LIFEMORTS: The Hidden Forces That Drive Student Anger

LIFEMORTS: The Hidden Forces That Drive Student Anger

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Have you ever wondered why some students flare up in anger seemingly out of nowhere? Or is the word 'no' sparking unexpected anger in your pupils?

Join us in this episode of School Behaviour Secrets as we uncover the evolutionary triggers behind classroom anger. From ancient social hierarchy to the modern classroom, we'll explore the fascinating world of LIFEMORTS and explain how an understanding of the psychological roots of anger can shape a more supportive school.

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Show notes / transcription

Emma Shackleton  0:00  

Ever wondered why some children become angry at the drop of a hat? Or you're not clear on what the triggers for anger actually are? Well, in this episode, we're going to explore the nine main triggers for anger so that you walk away with a better understanding of your pupils emotions, and you can start helping them get on top of big feelings. Good for them. And good for you too. Here's the Intro Music.

Simon Currigan  0:27  

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, 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, behavioural 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. My name is Simon Currigan and welcome to this week's new and exciting episode of school behaviour secrets. Winston Churchill once wrote success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. Almost 170 episodes in I feel like the back half of that quote should be the school behaviour secrets tagline from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.

Emma Shackleton  1:29  

That's a bit harsh.

Simon Currigan  1:31  

Do you know if this was Sesame Street, we'd be sponsored by the word perseverance, doing something repeatedly despite continued failure, lack of success or progress. That was the voice of my co host, Emma Shackleton. Hi, Emma.

Emma Shackleton  1:43  

Hi, perseverance?

Simon Currigan  1:45  

Perseverance. Yeah, It's a word, it's a thing. Perseverance is sticking with something that's worthwhile, even though it's hard, perseverance is getting stuck in a task that's going nowhere. Have you  got time for a quick question?

Emma Shackleton  1:55  

Well, not now. No. Always go ahead.

Simon Currigan  1:59  

Perfect. I'd like to ask you, what is the best insult a child's ever made at you? And we've both worked in pupil referral units with permanently excluded children. So we're working on fertile ground here, I hope? 

Emma Shackleton  2:13  

Oh yes. 15 years of teaching and pupil referral units. There are so many insults to choose from. You're right. There were quite a lot of insults flying around. And what I realised was some kids really know how to hit you where it hurts with their words. I've got a really clear recollection of one boy in particular, who I taught when I was in my first year of teaching in pupil referral units. So I was fresh out of mainstream teaching and in at the deep end, and this one boy only ever referred to me as lanky bitch. That was, every time he spoke to me every single day, that was how he addressed me as lanky bitch, day after day, I actually began to think of it as a little bit of a term of endearment in the end because we did build a really good rapport. Anecdotally, another popular insult was F off miss, but the Miss at the end always made me chuckle a little bit inside. It was like an insult with a little bit of respect on the end. Tell me what's the best insult that you've had? And how is this relevant to today's show?

Simon Currigan  3:30  

Y'know, the one I really liked, like, so I'm follically challenged right. So I don't have a lot of hair. And the best off the cuff one was Sir, can I get the number of youre Barber. I quite like that. Well, anyway, this week, we're exploring the reasons that children and adults get angry. And those reasons fit into the pneumonic LIFEMORTS. And we'll be revealing what each of those letters and triggers are step by step in just one moment. And spoiler alert, being insulted is one of them. It's the I in life modes. This episode is obviously going to be super helpful if you're working with children who have difficulty managing their emotions. 

Emma Shackleton  4:08  

But before we get into that, I'd like to let you know about a helpful download we've got that compliments this episode beautifully. It's called How to help children manage anger and other strong emotions. And if you haven't got your copy yet, you can download it directly from our website. We'll put a direct link in the episode description. So all you've got to do is open your podcast app as you're listening. And you'll be able to click directly through to the website to get ahold of your guide. But obviously don't do that if you're driving right now. 

Simon Currigan  4:42  

No please concentrate on the road. If you like this show, if you're finding the strategies and insights we're sharing useful, please remember to subscribe as well. Just open up your podcast app tap the subscribe button and you will make sure that you never miss another episode subscribing feels like winning a lifetime supply of underpants. The sheer joy and stress relief it brings is unmatched, knowing you'll never have to reach the bottom of your underwear drawer and go unintentionally Commando again. You can't buy that kind of confidence. But you can get it by smashing that subscribe button, all of which means it's time to take a deep breath, grab a knife and scrape the black charred bits from the burnt toast that we call behaviour.

Emma Shackleton  5:25  

Okay, so we're going to be looking at the nine triggers that can fuel anger today, and they were identified by the researcher, neuroscientist and author R. Douglas Fields. When you put them together, they spell out the handy acronym  lifemorts.

Simon Currigan  5:43  

When we're thinking about anger and triggers for anger, we have to remember that we're seeing the brain's primitive response to triggers in the environment, the ancient part of our brain, the amygdala, is constantly scanning the environment and looking for potential threats, things that might endanger our survival. 

Emma Shackleton  6:02  

Yeah, And what happens is when it sees one of those triggers, it pushes our brains into the classic fight flight freeze response, the logical parts of our brain pretty much switch off and take a backseat and our brain becomes controlled by our amygdala. And you've got to remember that our amygdala doesn't think in words, but it's driven by emotions instead.

Simon Currigan  6:27  

Right, So we'll take the classic example of a man walking out of a cave, a caveman, you know, 50,000 100,000 years ago, walks out of a cave and sees a sabre toothed Tiger because the Sabre toothed Tiger is the mascot of school behaviour secrets, whenever we talk about anger, in that situation, that caveman has to react quickly and effectively. Otherwise, his toast is going to be dead, he's going to be attacked by the Sabre toothed Tiger. So there are two key parts of the brain here involved in this kind of thinking. And the first is the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which deals with language and logic. And the problem with that is it's really slow, which is why the amygdala jumps in and gives the caveman an instruction about how to react whether that's going to be anger to go fight the Sabre toothed Tiger, whether it's going to be to run away from the Sabre toothed Tiger. And that mechanism has kept us alive and other animals alive for 10s and hundreds of 1000s of years.

Emma Shackleton  7:22  

Now, you have to remember that way of thinking was effective 10s of 1000s of years ago, and it kept us alive in response to life or death survival situations. However, as you might have noticed, there actually aren't that many Sabre toothed Tigers wandering around and threatening most of us as we lead our modern lives,

Simon Currigan  7:45  

meaning the problem we've got is for some of us, our brains are responding to psychological threats or imagined threats as if they weren't real life or death threats. And that's because in evolutionary terms, 50,000 years of evolution from living in caves to living in cities, well, that's the blink of an eye, we've still got the same caveman brains, even as we're wandering around the modern world, and the world has changed a lot since then.

Emma Shackleton  8:17  

Okay, so let's bring this now into the classroom. And let's look at what the LIFEMORTS are and how they apply directly to teachers now, so the L stands for life or death. So a modern example of this might be an attack, for example, say you were being held at knifepoint that is a genuine life or death attack. So it's sensible that your brain responds immediately to that attack, and readies your body for fight or flight. In this scenario, you need that response and it is appropriate. So the L stands for life because if there is an actual life or death threat, you need your body to go into that state and ready you to either run away from the threat or stay and fight the threat. So in most cases, that is entirely appropriate.

Simon Currigan  9:09  

So we've got L for life, which triggers anger, the next letter in LIFEMORTS is I which you've already kind of touched on which is insults i for insults. Now, why might insult trigger that anger response? Why might they provoke rage or anger? So what we have to think about here is life 50,000 or 100,000 years ago, where the social hierarchy as it is today was very important. But in those days, all that time ago, the social hierarchy might govern, whether you lived or died, we would live in small groups of 20 or 30 people hunter gatherers roaming across the plains, and what would happen is that people are at the top of the social ladder, they got all of the best opportunities, so they got the first opportunities to eat food or access water. They got the best resources,  they got the first opportunities to mate and ensure that their genes got passed on down the line. Now if you're lower down the social hierarchy in that situation in a world that's threatening and literally dangerous, that means you're going to get the worse opportunities, that means you're going to get, you know, the last options, when it comes to the food, you're gonna get the last pieces of resources, the bits leftover from the more dominant members of the group. And that could literally be the difference between life and death. So the human brain has been programmed to dislike insults, because it's an attempt by another human being to push us down in the social order. So our brains are reacting as if it was 50,000 years ago, and is suddenly thinking, I'm not going to get as much food, I'm not going to get as much water, I'm not going to get access to food and shelter, and the resources I need, and I might not get the opportunity to pass on my genes. And your brain is programmed to dislike that, to get angry about it and to rage against it. Now, of course, in the modern world, it doesn't mean life or death. You know, when someone throws you an insult in the classroom, or you know, even on Twitter, when someone sends you an insult, it's not life or death, although people do react like it, but it could still affect the opportunities that we get, okay. So if we're in a social group, where everyone's insulting us and pushing us down, it could affect our opportunities, if that's a work group, you know, if we're at work, and people are insulting us, that might affect our opportunities for pay and promotion. So we still don't like the way that others insults affect how other people perceive us. And you can see how this applies in school as well. When a student insults another student, their brain rails against it takes an instant dislike to this kind of downvote, that pushes them down the group. 

Emma Shackleton  11:47  

And you know, the insult that I still hear that has a huge reaction is when a child say something about another child's family member. So sometimes just two words, you know what I'm going to say, your mom, that is enough to really angry, and then a big situation kicks off. So that leads us nicely into the F of LIFEMORTS acronym, because the F trigger is family. So we are genetically hardwired to protect our family. And of course, this makes total sense, because when the family unit is strong, it means that we're much more likely to pass on our genes. And that's what biology and evolution is all about, isn't it. So with making copies of ourselves for future generations, so it's really important is inbuilt in us that we protect our gene pool so that our genes can continue to be passed down. And obviously, if somebody attacks our children, we're going to take that really seriously, because our children are carrying our future genes. So our brain responds to those threats with anger, so that we can protect our children. But when someone attacks our wider family, our siblings, our cousins, or aunts and uncles, it makes it less likely that the group will continue to function effectively as a circle that protects those genes. So it's not only about us being wired to protect our direct descendants, it's about the social circle, that protects our genes as a whole. Which is why in school you see kids get really angry when someone throws out that your mom insult or makes a verbal attack on their brother or their sister. And you see it with parents too. They get really defensive when they perceive that a teacher or the school is attacking their child. So when a member of staff wants to talk about behaviour, for example that their child has been showing in school, it's kind of they perceive the member of staff is attacking their child, but with words rather than actions. So we see this where parents get really quickly defensive. There's also a phenomenon called tiger moms, which really eloquently describes that fierce instinct in moms and dads to protect their children at all costs. So yeah, we do see this trigger in school. Family is definitely one to watch out for.

Simon Currigan  14:30  

E in LIFEMORTS stands for environment. And in this case, we're thinking about protecting our territory, which makes perfect sense in the ancient world. Going back to when we lived out on the savanna in these hunter gatherer groups. We would live in these sort of tight knit groups of about 20 to 30 people. And this group's tribe would need land and territory to survive, because the land would have resources on it, it would have water, it would have vegetables, it would have fruit, it would have animals to hunt, there'll be wood to create shelter. So actually being able to have a piece of territory you can call your own is in those ancient conditions really important for your survival. If other people were able to come and take that territory or take your resources, that diminishes your ability to stay alive and pass on your dreams, so there is always going to be anger, when someone attempts to try and do that, and today at the nation level states still fight over disputed land. And it's not always because of the resources within that land. But because both of the nations feel like that land belongs to them. They're having a kind of like this psychological reaction, this emotional reaction that the caveman would have had when someone tried to take land on territory away from them, even animals have evolved this response to protect their territory. Cats mark out their territory, and will get into battles with other cats in the neighbourhood. When those cats try and come into their land, or go across their, you know, marked out territory, because that territory has the resources they need for survival. You also see this in road rage, which I think is really, really interesting. When you think about how we walk through, say, a shopping precinct or down a busy street. There's an understanding that that is a shared territory. And we've evolved as animals to be able to share an area and walk around and avoid each other. But there's some research to show that why people get so angry when they're in a car incident and why they experience road rage is that when you're sitting within your car, it feels like your own territory, your own space. And other drivers on the road are threatening that space. So you respond with anger. So yeah, you see this in school, when you've got two children working at a table and one encroaches, we know they do, they will move the elbow across the other side half, or invades that child perceive territory. In some sense, it can spark anger, even in school, where technically the land belongs to the authority or the state. Humans naturally carve out what they perceive as their territory, it is what we're programmed to do. And you'll know this is true when you start a new job at school, you know, first day walking into a new job, and you accidentally sit in someone's favourite seat in the staff room at lunchtime before they got there. Well, technically, it wasn't their seat, but in some sense, it was their territory. And you'll see all the other staff members gasp and tell you to avoid sitting there and move to a new seat because of that natural reaction to protect territory.

Emma Shackleton  17:38  

The other social faux pas is drinking out of somebody else's mug in the staff room. Have you ever done that before? Simon? 

Simon Currigan  17:45  

Oh, yes, I have and the reaction you get! 

Emma Shackleton  17:48  

That's it, that's it mark against your name forever. So thinking about the LIFEMORTS acronym then and moving on to M, the M stands for mates. So again, in order to pass on your genes, you are going to need a mate, your genes need to be able to replicate copies of themselves, and they need another set of genes to help them do it. And in a relationship, the person that you're with is integral to this process. So our brains have evolved to get angry when another person threatens to take our mates away, because that's reducing our chances of replicating our genes. And this is probably one reason why most civilizations across the world have developed into monogamous or at least serially monogamous societies, but it's about more than just mating. The person that you're in a relationship with is part of your team, they're on your side, they're potentially helping to nurture your children so that they can pass on the genes into future generations. So even if you aren't going to have any more children, your brain is still wired to protect this little family unit. How do we see this in school? Well, yeah, this translates potentially with older children, who were starting to build relationships, or go out with each other, or starting to go on dates or starting to have romantic relationships. So often in older primary, and certainly in secondary schools, you get some of that protective behaviour, where children are getting angry or getting upset when they feel like their little unit is being threatened.

Simon Currigan  19:40  

So the next letter in LIFEMORTS is O, which is Order in society as a trigger for anger. So don't think too big picture on this one. This isn't about proportional representation or the taxation system. When we think about order in society here is a trigger for anger. It's about social justice and what happened when we as an individual perceive that social justice is broken down. So this is about fairness, and this is often the fuel for change in our society, or explains the resistance that some people have to those changes. So when a change comes, there will be people who campaigned for that change, you feel there's an unfairness in society, there's a lack of social justice. And on the opposite side, there will be people who fear that change, because society has kept them protected and safe. And they're worried that they'll no longer have the advantages and safety that they had under the old system. And what you can end up with is anger, and a lack of empathy on both sides, the side that approach change and the sides that are against change, it's this kind of trigger that tends to fuel group anger, think of areas of inequality in any area of society. And you'll see this whether it's gender rights stop and search being used disproportionately against ethnic communities, even areas like fox hunting a few years back, these issues of right and wrong, can fuel anger, which in evolutionary terms still make sense. If the group wasn't working fairly for you, then that affected your chance as an individual of surviving and the group. If the order broke down in the group, and the change came and it wasn't successful, or it deprived you of the resources you had before it's going to affect your chance of survival in the group on the savanna 50,000 years ago. Do we see this in schools? Absolutely, we do, especially as children grow older, and become more socially aware, and see the inequalities in society in life, it drives a feeling of unfairness, which results in strong emotions like anger.

Emma Shackleton  21:44  

Okay, so that brings us on to our R stands for resources. And we've kind of touched on this when we spoke about the environment. But it's a reminder that we are hardwired to protect our resources being taken away from us. And evolution has programmed us to become angry if other people tried to take our stuff. And this makes sense, because without the right resources in the wild, we're less likely to survive. And that means that we can't pass on our genes. So if other groups can easily swan in and take all of our good stuff without any resistance, well, that tribe is likely not to survive out in the world. So our brains evolved to have a response to people trying to take our things. And that response is anger. It's our fight response. So when we're faced with a situation where somebody wants to take our property, we instantly rail against it. 50,000 years ago, that instinct evolved to protect our food, our land, and our water supplies. But in the modern world, that instinct is still there. And that's why in schools kids get angry when someone leans over and takes their pencil, or they take their rubber, or they pick up their lunchbox, even if it's a mistake. It's not the pencil or the rubber or the lunchbox per se, it's their amygdala firing up and responding to that as an enemy tribe, invading their territory, and taking their necessary resources. And this is a real trigger that we see in schools. 

Simon Currigan  23:30  

T stands for tribe, which is another anger trigger. And here again, we're back to our ancestors, their need to live in a social group for survival. And what's interesting about humans is we are a social animal. And we are interdependent on the people around us to be able to survive, we can't live on our own. Cats, as I record this, I've got my cat, Mittens, who's sleeping next to me, cats are solitary animals, they have evolved to survive as individuals in the in the wild, they don't tend to come together in herds like we do. The herd is essential for survival. And the tribe that we were a part of was an extension in a way of our family, the tribe we live in is part of the system, we have to help us survive in the wild. Now there's a genetic component to our tribe as well. In our original hunter gatherer groups, when we lived in these groups of 20, 30, 40 people, there was a very strong chance we would be related to other members of our tribe, or at least share some genes with them, our tribe would look like us. And the interesting thing about that is, that means we're actually genetically programmed to trust and like people who look similar to us, compared to people who don't, they're more likely to be part of that in group, our tribe, the people we would need to survive in the natural world. If they didn't look like us. They were more likely to be from an attacking tribe. It's one of those built in unconscious biases that we have in our genes, protecting this larger group, this tribe obviously was essential for success, which is why it's also a trigger for anger in the human brain, you attack my tribe, you reduce my chances of survival. And when you think about it, racism is based on this trigger. Religious wars are based on this trigger, gangs fighting each other in our cities are based on this trigger. So this is a trigger that you might see in school, or cause for a child to get strong emotions, not because of an attack against them personally, but an attack against their tribe, their ingroup, even their football team. 

Emma Shackleton  25:37  

So that brings us nicely on to the letter S in our acronym LIFEMORTS, and S is for stopped. Nobody likes to be stopped from pursuing their desires or basic human needs. This made perfect sense in evolutionary terms 50,000 years ago. And it still makes sense today, because when someone takes away our free will, they limit our choices, and limited choices means that we are less likely to survive. This is why people get angry, for example, when they're stuck in a queue for customer service is on the phone, you have an issue with the bank that you need to remedy, but you're being prevented from speaking to the person who can solve the problem, because you're stuck in a 45 minute wait, or a phone tree that won't let you speak to a human being in the first place. That generates frustration because we feel like there's a barrier to overcoming our problem, we feel like something or someone is stopping us. We like as a species to have free will over our actions. And this is especially true as we get older, none of us enjoy feeling thwarted, to use a brilliant 19th century word or blocked. And the result often triggers anger. In fact, there's actually a term for this. It's called psychological reactance. For how we feel when we feel that someone is taking our choices, or free will away. It's that deep sense of frustration when you're told that you have to do something, or when you're told that you're not allowed to do something. Do we see this in classrooms? Of course we do, especially as children get older. And this one being stopped is closely linked to a key word that is a massive trigger for anger in lots of children. And that word is no. And I'm sure we've all come across pupils where when we use the word no, immediately there's a flare up of anger. People don't like being told that they can't do things or that they can't have things.

Simon Currigan  27:52  

That was a quick explanation of the LIFEMORTS or the common triggers for anger. As researched by R Douglas Fields. They were L, life or death threats. 

Emma Shackleton  28:03  

I for insults, 

Simon Currigan  28:05  

F for family, 

Emma Shackleton  28:06  

E for environment, or think of this one is territory, 

Simon Currigan  28:10  

M for mates, 

Emma Shackleton  28:12  

O, order in society

Simon Currigan  28:15  

R for resources 

Emma Shackleton  28:16  

T for tribe, that bigger group that protects us, 

Simon Currigan  28:20  

and S for being stopped. 

Emma Shackleton  28:22  

So I hope you find that useful today helpful for understanding why you might see some children become heightened. And even if they're not able to put it into words for themselves, it might help to explain why they have become triggered.

Simon Currigan  28:37  

Absolutely. And remember, the amygdala thinks in emotions and not words. So even though you might be asking children which of these is a trigger, the student experiencing them might not be able to express it in words. They just experienced the anger and the emotion around it. If you found today's episode useful. Don't forget to share it with your friends or colleagues using the share button in your podcast app. So we can get this information out to as many teachers, school leaders and parents as possible. 

Emma Shackleton  29:04  

And that's all we've got time for today. We hope you have a brilliant week and can't wait to see you on the next episode of School Behavour Secrets. Bye now

Simon Currigan  29:13  


(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)