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Dr. Ken Shore's
Classroom Problem Solver

Angry Outbursts In Class (Part 2)

An angry student might display his temper in a variety of ways. He might be unresponsive to the teacher, disengaged from the learning process, and withdrawn from his peers. Seemingly minor matters can trigger his anger, causing him to fly off the handle with little provocation and to lash out at the drop of a hat. A younger child might express his anger through a full-blown tantrum accompanied by kicking and screaming. Those behaviors can be upsetting to classmates and disturbing to a teacher.

You might find that a volatile student also triggers feelings of anger and frustration in you. Maintain your composure and not saying or doing anything that fuels his anger or causes the problem to spiral out of control is important. React to the angry student in ways that cool him down rather than fire him up.

In last week's column, Angry Outbursts, Part 1, I discussed ways to defuse a student's anger and help him learn better self-control. Some additional strategies follow.


Intervene early. Keep a close eye on a student whose behavior suggests an outburst is imminent. Try to distract him by changing the activity, sending him on an errand, or taking him aside and talking with him about a new topic. Within a few minutes, he likely will forget what he was angry about.

Have the student engage in activities that allow him to vent his frustrations. You might, for example, have the angry student draw a picture, work with clay or Play Doh, write in a journal, or take a walk (supervised, of course). You might give him a ball to keep in his desk and squeeze every time he feels stressed or angry. If you see him engaging in an activity to release his anger, acknowledge that effort.

Reach out to the student. Angry students typically distrust teachers and perceive them as adversaries. If you have a student with a chip on his shoulder, make a special effort to connect with him: Greet him at the door every day in a friendly manner, with a positive comment. When he speaks to you, listen attentively and show respect for what he says. Find a few minutes every so often to talk with him about his interests and hobbies. Call him at home after he has had a particularly difficult day to show your concern. Eventually, he might begin to trust you -- and perhaps talk to you about what is upsetting him.

Look for a pattern. Identifying the circumstances surrounding a student's outbursts can help you anticipate when they might occur and how to prevent them. In observing those incidents, consider the following: What happened right before the outburst? What was the response of others? Do the outbursts happen at a certain time of the day or in the presence of certain people? Does the student signal in some way that an outburst is imminent? Answers to those questions can help you figure out what is fueling the flare-ups and what might be reinforcing them, and help you act accordingly. For example, if a student with a reading disability often gets upset right before he is expected to read aloud, you'll want to find a way to relieve his obvious discomfort about oral reading.

Ask the student to write down what happened. After the student has calmed down, ask him to write what triggered his anger, how he responded, how others reacted, how he could have handled the situation differently, and how you and others can help him avoid the problem in the future. Review the student's responses with him and use them as a jumping-off point for a lesson in self-control.

Provide the student with a cooling-off area. Tell the student that when he feels on the verge of an outburst, he should signal you that he is leaving the room and go to a prearranged spot to calm down. Let him know that that is not a punishment, but a way of helping him calm down. Explain that he can return when he is feeling more in control. Some possible cooling-off areas might include the back of the classroom, the classroom next door (ask the teacher if this is okay), the bathroom or water fountain, the guidance counselor's office, or the main office. You might have him bring along a book, toy, art project, or schoolwork. Be careful that he does not abuse the privilege by leaving the classroom whenever he wants.


About Ken Shore

Dr. Kenneth Shore is a psychologist and chair of a child study team for the Hamilton, New Jersey Public Schools. He has written five books, including Special Kids Problem Solver and Elementary Teacher's Discipline Problem Solver.

Click to read a complete bio.