What Every Teacher Should Know About The Anger Cycle (And Why It Matters)

What Every Teacher Should Know About The Anger Cycle (And Why It Matters)

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Knowing what to say and do when a child becomes angry (or highly anxious) can be difficult. One wrong move and the child's emotions can seem to explode!

The secret to de-escalation is understanding the anger cycle - the biological changes that lead to the fight-flight-or-freeze responses that are so difficult to manage in school. In this episode of School Behaviour Secrets, we look at the key stages of the anger cycle - and how to adjust your response for each one, so you approach de-escalation calmly and successfully.

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Show notes / transcription

Simon Currigan  0:00  

De-escalation is about responding in a specific way to each stage of the anger cycle. So the techniques that work at the start of the anger cycle might not be effective on the other side of the anger cycle, get your response wrong, and you might find new actually escalate the child's emotions and behaviour, despite your best intentions. 

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. Welcome to school behaviour secrets, the door is open, but please leave your shoes by the front door. We've just had a new carpet fitted. My name is Simon Currigan. And this is my co host Emma Shackleton. Hello, Emma.

Emma Shackleton  1:10  

Hi there.

Simon Currigan  1:11  

Emma I've been thinking  and wondering, a little attachment theory joke there. What's the one thing that a students done to you that's really annoyed you or wound you up?

Emma Shackleton  1:20  

Well, there are a few things that I can think of from teaching mostly in pupil referral units. Actually, you do need to develop a really thick skin and most behaviours don't get to me personally anymore. Apart from two that I can think of in particular, one is getting physically hurt by a pupil myself. One example is when a child threw a computer mouse, and it bounced off my face, and that really hurt. And the second is when children physically hurt each other. Sometimes it would look as if a child had just gone up to another child and hurt them for no reason. Now, of course, I do understand that there always was an underlying reason. But sometimes it just looked like they got up, got out of their seat, went over to another child hit them or kicked them. And that really used to wind me up because it felt so pointless. Also, I felt like I had failed the child who'd got hurt by not being able to protect them. What about you, Simon? What gets you angry?

Simon Currigan  2:21  

I can think of two examples from the pupil referral unit as well, which is if you don't know it's a small school for kids who've been permanently excluded from school. I had someone spit in my face once that wasn't so great had a bit of a psychological and physiological reaction to that. And also I remember walking down a corridor to leave the centre and a child and his parent were walking just down the corridor they both seem calm and completely unexpectedly without any warning whatsoever. The child who I didn't even teach or know particularly just turned around and booted me in the knee. Because it was an ambush, a surprise attack and I just wasn't mentally prepared for it kind of gave me that shot of adrenaline my body was like on defence immediately. I asked because when you feel under attack, that's when our body starts to produce stress chemicals, which kickstart a process called the anger cycle. And that's what we're going to look at today. Understanding the anger cycle is crucial because when we're trying to de-escalate a student who's lost control of their emotions, we need to react in a way that responds to their biology,

Emma Shackleton  3:21  

You mean work with their body chemistry rather than against it?

Simon Currigan  3:25  

Absolutely. It's like you read my mind and the script.

Emma Shackleton  3:29  

But before we reveal the secrets of the anger cycle I have a request to make if you find today's episode useful help other teachers and school leaders find the podcast by giving us a rating and review on Apple podcasts. Please. Reviews tell Apple to recommend school behaviour secrets to other podcast listeners. And that way they can find the show and start getting the help that they need to support the children in their classrooms.

Simon Currigan  3:54  

Okay, then that's the formalities over let's pull out the chocks, firmly crank the engine and get this rusty old biplane we call behaviour off the ground and into the glorious skies above.

Emma Shackleton  4:05  

Okay, so the anger cycle is related to an evolutionary behaviour that we developed as humans to keep us alive in survival situations. So imagine a caveman walking out of his cave and seeing a Sabre toothed Tiger anger is a way of coping with that stress by attacking the threat. Of course, you could also run away from the threat. And that's one way of thinking about anxiety. It's kind of the flip side of anger. So it's another way of surviving against a perceived threat.

Simon Currigan  4:38  

So if you're listening to this now, I want you to imagine a hill because the anger cycle is shaped a bit like a hill. And it explains to us what happens to the stress chemicals in our body when we're in one of those survival situations.

Emma Shackleton  4:51  

So what happens with our students is even though they might not be in a real life or death situation, this response misfires, their brains are reacting as if they were in real danger as if a danger was in the room with them. Their circuits are a little miss wired. And so their brain fires up even when the threat is not real. It's actually a perceived threat, something that they think or believe to be threatening.

Simon Currigan  5:20  

So let's think about why all this is important. Why is the anger cycle important? Well, it's because de-escalation is about responding in a specific way to each stage of the anger cycle. So the techniques that work at the start of the anger cycle might not be effective on the other side of the anger cycle, get your response wrong, and you might find new actually escalate the child's emotions and behaviour, despite your best intentions. So it's about matching the right technique, with where the child is in the anger cycle at that specific time.

Emma Shackleton  5:53  

So it's kind of like thinking about that hill and thinking about each stage of the hill and making sure that our response matches the child to where they are on the hill.

Simon Currigan  6:03  

I think that's perfect. 

I'd Just like to take a pause for a moment and say that if you're finding this podcast useful, then you're going to 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 on behaviour inspiration to get you unstuck with classroom behaviour. We've got training resources on de-escalation, supporting kids with anxiety support strategies for conditions like autism, ADHD, and PDA. practical ways of helping pupils deal with strong emotions, assertive behaviour management techniques for managing the whole classroom, setting out your classroom environment for success, resetting behaviour with tricky classes, and more. Our online videos walk you through practical solutions step by step, just like Netflix, you can turn an inner circle subscription on or off whenever you need to, with no minimum contract. Plus, you can now get your first seven days of inner circle for just one pound. Get the behaviour answers in you've been looking forward today with inner circle visit to beaconschoolsupport.co.uk. And click on the inner circle picture near the top of the homepage for more information.

Emma Shackleton  7:22  

So let's look at the ascent them. So we start off with the trigger, we see the tiger for example. And our amygdala fires up and we start producing adrenaline and noradrenaline. If you're listening in a different part of the world, or in medical circles, you may hear these chemicals called by different names epinephrine and norepinephrine. But because everyone kind of knows what adrenalin is, we'll stick with that terminology for now.

Simon Currigan  7:49  

So imagine our Hill. In stage one, we're walking up the assent to that hill, we're walking up the left hand side of the hill, and we're moving upwards. And that kind of represents the fact that we're producing more and more of these stress chemicals, adrenaline and noradrenaline. And they work together to prepare us for this potentially dangerous confrontation.

Emma Shackleton  8:10  

So the job of the stress released hormones is to kick start us into action, and prepare us for survival mode. We need to be able to look out for threats and deal with them when they come along. This will lead to an increase in heart rate increased breathing rates. Also, as a result of this reaction, the liver dumps sugar into our bloodstream. Sugar is needed for energy to power our muscles and blood is redirected around our bodies to the areas where it's needed most usually arms and legs, hands and feet,

Simon Currigan  8:46  

Our brain also changes as a result of these hormone changes. So our brain will become very focused on what's happening now. We will stop thinking about what's going to happen later in the day or tomorrow or the day after. In a life or death situation, you need 100% of your attention focused on the threat in front of you. Some people describe this as the red mist where we're watching very, very carefully prepared for any kind of attack. You'll see this on the playground. Sometimes two kids have a fight and you have to split them up. You'll see them watching each other intently to see what's going to happen next, and they can't focus on anything else. And the third impact which is important is that it affects our ability to lay down long term memories because in a fight or flight situation in a survival situation. Laying down long term memories isn't a priority. We're focused on survival in the moment.

Emma Shackleton  9:41  

So at this stage, our aim is to remove pressure and further stress from the student if we've been vigilant and noticed physical changes as a result of these neurobiological changes. For example, we might notice a pupils faces become flushed or we can see tension their muscles, or we might notice that they make changes in their eye contact, we might just be able to get in there quickly with a de-escalation strategy such as distraction, for example, or moving the threat away and out of sight.

Simon Currigan  10:16  

Assuming that those strategies don't work, and we continue to feel more pressured, eventually, we'll walk to the very top of the hill. And this is where we can't cope with any more pressure and our bodies, launches into one of four survival behaviours.

Emma Shackleton  10:31  

So the first of those four states is fight. This is our anger response, our body is fired up, and we become ready to fight and  fight to the death.

Simon Currigan  10:42  

The second is flight. That's where we run away as quickly as possible from the thing that we're perceiving as a threat.

Emma Shackleton  10:50  

The third state is freeze. This is where we become very still very quiet. This is an evolutionary response that animals have developed, it's a way of not getting noticed and hoping that the threat will pass us by hoping that if we stay still enough, the tiger will walk on past us. You see it, sometimes in children, when they shut down, so they're standing in front of you, they might be wide eyed. They're not responding, they're not talking, they're not moving, they're not engaging, and they've gone into freeze mode.

Simon Currigan  11:25  

And the fourth, which is related to freeze is playing dead and you'll see animals do this they'll lie down, or you might see someone who's being attacked, they might lie on the floor and actually pretend to be unconscious or dead in the hope that the attacker will then move away.

Emma Shackleton  11:39  

So the de-escalation focus at this stage is keeping the child physically safe and well away from the threat. At the peak of this hill at the top of this hill, the crisis points if you like. It's all about simple safety messages. And not further overloading the child with too much talk or too much stimulation, it's all about keeping them safe.

Simon Currigan  12:02  

So to bring it back to our caveman, our caveman has imagine ran away from the Sabre toothed Tiger or in school, the child has run away from the thing that's causing them to feel unsafe and threatened. Stage Three is the descent. So we've gone across the top of the hill. And now we start to walk down the other side of the hill. This is where our bodies recognise that the immediate threat has gone. Now on the way down the hill. And I promise this show isn't sponsored by the grand old Duke of York, we stay very alert to threats, even though outwardly we may look more calm. Our bodies still have tonnes of adrenaline and noradrenaline. What's happening is our bodies are draining those quantities down. So we are starting to feel more calm and relaxed. However, we are poised and scanning for that threat to reappear.

Emma Shackleton  12:54  

So any threat that is spotted, or a perceived threat, remember, and we shoot straight back up into fight or flight mode. So this is actually a really dangerous time when we're trying to help children de-escalate their behaviours, we might feel like they've come past the crisis point, they might look like they're calming down. I've actually had children who've said to me, I'm okay, now Miss. And I've thought great, they're calm, actually, the moment that you mentioned the thing that went wrong, or the moment that they perceive there to be another threat, maybe they think you're going to tell them off, or there's going to be a consequence issued, then boom, they're straight back up into that peak. So this is a really tricky, dangerous time they remain in that hyper vigilant state. They're continually scanning for threats, it might be the existing threat, like the tiger coming back, or it might be a new threat now.

Simon Currigan  13:53  

So classic example, maybe you have two kids who have been fighting out on the playground, the adults come in and move those kids apart, the kid's breathing slows down, they start to look a little more calm. So what do the adults do to resolve the situation, they bring the kids back together. And because those kids are still on the inside, still scanning for threats, you bring them together with the thing that caused the outburst in the first place, you're bringing them back together with that perceived threat. And boom, you get another incident or an emotional outburst from one of the kids.

Emma Shackleton  14:25  

So at this stage, the adult response has got to be all about focusing on calming the child and keeping them away from the threat. So it might be moving the threat away, or it might be moving them away from the threat if they're able to. And that will allow the stress hormones to dissipate without any further flare up.

Simon Currigan  14:46  

So let's imagine our Hill and our journey so far. So we started at ground level. We walked up the hill and that kind of represented the increase in stress chemicals in our body. At the top of the hill. We have our fight or flight route. reaction where we either try to fight the thing that was causing us a perceived threat or run away from it, we've had the walk down the hill on the opposite side where our body chemistry is coming back under control, but we're still scanning for threats. Now we've reached ground level on the opposite side, what actually happens is we dip down into a small Valley and we need to go down a little way before we can come back up to ground level again.

Emma Shackleton  15:24  

So this stage is sometimes referred to as like a body chemistry crash. Because the adrenaline and noradrenaline are draining away, the blood sugar levels are stabilising in our bloodstream. This is a difficult time children when they've experienced this big outburst or crisis point. After that, they can be very overly emotional, they might be overly remorseful, they might be tearful, they might be sleepy, this period is sometimes referred to as a period of depression. So working in pupil referral units, I've seen children who completely lost control, maybe they've trashed a classroom, for example, and then afterwards, they've actually laid out on the floor and gone to sleep. It's very, very exhausting to go through the stress response cycle.

Simon Currigan  16:14  

So at this moment, there's no point in trying to resolve the original issue, what we need to do is focus on resettling the child emotionally and physiologically, because at the moment they're below ground level, we need to get them through the valley up and back to ground level on the opposite side.

Emma Shackleton  16:31  

So the final stage then is getting them back to that normal level and back to their normal running, the number of chemicals in our systems are returning to normal baseline, whatever that baseline may be for that child. And don't forget that that baseline does vary from person to person, you'll find that some people never actually returned to fully calm and fully relaxed, but you're trying to get them back to their normal, now's the time to deal with the issue productively. So now is the point where you'll be able to have a logical rational conversation, now's the time to try to plan ahead for what to do differently next time. So this is where the learning brain kicks back in. This is where you can have a valuable conversation about what happened.

Simon Currigan  17:22  

So now is the time to talk about what happened using whatever processes and systems you've got in your school to discuss the incident and to resolve what happened. And if that involves consequences or phone calls to parents, now is the time to put them in place. Remember, the point of this conversation is that it's a learning conversation. And we're making sure the child's brain is ready to absorb that learning so they can make better choices next time. So remember, at each step of the anger cycle, we need to adjust our response as the adult so we can de-escalate or manage a behaviour incident successfully by matching our response to where the child is on their journey up and down the hill or in the valley.

Emma Shackleton  17:22  

And I just want to add in here, although Simon's given the analogy of walking up the hill, of course, some children go from the bottom of that metaphorical hill to the top very, very quickly. So you'll get some kids who go from nought to 100 in a matter of seconds. For other people, they might be slow burners, it might take them a while to get angry, it might take a while until they reach their peak of that anger and equally coming down the hill. The other side, the speed of that de-escalation will vary from person to person. And we go back to what we always say about getting to know the children individually, no two people's stress response will look identical. Even if the stressor is the same, their reactions could well be different. So quick recap. Then the five stages were one the ascent where we focus on removing pressure and further stress from the student.

Simon Currigan  18:59  

Step two is fight flight freeze or play dead where we're most focused on keeping the child physically safe, and getting the child away from that perceived threat. 

Emma Shackleton  19:09  

Step three is the descent where we focus on calming the child and keeping them away from the threat.

Simon Currigan  19:15  

Step four is the dip or the valley where we focus on resettling the child emotionally and psychologically after their body chemistry crash

Emma Shackleton  19:23  

And Step five is getting back to normal running and now is the time to deal with the incident in a productive and logical way.

Simon Currigan  19:31  

You can't go faster than the child's biology. If you do try to rush to deal with the issue before that biology is ready. The result will be chaos and prolonged emotional outbursts.

Emma Shackleton  19:42  

And of course, difficulties with emotional regulation could be caused by underlying special needs. So if you work with kids with challenging behaviour, and you're just not sure why they're acting that way, we've got a download that might be able to help. It's called the SEN handbook and the will help you link behaviours that you've seen in your classroom with possible causes like autism and ADHD or attachment. The idea here isn't for teachers to make a diagnosis. Of course, we're not qualified to do that. But if we're able to link behaviours to possible causes quickly, it means that we can get the right help and get early intervention strategies in place. It's a free download, go to the website, www.beaconschoolsupport.co.uk. Click on free resources near the top and we'll also put a link in the episode description. If you find today's podcast useful. Why not be a great mate and recommend it to one friend. You could either send them a message or simply use the share button in your podcast app.

Simon Currigan  20:48  

And then other teachers and school leaders can find the show and start getting the help they need to support the kids in their classrooms.

Emma Shackleton  20:55  

Next week. We're going to talk to Janine Dodds. Janine is a school leader who's going to share about how her school has implemented restorative practice so that you can learn from her mistakes and leapfrog her success in your own setting.

Simon Currigan  21:10  

If you've liked what you've heard, and you don't want to miss that interview, open your podcast app now and press the subscribe button that will tell your app to download every new episode as it's released and save it for you so you never miss a thing.

Emma Shackleton  21:24  

Thank you for listening to the show. We hope you have a great week and we look forward to seeing you on the next episode of school behaviour secrets. Bye for now. 

Simon Currigan  21:33  


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