How to help students with sudden anger outbursts
(and why looking for triggers won't help)

How to help students with sudden anger outbursts<br/>(and why looking for triggers won't help)

“Henry doesn’t give any warning. One minute he’s fine and the next minute… boom!”

To emphasise the point, Henry’s teacher makes an explosion gesture with her fingers. “The trigger can be anything. He goes from 0 to 100 in the blink of an eye.”

Sound familiar? Most of us have taught a pupil who seems calm and happy in class, but then suddenly explodes because of a disapproving look. Or hits a minor setback in their work. Or loses a pencil.

Or… anything really.

And most of us have felt that, with a bit more warning, we could have done something about it. Distracted Henry – or reminded him to use calming techniques.

But the speed with which Henry gets angry, and the unpredictability of his triggers, makes it impossible to get help before it’s too late.

Here’s one explanation for what’s going on – and what you can do about it.

How we respond to stress

Imagine this number track represents your ability to cope with stress.

When you’re standing on square 1, you feel calm and safe. But every time you hit a stressful experience (someone cuts you up on the way to work, a student shouts at you, you lose your keys), you take a step forwards.

As you move along the track, you feel more tense, frustrated, less patient.

An interesting thing happens when you reach squares 3 and 4. Your body feels under attack – and it actively scans the environment for new threats as a result.

Keep adding more stress, and you’ll cross the red line and land on square 5. This is where you can no longer cope – your emotions overflow and you experience a fight-or-flight (or freeze) response.

That’s your body’s natural protection mechanism when it feels under attack. It’s saying “fight away the threat” or “get out of there.”

So we don’t react to stress in a binary way. We don’t suddenly flip from ‘calm’ to ‘angry’ – there are stages (squares) in between where we feel increasingly pressured.

So… why do some students appear to ‘flip’?

So what’s happening with Henry? Why does he appear calm one moment and furious the next?

The reason is simple: Henry was never calm in the first place.

He was never at square 1.  In fact, he lives at square 4. His emotions are always high and his brain is continually scanning for threats.  He’s more stressed than he appears.

Now let’s imagine a small incident or trigger: someone bumps into Henry by accident.

If Henry’s starting point is square 1, he steps forward a square on the track. That’s no big deal. He’s got plenty of squares ahead of him and emotional capacity to cope.

But Henry never occupies square 1. He’s always at 4 – just one step away from a 5.

The result? A small trigger leading to a huge explosion.

That means looking for triggers isn’t (always) helpful

So – it makes sense to list Henry’s triggers and figure out a pattern, right?

Well, sometimes yes. If you list those triggers, and see some obvious patterns, then that can be useful information.

But what you’ll often see is a random, unconnected series of events. Any little thing that pushed Henry from square 4 to square 5.

So dealing with (or clearing way) these triggers won’t deal with the real problem.

The problem is that Henry is never calm.  He needs to regulate his emotions better so he spends more time at square 1.  That way he’ll have more emotional reserves to cope with any setbacks and difficulties.

What to do instead

The next steps to helping Henry are:

  • addressing the underlying factors that keep Henry stuck at a 4 – for instance, there may be sensory, emotional or attachment issues at play.  (See our article ‘why do young people get angry‘ about some underlying factors here.)
  • find calming/regulating/soothing activities (so he can take backwards steps on the track when he needs to)
  • help him be more aware of his emotional state – so he can identify for himself when those activities are necessary
  • improve his emotional vocabulary

The last one is important.  There’s a lot of evidence that being able to label an emotion increases your ability to deal with it.

And don’t assume that students know what the words ‘calm’ or ‘relaxed’ truly mean – they may need help exploring the concept at a deeper level.  The sensations Henry describes as ‘calm’, we might classify as belonging in ‘square 3’.

For instance, there are several elements to feeling calm that they need help to explore, such as:

  • physical (being at rest; muscles feeling loose; breathing slowly)
  • emotional (experiencing calm emotions, not emotional churn from family/social issues)
  • cognitive (thinking positive thoughts, rather than being occupied by worries or anxieties)
  • sensory (not over- or under-responding to noises, movement, balance, touch etc.)

With the right work, aimed at reducing Henry’s continuous stress levels, he’ll be able to spend more time in a calmer state (square 1) – rather than an anxious or highly stressed state (square 4).

That’s healthier for him, his classmates – and for you too.

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