Strategies for Anger Management in the Classroom

Instructor: Della McGuire

Della has been teaching secondary and adult education for over 20 years. She holds a BS in Sociology, MEd in Reading, and is ABD on the MComm in Storytelling.

In this lesson, we will discuss several strategies teachers can use in the classroom to manage and support older students with anger management difficulties.

Anger Management in Older Students

Students who do not learn coping skills may suffer from anger management issues. As students get older it becomes more critical for teachers to understand how to manage a student who struggles to manage difficult emotions. Teachers are responsible for socializing students as well as providing academic instruction, so understanding how to help students becomes especially critical as they move through school. Older students who need anger management instruction can be challenging because of their fluctuating hormones, increasing size, and potential for injury during fights.

Lizard Brain

Some people struggle with difficult emotions like anger. Understanding a little bit about neuroscience and how the brain works can go a long way toward helping students manage uncomfortable and negative emotions that might manifest as anger. Evolutionarily speaking, the amygdala is one of the oldest parts of the brain and provides the most fundamental needs of survival. The amygdala is called the lizard brain and is the part of the brain responsible for processing fear and responding in a way that will protect someone from perceived danger.

When people are exposed to dangerous situations, the amygdala responds with predictable patterns to protect itself. These responses are typically fight, or flight or freeze. For example, when someone is in trouble, the person will lash out (fight), become avoidant and run away (flight), or they will look like a 'deer in headlights' (freeze). Issues with anger management can be perceived as an amygdala's over-reliance on the fight response to perceptions of danger.

Sometimes understanding this mental process is the first step toward managing otherwise uncontrollable anger outbursts. Given that older students are learning more about human anatomy, explaining these brain functions can help students understand why they respond aggressively at times. With the current cultural popularity of zombies, talking about brains can be appealing to older students, so teaching them about the amygdala can be one way to reach them in a way they can appreciate.

Strategies to Manage Anger

The lizard brain has other effects on the body that can be addressed to mitigate the impact of angry outbursts. For example, breathing can become shallow and fast. By helping students breathe more deliberately, they can reduce chances of hyperventilation. Breathing that is rhythmic and deep can help interrupt the amygdala from jumping straight to a fight response. Practicing this can help retrain the brain to a different pattern of behavior.

Other ways to disrupt the amygdala can be with distraction strategies, like counting to ten or listing numbers out of order. When students are upset, sometimes it helps to list out their sense perceptions. For example, ask them to list what they can see, hear, feel, taste and smell so they can be reminded of where they are in the moment and realize they are safe. This is especially helpful for students who disassociate, flashback to a trauma or otherwise seem out of touch with reality.

Some students who struggle with anger may be particularly sensitive when they are hungry, so keeping snacks handy will help these students. Sometimes students will need to work off the energy from the adrenalin production that accompanies anger, so allowing these students to walk it off or do some stretching might help. When the adrenalin drops off, the student may become very tired; having a corner of the room for the student to relax might help.

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