Some children seem to jump from calm to angry at the flick of switch - while others seem to be able to manage strong emotions perfectly well. What makes the difference between emotional success and failure?
In this episode, we're going to look at 4 factors that cause some children to struggle with anger - so you can finally understand their behaviour (and help them self-regulate effectively).
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Show notes / transcription
Emma Shackleton 0:00
One situation that I often see in schools is when children walk out of class, so maybe they feel overwhelmed when the work is presented to them. And they might not know a strategy for managing that emotion they walk out. So that's an example of a successful strategy in that it would reduce the uncomfortable feelings. But of course, it's not successful in getting the work done. Not getting in trouble with the teacher, it meets that immediate need for that uncomfortable feeling to go away.
Simon Currigan 0:28
Welcome to the school behaviour secrets podcast. I'm your host, Simon Currigan. My co host is Emma Shackleton and we're obsessed with helping teachers, school leaders and parents and of course students when classroom behaviour gets in the way of success. We're going to share the tried and tested secrets to classroom management behaviour, your special needs whole school strategy and more all with the aim of helping your students reach their true potential. Plus, we'll be letting you eavesdrop on our conversations with thought leaders from around the world. So you'll get to hear the latest evidence based strategies before anyone else. This is the school behaviour secrets podcast.
Hi there and welcome to Episode 11 of school behaviour secrets your weekly guide into the world of emotions and behaviour in school. I like to say welcome to my co host, Emma Shackleton. Hi, Emma.
Emma Shackleton 1:18
Simon Currigan 1:19
This week, we're going to look at why some children seem to get angry so quickly fou r reasons why they go from zero to 100 at the flick of a switch. But first, Emma, what was the last thing that made you feel angry?
Emma Shackleton 1:33
I feel quite lucky. I guess I don't really get angry very often, it takes a lot to make me angry. However, one thing that does make my blood boil is rudeness. So you know like when people are just blatantly disrespectful, by letting a door go in someone else's face instead of holding open or keeping other people waiting for an appointment a long time and then not bothering to apologise. That kind of thing makes me really angry.
Simon Currigan 2:01
Well, this week, we're going to look at what causes kids to get angry. So let's grab a torch, open the kitchen cupboard door and see if we can shine some light as to what's going on at the very back of the shelf we call behaviour Do you want to start?
Emma Shackleton 2:15
First of all we need to think about what is anger. And anger is a natural instinctive reaction to stress. So thinking in evolutionary terms, then when a human caveman, for example, saw a threat coming towards him, he'd likely have one of two responses, one would be to run away, that would be an anxiety response, or the other would be to stand and fight. So that's the anger response. It's those adrenalin chemicals pumping around the body getting us ready for fight or flight.
Simon Currigan 2:47
Another way of thinking about anger as well is that it's a simple evolved the way for our body to assess the situation it's currently in and decide what to do next in a way that's more similar to an animal. So I've got a cat called mittens, that doesn't have a sort of a complex logical thinking prefrontal cortex though my daughter swears it does. But it has emotions and he uses those to work out. Should I stay in this situation? Should I chase the cat that's coming onto my patch? Do I need to be scared? So it's a really simple way of assessing the world and working out what to do next? Without thoughts and without words.
Emma Shackleton 3:21
It's instinctive, isn't it? So we can't help getting emotions, they are automatic, and we have no control over what we feel. So things like hunger and tiredness are your body's automatic responses, you can't switch those emotions are off. But what you can do with help is learn how to respond to those sensations.
Simon Currigan 3:44
So that brings us on to point one, the first cause of anger, and that might be a difficulty with the person's prefrontal cortex. So there's two key parts involved here. We've got a part of your body that's having an emotional reaction to a situation it's in so and is being kept on hold. No one's apologising to her in this telephone tree that she's stuck in. She wants to talk about a bill. She's getting these emotions, someone comes on the line. Now there's another part of her brain here called the prefrontal cortex. So what is driving that emotional response and the prefrontal cortex is logical thinking planning structure in the brain. And part of its job is to deal with emotional reaction it kind of acts as a handbrake. So Emma's natural reaction who emotional gut reaction might be to be unpleasant to the person on the phone because she's been kept on hold for 48 minutes, the prefrontal cortex will say actually, that behaviour isn't aligned with your goals. Actually, we need to regulate what your instinctive response will be. So it acts as a handbrake. And if you have difficulties with your prefrontal cortex, if it's not as developed or it's not as strong, your ability to put a handle on those emotions, to put a lid on those emotions is going to be less effective.
Emma Shackleton 4:54
So the prefrontal cortex is very intelligent and can affect your reaction. And that's why you can reinterpret the situation that you're in. So for example, some people really enjoy watching a horror movie, and they feel frightened by that movie, but they don't run away, because the logical part of their brain knows that this is just a movie and it can't hurt the same sort of thing. When you go on a roller coaster, your stomach will lurch you'll have that fear response as you're hurtling towards the ground at 80 miles an hour. But you can survive that because you know that you're not really in a life or death situation.
Simon Currigan 5:35
There's a great story about a man called Phineas Gage who was a foreman as the railroad was being constructed from the east coast of America to the west coast. And he was described as a temperate man, a good planner, good with people, a sober individual, you know, someone who you would want as a manager, someone who's got excellent emotional regulation. Now part of his job was to oversee a process of tunnelling through mountings. And what they would do is they would stack tamping irons against the side of a mountain and put some explosives behind them. Now a tamping iron. Imagine a long, sharp spear with explosives behind it. And when they set the explosives off, that drives the spears into the side of the mountain brings down a load of rock, you clear the rock away, that makes a hole in the side of the mountain and you blast your way through rinse and repeat. Now something bad happened to Phineas Gage. And if you do a search on google images, you will see some fairly gruesome pictures, something went wrong with one of the explosions and one of the tamping irons five backwards through his face. And miraculously, Phineas Gage survived with some fairly gruesome injuries, but he did survive. And what's interesting is his character changed almost overnight from an individual who was temporate and would think ahead, he became a risk taker and a gambler. He couldn't hold down a relationship couldn't hold down a job and ended up drifting from town to town. And when scientists went back and looked at the part of the brain that the tamping iron had blown through and basically destroyed, there was a huge chunk of his prefrontal cortex missing. So that tells us something about the power of the prefrontal cortex because in Phineas Gage's case, when a large chunk of that was removed, a large part of his ability to regulate his impulses and regulate his emotions was removed.
Emma Shackleton 7:14
That's really interesting. So in younger people, the prefrontal cortex is actually less developed. And it doesn't stop developing until around our mid 20s. So that explains why younger children and teenagers are often more prone to engaging in risky behaviours. And it also gives us an insight into why some people seem to mellow over time. An example of this I can think of for myself is going back to the roller coaster analogy. I used to love roller coasters when I was young. Now I absolutely hate them. I think my fear response to that situation has grown massively as my prefrontal cortex develop.
Simon Currigan 7:55
I just like to take a pause on the podcast for a minute to say that if you're finding this podcast useful, then you'll love what we've got waiting for you in our inner circle programme. The inner circle is your one stop shop for all things behaviour. It's a comprehensive platform filled with videos resources and behaviour inspiration to get you unstuck with classroom behaviour. It feels like having a behaviour expert on call 24 seven our online videos walk you through solutions to common behaviour problems, step by step whether it's the best classroom strategies and tactics, behavioural special needs, or practical resources, the inner circle has got you covered. And just like Netflix, you can turn it in a circle subscription on or off whenever you need to get the behaviour answers you've been looking for today, with inner circle, visit beaconschoolsupport.co.uk and click on the inner circle just near the top of the page for more information. And now, back to the podcast.
Another thing to bear in mind is conditions like ADHD and autism appear to affect the functioning of the prefrontal cortex. So if you take attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, there's some evidence that kids who have that have a prefrontal cortex that's lighter, and has less stuff in it less brain cells, less neurons, less connections, and that's going to affect their ability to regulate their emotions and their behaviour.
Emma Shackleton 9:20
So their brains actually look different on a brain scan from a neuro typical brain.
Simon Currigan 9:25
Absolutely. And also, you see less blood flow in the side that part of the brain as its reasoning,
Emma Shackleton 9:30
one of the reasons might be a difficulty with the prefrontal cortex. The second point about why some children might get more angry than others could be to do with a lack of self knowledge. In the 1960s and 70s. An experiment was conducted by Schachter and Singer in which a group of people were divided into two, both groups were injected with adrenaline and in the first group, they were given the injection not told what was in that injection and they were asked to wait The waiting room. Now what they didn't know was that there was also a stooge in the waiting room. And their job was to act as if they were angry because they've been kept waiting. So the stooge got out of the seat started pacing around huffing, and puffing and complaining, talking about why have we been kept waiting so long, nobody's giving us any information and getting all hot under the collar. What was interesting is other people in the group also followed his lead and started to behave in that way too. They started getting angry, they started getting irate, they were getting out of their seats demanding to be told how long they're going to be kept waiting. Now in the other group who's also been injected with adrenaline, they were actually told what the effects to their body would be. So they felt the sensation of anger when the stooge started huffing and puffing and complaining, but because they've got the self knowledge, and they knew that those feelings were stimulated by the adrenaline, they were able to maintain self control.
Simon Currigan 11:04
So that tells us that having self knowledge is important because we understand what's happening in our body, and we can react accordingly using our prefrontal cortex. But that's not the whole story, because lack of self knowledge isn't going to be enough by itself to help us manage our behaviour. There are lots of people who know they want to eat less and lose weight and the health benefits of doing that. But it doesn't drive them to eat less and lose weight, otherwise, there wouldn't be a multi billion dollar diet industry.
Emma Shackleton 11:32
And the reality is that lots of kids and some adults actually aren't aware of how they are feeling on a moment by moment basis. So they might recognise that there's a sensation in their body and react to it, but they might not know what that sensation is, or they might not realise that they have got control over how they respond to it. So point three about why some kids might get angry more than others is that some behaviours are role modelled to us by our parents. So I don't know if you've ever noticed, but shouty parents tend to have shouty kids. While we are living with our parents. While we are growing up, we are constantly seeing what they are doing, hearing what they are saying and noticing the way that they respond to situations. So we learn our templates for behaviour from our parents, we mimic what they do in certain situations.
Simon Currigan 12:29
A scary example of that is researchers who followed children who were either subject to domestic violence or shouted out in their courts as babies, they followed those children into daycare centres, and they watched how they behave with your children. And at the daycare centres. There were children, there were babies in baskets, when those babies started crying. As early as two years old, those children would toddler over and shout at the babies in the same way as they were shouted at as infants. So we can't underestimate the power of those templates that our parents give us
Emma Shackleton 13:03
is quite scary, isn't it, but it does make sense if that's your role model. That's your example of how to manage a situation. So that is likely what you're going to do.
Simon Currigan 13:13
So point four kind of builds on this because if those behaviours are repeated over time, there'll become an automatic behaviour, those behaviours become ingrained. So if we're in a situation that we find threatening, or rewarding, or interesting, we'll try out a behaviour and see what the outcome is. And if that outcome is successful, our brain collects that behaviour as a script, it's almost like we've got a filing cabinet and our brain wants to keep a collection of successful behaviours. So the next time we're in that situation, instead of having to work out what to do and feel our way through it, you can open the filing cabinet say, oh, I've been in that situation before, this is how it felt before this is what I did in this situation, it just pulls that scripts out, and reads what to do. So we start to automatically engage in certain behaviours, when we're in the presence of a trigger. Now that might be being kept in a phone tree, a phone queue for hours and hours on end. And there might be someone shouting at us, it might be us making a mistake with our work, we look at what behaviour was successful in the past. And just copy that. And instead of trying to figure out everything over and over each and every time
Emma Shackleton 14:17
human brains love to be able to rely on an automatic behaviour, don't they?
Simon Currigan 14:22
It literally burns less calories, and our brain burns a lot of calories or it tries to take shortcuts, whatever it can. For example,
Emma Shackleton 14:28
if somebody makes fun of us, and we deal with that situation successfully with aggression, or by lashing out, our brain gives us a kick of dopamine, which is like taking a little note and says that strategy worked. Do that again in the future. So that response where we feel like we were successful or satisfied is filed away in the filing cabinet. And then next time somebody makes fun of us, we tend to automatically go to that shortcut. We know the drawer, we know the file, we just get that response. On site, it's worth before is less effort. So we repeat it again.
Simon Currigan 15:04
And when we're talking about successful here, we're not talking about morally or ethically or academically successful. What we're talking about is successful from a biological point of view. Are we getting away from the thing that's causing us discomfort? Are we reducing our stress? are we managing to get away from the threat that's causing us to be in this high stress state?
Emma Shackleton 15:27
One situation that I often see in schools that comes to mind here is when children walk out of class, so maybe they feel overwhelmed when the work is presented to them, because that feeling is uncomfortable to them. And they might not know a strategy for managing that emotion, they walk out. And they sense that release, as soon as they leave the classroom door, they feel better. So that's an example of a successful strategy in that it would use the uncomfortable feelings. But of course, it's not successful in getting the work done. Managing strong emotions, not getting in trouble with the teacher, it meets that immediate need for that uncomfortable feeling to go away.
Simon Currigan 16:06
But our brains care about the short term rather than the long term.
Emma Shackleton 16:09
So it's a quick fix, isn't it. And then, like we've said before, it feels like it's worked. And our brains then jump to that behaviour, when we're in that situation again, and you sometimes see this in schools where you get pupils repeating the same behaviour over and over again. So every time maths is presented, they get up and walk out, or every time the writing is presented, they push it away. It's meeting their immediate needs, but it's not a successful school strategy. It's a quick way that our brains just click into this work before I'll do it again.
Simon Currigan 16:41
So we've looked at four reasons. And I think the thing to say here is for any one child, you can't really put any anger behaviours, or, or anxiety behaviours down to one single cause, it's always likely, there's going to be a mix of contributing factors.
Emma Shackleton 16:57
So the key areas driving angry behaviour are normally a combination of an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, lack of self knowledge, role modelling from parents, and behaviour that's become ingrained and automatic, there's a good mix of nature and nurture responses in there.
Simon Currigan 17:16
Absolutely. And if you're interested in supporting children, with their anger or strong emotions, we've got a download called the SEN handbook that can help it will help you link behaviours you see in the classroom with possible causes. So this is not about making a diagnosis because as teachers, we're not qualified to do that. But it is about early on linking behaviours you see in the classroom with possible causes. So you can get the right help the right support and the right professionals involved. It's a completely free download, go to our website, beaconschoolsupport.co.uk. Click on the free resources section near the top of the page, and scroll down and you'll see a big picture saying the SEN behaviour handbook. I'll also leave a link to the SEN behaviour handbook in the show description.
Emma Shackleton 18:03
In the next episode, we're going to be talking to Dr. Rob Long, who is going to answer the question, how do we measure whether their behaviour interventions we're running in school are actually working or not? How can we prove whether they're making a difference beyond what our intuition tells us?
Simon Currigan 18:21
With that in mind, if you haven't done it already, open your podcast app now. And give the subscribe button a little tickle that's going to encourage it to download each and every episode of school behaviour secrets. So it arrives in your podcast app without you having to think about it so you never miss a thing.
Emma Shackleton 18:39
And finally, if you found today's episode useful, please leave us an honest rating and review on Apple podcasts. This really does make a huge difference to us because the more ratings and reviews you give us, the more you're helping other podcast listeners find the show and join our family of listeners.
Simon Currigan 18:57
Thank you for listening to school behaviour secrets. Have a great week and we look forward to talking to you again. Until the next episode. Bye now.
Emma Shackleton 19:04
(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)