.  Since self-regulation is the core of emotional well-being (not to mention a pre-requisite for academic progress), I am not just willing...but completely eager...to share practical strategies for helping kids manage intense feelings and develop self-regulation skills. 

In this post, I offer six core emotion-management strategies that educators and parents can use.  Note: I will use the word "angry" throughout as a generic way of expressing the kind of powerful emotions that distract kids in school and/or disrupt learning, but please know that other emotions such as sadness, worry, frustration, and fear are just as applicable.

1.  Think: Calm, Cool, and Collected

First and foremost, when you see a child in a highly emotional state, avoid the urge to lecture or try to reason with him/her at that moment. I cannot stress this enough. Research shows that the least effective but most used discipline strategy for dealing with emotional outbursts in schools is verbal reprimanding.

Is there a time for talking with kids, establishing expectations, and discussing accountability? Of course. But that time is never in the heat of the moment when they (and likely you) are upset. Brain-science shows us very clearly that when kids are upset, the emotional part of their brain (the amygdala) is activated and simultaneously, the logical, rational part of their brain (the pre-frontal cortex) is less active. 

Because of this, no amount of verbal reprimanding or reasoning will help a person control their anger in the heat of the moment. In fact, almost anything you say  regarding the incident or its consequences at this time will likely worsen the situation. The only strategy you have in the moment is to help the young person calm down.  

Strategies for helping a child calm down are plentiful. What they all have in common are time, space, support, unconditional positive regard, moving, and breathing. Play-dough never hurts, either. I encourage all educators to think about the use of a "Take a Break space" in their classroom. For older students (middle and high school), a neutral space in the room could still be great, but I recommend  letting older students take a quick walk in the hallway (if you feel they can do this safely) or take a cool drink of water.

2.  Teach Kids What to Do

Create a class/household of Do's instead of an environment of Dont's so that young people know how to express their feelings in safe ways. Instead of making a rule such as "no hitting," offer positive (often sensory) strategies such as:

  • Squeeze a stressball
  • Get a drink of water
  • Hug a stuffed animal
  • Use mindful breathing practices
  • Listen to calming music
  • Take a walk...or a run...just move around (safely!)
  • Eat a quick, non-sugary snack
  • Use the classroom break space, where sensory and/or fidget items are available 
  • Write/draw/talk about the problem

3. Use Diversions and Distractions

When the amygdala (emotional brain) is activated by an upsetting event, it can be extremely helpful to distract the child from the repetitive angry thoughts that keep their brain in a high state of alarm.  This is especially effective with younger students, although it is clear that people of all ages can be assisted by distraction. 

In school, distraction from an emotional trigger can look like:

  • Ask a student to pass out papers,  bring a note to the office, carry a box (heavy lifting is a great sensory, calming strategy).
  • Offer a fidget or tactile object that is new or novel to them. (Play-dough, anyone?)
  • Offer the child's crackers or a non-sugary snack, or a cold drink of water.
  • Consider allowing the student a brief change of space. Take a walk.  This often makes a world of difference. 

4. Learn their Triggers

Become aware of frequent triggers for a student's intense emotions, such as hunger, being hot, tiredness, the time of day, certain activities, or transitions.  Is the child always stressed on Mondays after a weekend with a parent, or on Fridays before a visit with a parent? Are they stressed about grades? Does test anxiety usually throw them for a loop? Very often, if you can predict it, you can prevent it.

5.  Be a thermostat, not a thermometer 

Your job is to turn down the heat on a young person's emotional state, not to reflect his/her anger with your own anger reaction.  Avoid raised voices, lectures and knee-jerk consequences that turn up the heat and escalate conflict every time.  Related tip: As the child gets louder, you get quieter. 

6. Offer a hug

Hugging an angry child may be the last thing you feel like doing in a stressful moment, but it might be the very best thing you can do to show support and help the young person regulate his/her emotions and behaviors.  You are meeting sensory needs as well as safety and belonging needs.  Say to young person, "I can see that you are upset about _________. Would you like a hug?"

7.  Use Morning Meetings

Consider using morning/class meetings with students to purposefully and regularly build self-regulation skills in kids.  Try any of these topics and skill-builders:

  • During a group-sharing time, ask kids to share their go-to strategy for how to calm down when they are upset. 
  • Encourage kids to share with each other their triggers for becoming angry and upset.  This provides excellent insights for you (see #4 above) and builds group trust.
  • Do a daily check in on kids' moods and game-plan for how kids will cope with upsetting emotions.
  • Teach kids your classroom procedure for how to ask for help when they feel themselves becoming upset or overwhelmed by emotion. 
  • Teach kids how to show compassion when they see a classmate who is upset

Signe Whitson, C-SSWS is a School Counselor and author of For workshop inquiries and more information, visit signewhitson.com

References

Whitson, S. (2011).  How to Be Angry: An Assertive Anger Expression Group Guide for Kids & Teens.  London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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