How to understand poor anger management in young people with SEN
We are all human and we all get angry sometimes.
Anger is one of our most complicated emotions and one which we usually find it hard to admit to having. Yet, it is vital to our survival. The two emotional drives that influence us the most are pleasure and pain. If you think about the things you have done or achieved in your life and look below the surface at what motivated you to do them, it is likely that the driving force will either have been to gain pleasure or because of fear of experiencing pain.
Anger is an integral part of fear and often how we will express or respond to a fearful situation. It is an emotion which is intrinsic in the makeup of human beings and is part of the fight, flight or freeze response that has been vital in ensuring human survival.
The pressures on teachers today are immense. They are constantly assessed for effectiveness, set targets to achieve, bombarded with changes in the curriculum and may well be working in an environment where there is a shortage of staff. They are also subjected to all of the other pressures that normal family and social life bring with them today, though as professionals, they are expected to leave these stresses at the school door. On top of all of this, they are expected to be an example to their students, a positive role model for young people to respect and emulate, regardless of the abuse they may encounter – which can be verbal and sometimes physical – from students or their parents.
It is little wonder that teachers can get angry sometimes and allow that anger to influence their behaviour towards students, or become stressed and end up either leaving the profession disillusioned or taking sick leave.
Imagine, though, what it would be like if you could harvest that primeval energy displayed by children, and adults, in a positive way. What if you could use it to drive and motivate you, and to fill you with passion to achieve your best? How inspiring would that be for the students you teach?
What better example could you give to young people than that anger and frustration can be a force for change and empowerment, rather than aggression or resentment, followed usually by remorse and regret? Well, achieving this goal is easier than it appears. We all have the capacity to use our anger in a positive way once we understand the triggers to our anger and start to value this powerful emotion that tells us things are wrong for us, and why. However, as is usually the case with anger, it becomes a very destructive force if it is allowed to freely express itself unchecked. We need to accept that our anger is a good friend, but a bad leader.
To achieve this, we simply need to be prepared to develop our level of self-awareness. We need to stop seeing anger as a negative emotion and learn to understand our anger triggers. This means that we first need to take responsibility for our anger and not deny that it exists or blame others for it. We need to recognise the signs that we are feeling angry, even when those changes are happening very quickly.
Before we feel angry, a sequence of events has to happen which provides us with the opportunity to change how we respond:
1. An event of some kind occurs to start the process. This could be, for example, a comment made by somebody, a threat or an expression on someone’s face which we interpret in a particular way.
2. Next comes sensory perception. For the event to have meaning, it has to be registered by our senses and this information passed on to the brain.
3. We then evaluate the information which will influence our emotional response to the given event.
4. There will then be an action as a result of the event.
5. Finally, we will experience an emotional response to the event.
The most important part in this process is how we evaluate the event, as this will change our action and emotional response towards it. Think about times when you have been involved in an argument and ask yourself honestly how much impact your evaluation of the situation influenced the response you gave. If you had chosen to take a different point of view to the situation, might this have changed the outcome?
Needs and desire
When we feel angry, it is because one of our needs is not being met by the individual or group that is the trigger for our anger. In order to control our anger, we need to identify our unfulfilled need (Rosenberg, M., 2003: Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life). However, we need to recognise that the other people involved also have needs which may not be being met either by ourselves or others. For a teacher in a conflict situation with a student, this could be the teacher’s “need” to be treated with respect by the student. However, if the teacher is unable to identify this need, then s/he is more likely to react to his/her unfulfilled need by either being threatening, aggressive or punitive to the student who s/he sees as being disrespectful.
Young people find it much harder to identify needs and are more likely to identify “wants”. For example, a young person may want to leave a classroom, but the underlying need behind this want could be that s/he is frightened of another student and has a need to feel safe; the young person wants to get away to allow this need to be met. In a conflict situation, though, it is unlikely that the young person will be able to articulate the need and s/he may simply state his/her want. This inability to be able to identify the need is likely to make the young person appear to be argumentative, uncooperative or aggressive.
It is therefore even more important that the teacher is able to recognise his/her own unmet need quickly, helping the teacher to control his/her own feelings whilst confronting the student. The teacher will then be more able to help the young person investigate and express his/her unfulfilled need calmly, thereby preventing the situation from escalating rapidly into further confrontation.
In order to achieve this, teachers need to learn the process that takes place in our minds and bodies and then pass this knowledge on to their students using a language that makes these complicated processes accessible to them. Once this has been done, simple anger management techniques can be taught which will become more effective because of the increased knowledge and self-awareness that the students have achieved.
The most powerful instinct we have is the instinct to survive. So, when we have to confront aggressive behaviour, this instinct drives our responses. Adrenaline is pumping around our bodies and we are ready for a confrontation. The problem is that we lose our ability to think; the rational part of our brain is not accessible to us at this time. We can, however, reconnect with this part of our brain and our ability to rationalise and problem solve reasonably easily. First, we need to make a small physical movement, the “step back” which is part of most anger management advice. Next comes the “count to ten” – the reconnection with the thinking brain.
What I have found is that this only works if we have taken time to understand what is happening in our body and brain first. We are then back in control of our emotions due to our awareness of the natural and normal processes that are going on in our body and brain. As a result we are more able to recognise and honour our feelings and take control of our responses. We are then able to help a young person take back control of their emotions and find a more appropriate way of dealing with the problem.
Steve Rowan is an experienced and award winning Youth Offending Service officer and probation officer, and Managing Director of Altered Attitudes Ltd, which provides educational packages for young people with behavioural and emotional difficulties and professionals working with them: