This issue looks at anger management – recognising the triggers of emotional build-ups and using techniques to manage emotions

Being able to recognise triggers and emotional build-up is the first stage of an effective behaviour or anger management strategy. The second stage, which is perhaps more difficult, is to develop successful techniques for managing these emotions. The triggers can be quite varied, depending on the individual. They include:

  • how a particular situation is perceived by that individual, linked to their own experience
  • their current emotional state
  • what the perceived outcome may be
  • the influence of other individuals and the immediate environment.

Whatever the triggers, our thoughts and feelings are the drivers of our behaviour. It is important for both adults and students to understand these drivers and to have sufficiently well developed and practiced responses to manage them. When faced with a confrontational situation, our immediate reaction is one of fight or flight, a natural human response that is intended to protect us from possible danger or injury. While this type of response is natural and automatic, it is not the most appropriate one in a teaching and learning environment. Here, it falls to teachers not only to calm themselves down, to think and behave rationally, but also to teach these skills to the students in their care. There seems little point in expecting students to manage their own emotions and calm down if you do not possess the ability to control your own emotions.

As teachers often working in difficult situations with challenging students, we invariably get to the point where we have either truly “lost it” or are aware that our behaviour is out of character and quite unacceptable. Remember that red mist that seems to flood over your whole being? You find yourself shouting, with your heart pounding. You are sweating and perhaps worst of all, saying or doing something that upon reflection was absolutely over the top.

“RIGHT! Year 8, I am absolutely sick and tired of your behaviour. You’re really getting to me and if one more person steps out of line, you’re all in detention next Tuesday!”

I’m sure that most of us will be able to think of a time when they, or a colleague, or a student lost it. By the time this stage has been reached, it’s usually too late. We need to be able to read and recognise the clues our body is giving us in the form of triggers, and then have a range of responses that will help to calm both ourselves and the situation. In other words, we need to possess and be able to use some self-calming techniques.

Practical Tips

There is no point expecting all of the following to be successful, all of the time. We are all individuals and what works for one person in a given situation may not work for another. You can manage some of the situations all of the time, all the situations some of the time, but you can’t manage all the situations all of the time! What we must attempt to do is collect together sufficient tools and strategies to enable us to have a choice in our responses when faced with pressure or confrontation. Many of us and our students have toolboxes filled with a wide variety of response tools and are able to manage our own behaviour quite appropriately. Unfortunately, there are still many adults and students who have toolboxes that only contain hammers.

The following tips are intended to be a reminder of skills we sometimes overlook, or forget that we have. They need to be practiced regularly so that the chosen response styles, or self-calming techniques, become instinctive, your first and preferred choice.

  • Deep breathing not only allows you to focus on something other than the confrontation, but also provides you with the essential extra oxygen to counteract the adrenalin rush associated with confrontation. Try breathing in for two seconds through your nose and then three seconds out through your mouth.
  • For many people, counting is an effective calming measure. Try counting upwards rather than down to zero and ready for “blast off”!
  • Relax. Think about your non-verbal messages. Tension in your neck, arms and other places will add to your feeling of pressure.
  • Open your palms, facing downwards, or put your hands together in front of your body.
  • Stand slightly sideways on to the student. Put your weight on your back foot, rather than leaning in.
  • Consider physically and/or mentally moving away from the source of agitation. Do you really need to be that close? Think about personal space.
  • Catch the eye of another adult in the room, or spot a student who is not a cause of annoyance.

All of the above need regular practice if they are to be an instinctive and effective response. Don’t wait until you need one of them to rehearse it and put it into practice.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in January 2008

About the author: Dave Stott is the author of Behaviour Matters. He has nearly 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher level. He has worked in mainstream, special and Local Authority Behaviour Support Services, and is now a successful consultant and trainer.