Illustration by Kate Moore

When Students Hulk Out

Understanding Anger in the Classroom

Last week we talked about the importance of meta-emotion. Just as being aware of one’s learning process improves learning, so too does being aware of one’s emotions improve communication, collaboration, and relationship-building.

Anger can be a particularly difficult emotion to face. It’s a scary emotion both for the emoter and those in its path. Sometimes an angry student can simmer away in the corner, scowling at or quietly rejecting the activities around him. Other times an angry student might blow up entirely, raining her rage on everyone and leaving a giant hole in the middle of the room. Either way, unaddressed anger can do a significant amount of damage to a lesson. What’s more, it can leave students feeling confused or scared, including the student who caused all the turmoil.

What is happening for the student?

Anger can be hard to understand if you are not a person who experiences explosive bouts of rage. For a teacher unfamiliar with that feeling, it might be particularly frightening or it might be something you try to get away from as quickly as possible. You might want to send a student away or tell them they are being ridiculous.

So, let’s look at things that could be happening from the angry person’s perspective.

Anger can be about setting clear boundaries — if the student is feeling pushed into something that makes them feel uncomfortable and feel they don’t have any recourse, they might try to set boundaries in the only way they know. You might hear things like: I don’t want that, I don’t like that, get away, stop it, NO.

Anger can be a reaction to feeling misunderstood. This feeling might have started when they shared an idea in your class. It might also have been something that was triggered in the hallway, the last class, or even at home. Some people with tempers have a strong attachment to being right. If they felt their idea was wrongly dismissed or misunderstood, it might feel like a great injustice to them. It could be extremely frustrating or make the person feel helpless. The reaction might be to lash out at others.

Anger can also be a reaction to feeling rejection in any form. Students might react to feeling vulnerable by throwing up walls. These walls can turn into a fortress in which the student simmers and rejects what is going on around her. Worse, the walls could take on a more offensive form, with the student actively insulting or pushing others away to take up more space and feel stronger.

What do we need when in this state?

When in a state of rage, a person needs to feel heard. Since anger can stem from a sense of injustice, having those emotions rejected (either with words or by physically being removed) adds insult to injury. As much as we want to get away from that kind of emotion, the best thing to do is often to acknowledge it and the person feeling it.

How to acknowledge the emotion and the person

As always, there is not one cleancut solution. The best course of action will vary depending on the student, how hot the anger, the other students in the room, and what you are trying to accomplish that day. Here are ideas:

  1. Identify the emotion and talk about it. Let the student know you can see that they are very upset. Ask them if they want to talk about what happened. If they do, try to just repeat what you are hearing. “You got angry when he said he didn’t like your idea.” Let other students talk about it too. You can ask if they’ve ever felt that way. You can ask how others handle those kinds of strong emotions. You can ask if there was a different way that the offending student could have expressed their disagreement. Try to get students identifying the emotion, the cause, and different ways to handle it. Obviously this would mean pausing class, but the outcome might be more powerful for your classroom community than plowing ahead like nothing happened.
  2. Talking to the student after class — This conversation can be similar to the one above but just between you and the student. It’s a good option if you don’t have time to discuss as a group or you know the student isn’t in a place to discuss altogether. You can start by just identifying what you saw — “I noticed you were looking down at your desk today and weren’t participating in the activities we did.”
  3. Create a designated spot in your room where students can go when they are feeling angry or overwhelmed. Set guidelines for this area ahead of time and explain to your students when they can go over to it.
  4. Create a culture of journaling. This could be a regular activity with every class — an emotional journal in which to unload or explore the day’s emotions. Or, it could be a designated thing you have given students leeway to pull out when they need. “Hey, if you are having a bad day, and you can feel your anger/emotions starting to run away with you, pull out your journal and write about it.”
  5. Develop a code with given students — If you have a student who regularly struggles with emotions, you might set up a system or code with that student to indicate when they can pull out a journal or move to a different spot in the room.

What if the teacher is the hulk?

Most of us probably remember times when our teachers or parents completely lost their cool. Do you remember being frightened by it or confused? Or maybe you laughed at your teacher. Or maybe you have a more recent memory of you losing your cool with your students and have seen those same reactions in your student’s faces. I know I would feel most angry with my students when I thought they were being uncaring, flippant, or rude; my mood didn’t improve if they then smirked at me. If you feel yourself becoming the hulk, the same advice applies. Acknowledge yourself and the emotions you are feeling to the students. You can model for them what it looks like to be aware of your emotions and how it’s affecting others. “You know, it makes me feel really bad when I work hard to make an interesting lesson and you guys play games on your phones.” This is also an important opportunity for students to build empathy for their teachers.

You don’t have to be a troubled person or a person with a behavioral disorder to have strong feelings of anger. Since emotions are not something our culture often talks about openly, students might simply not know what to do when they encounter such a strong emotion. By not running from anger in your classroom, you can help students hone the tools they need to identify, understand, and be with their anger when it arises. Instead of being overpowered by their anger, students will learn how to direct and transform those strong emotions. Think of the impact it can have on our society to watch our students grow into adults that can stay respectful during inflammatory situations. Imagine civil discourse with people who are not overrun by anger when someone disagrees with them. With such an impactful presence in students’ lives, teachers can make this kind of future possible.

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