Why Anger Management Programmes Don't Work

Why Anger Management Programmes Don't Work

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Trying to support your students with anger issues - but feel like your intervention isn't making the progress your pupils deserve? Then it's time to identify the obstacles in the way of your group's (and your pupils') success.

In today's episode, we look at the factors that prevent anger management programmes from having an impact, and review the evidence about how well they work in schools - so you have everything you need to set your anger management programme up for success.

This episode is sponsored by Team Satchel.

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Show notes / transcription

Simon Currigan  0:00  

This episode has been sponsored by our friends at Team Satchel, head to the episode description to find out more about their special discount on all of their behaviour management tools.

Emma Shackleton  0:09  

To make an impact, the child themselves actually has to want to change. If the child's view is fixed, it's everybody else's problem, and they don't take responsibility for their behaviour, then you can give them all the strategies in the world, but they're unlikely to use them when they need them because they don't actually believe that they need to change their behaviour.

Simon Currigan  0:33  

Hi there, and welcome to school behaviour secrets. Thank you so much for joining us today. We're glad to have you here. Please be warned. This is a thrill ride, not suitable for expectant mothers or those with lower back pain. My name is Simon Currigan. And this is my co host, Emma Shackleton. Hi, Emma.

Emma Shackleton  1:28  

Hi there.

Simon Currigan  1:29  

Emma, I've got a question for you.

Emma Shackleton  1:31  

Well, there's a surprise.

Simon Currigan  1:32  

I'm wondering if you ever get angry? And if you do, what's your own personal strategy for calming down?

Emma Shackleton  1:39  

Well, I've probably said this in previous episodes that it does take quite a lot for me to get angry. But when I do, I've learned that what I need to do is taking myself away from the situation and spend time on my own. So I guess time to decompress and allow myself to calm down and be able to start thinking rationally again. But I've got to say nobody taught me this stuff at school, I had to pretty much figure it out for myself, and I probably didn't work it out until my teenage years. I also find that writing things down can help too. But what about you, Simon? Do you have a personal favourite de escalation strategy that works for you? And how did you learn that strategy?

Simon Currigan  2:21  

For me, it's focusing on my breathing, I find that really brings me into the now and helps distract me away from the thing that's causing me to be angry or frustrated. And I learned that technique when I was much younger, I used to attend Aikido classes, which is a form of martial arts. And there was a lot of focus on breathing in that. And that's how I learned that technique.

Emma Shackleton  2:39  

I didn't think that these days schools are much better at helping children to learn these types of strategies for equipping them to cope with strong emotions. It's not uncommon here in the UK for schools to focus on interventions such as anger management groups. So a place where students can really learn a range of strategies to help to calm themselves down. However, many schools report that this type of intervention doesn't have much impact. In fact, what tends to happen is the same kids are referred to these groups year after year after year. And I think I've worked out why many groups that focus on strategy building, miss out a crucial step. And that's what we're going to focus on in today's episode.

Simon Currigan  3:26  

So you mean by adding one simple step that we'll share with our listeners today they can improve the success rate of anger management interventions

Emma Shackleton  3:35  

Absolutely Are you in?

Simon Currigan  3:37  

I'm in, but before we reveal the secret missing ingredient in this de escalation recipe 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. Reviews tell Apple to recommend school behaviour secrets to other podcast listeners. And that's why they can find the show and start getting the help they need to support the children in their classrooms. Okay, then action time. Let's grab a burger, tease open the buns and extract the pickled gherkin we call behaviour.

Emma Shackleton  4:11  

Okay, so the way we're going to do this today is we've got five key questions to ask ourselves when contemplating the effectiveness of running anger management interventions.

Simon Currigan  4:22  

So the first of those questions is why do schools decide to run interventions such as anger management groups? Well, schools today are really good at recognising skills gaps, they can see that a child isn't succeeding because there's something that they can't yet do. It might be a social skill, it might be an emotional regulation skill, but that missing skill is causing them frustration or anger or a difficulty out on the playground or in the classroom. So you might have a child who goes out every down to the playground and gets into arguments with other kids about football. Perhaps they get really upset when their team lose. They try to dominate the game, they get very frustrated when they're tackled by other children. And that lack of coping skills means they're not able to engage productively or cope with the frustrations or annoyances or the complex social interactions involved in being a students in school.

Emma Shackleton  5:15  

And we often find that it's a small handful of pupils who keep on getting it wrong. So they're the ones who keep exploding in the playground. Or maybe they keep walking out of class, or they keep getting into trouble with staff and their friends day after day after day. And it takes a lot of time and energy for the adults to sort out these types of disputes or fights. For example, usually what happens is at least one adult ends up babysitting or following that pupil around or trying to keep them safe because they're still really angry or worked up, and it can take a very long time for them to calm down. And for the adults this can feel like a massive time sink. Wouldn't it be better if the kids could just use some strategies and calm themselves down? That's what schools are trying to do when they set up anger management groups,

Team Satchel  6:11  

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Simon Currigan  6:41  

So before we get on to addressing why kids are unable to access those strategies, let's think about what does an anger management intervention look like or a social skills intervention look like? So what we're describing here is a small number of pupils who are withdrawn from lessons on a regular basis to meet in a designated space with the same member of staff each week to work on that skills deficit, that skills gap. These are people that have been identified often by teachers who are working with them who are personal knowledge of them, and recognise that they're having issues integrating with their peers or regulating their emotions. Some schools will identify pupils by behaviour records. So if you've got a online electronic behaviour system, that records events, many schools use the frequency of those events and review how many events they're getting, or how many incidents they're getting for their children on a kind of weekly basis, or a monthly basis to help identify who needs this additional support. And then, of course, when you're thinking about who goes into the group, what you really have to focus on here is group dynamics, what we don't want to do is put eight really difficult explosive children in the same group together, because the group dynamics just make it impossible to do any valuable work. So it's not just the needs of the individual children that's important. It's how those children get on with each other or Fallout, the personality clashes that we have to think about. And certainly my experience with anger management groups that we're thinking about today, you're much better off looking at a much smaller group, maybe of two or three children than you are looking at a big group.

Emma Shackleton  8:19  

Yeah, definitely, I would much prefer to run two or three smaller groups, then try and stick all the kids in one group together. Thinking that you might save time, when actually, as you've already identified, Simon, that group just becomes unworkable and unteachable. And actually, nobody learns from that type of session, when we're setting up this type of intervention, it's really important to make sure that we get consistency of adults and get the routines consistent as well. So in an ideal world, I always recommend to schools that they strive to have the same members of staff leading the group. So say it's going to be six or 12 week intervention. For example, earmark one member of staff who's going to run that group every time and try to keep the routines as much the same as they possibly can be from week to week, so where you can go for the same time of day, try and keep to the same room. The reason I mentioned this is because lots of children who need an anger management group or a social skills group, lots of them are battling with underlying anxieties. So where we can provide consistency and predictability, we can help to alleviate some of that anxiety. So that actually when they come to the group, they are able to be in a learning brain state and able to take in what we're trying to teach in the group. So it's important that the adult time is protected and timetabled so they don't get pulled to do something else, and that they've got a suitable space to work and we keep to that session and that time and that place every week that makes the group feel important and You're valuable, what I've sometimes see is schools very well meaningly, setting up groups like this, identifying the children that need to work in that group, but then actually, the member of staff then has to go and cover a class, or they have to go to swimming, or they have to deal with first aid. And they have to say to the children, oh, sorry, kids, we can't run the group today, because I'm too busy, or because I've got to do something else. And that really, really devalues the work. It sends the message to the pupils that actually, this work is not that important and not that valuable.

Simon Currigan  10:32  

We also need to think about how long we run the group for not just the duration of the sessions, whether they are half an hour or an hour long. But how many sessions are we going to need. And we need to be realistic here about the amount of inputs required to get a significant boost in our kids the ability to regulate their emotions and deal with anger and deal with frustration. There's a really interesting piece of work done by Professor Katherine Weir, who put together a review of the evidence in NCB report all about promoting social and emotional well being. And she looked at lots of different studies. And this is what she found, I'm quoting here. So I'm going to shift into my quoting voice schools often do not provide interventions that are intense or lengthy enough to make a long term difference. Single brief interventions, one offs have never been shown to make a sustained impact. The overwhelming evidence is that interventions generally need substantial time and regular practice to produce benefits, on average, at least nine months to a year, especially for deeper and broader areas, such as well being improving behaviour, and a response to more severe problems such as violence, bullying, anger, and preventing mental disorders. So nine months to a year is the kind of commitment you need to make to see a sustained change, not a flash in the pan. But there are long term difference that we're all seeking for to help our students manage their emotions.

Emma Shackleton  11:58  

So thinking about the effectiveness of the group, man is really important. And we've got to think about why are the pupils there? So why are these children getting angry and reacting so explosively in the first place, and if you like, you can go right back to podcast, Episode 11, which is called four reasons some kids get angry so quickly for a little bit of insight into this problem. And then it's really important that we build in some sort of impact measure. So we're able to quantify the difference that we're making, often it can be a bit hit and miss. So teachers might say, yeah, the child seems to be a bit calmer now. Or even parents might say, since they've been coming to the group, they've been getting better with their brothers and sisters at home. But this is all anecdotal evidence. So it's important that we build in something concrete, where we can measure a before and after, so that we can show that what we are doing is making a difference.

Simon Currigan  12:58  

Often the focus in anger management groups is about teaching specific strategies for the children to use once they become angry. And that's going to make it difficult to show progress, then we'll talk a little bit about why in a moment. So when we're thinking about specific anger management techniques, we're talking about things like breathing techniques and mindfulness counting to 10, walking away going to get an adult to resolve the situation for them. But here's why it's difficult to show progress. Because often you'll sit in the group and you will talk to the kids, then you say what should you do? Should you hit it? or shouldn't hit him, sir, what should you do? Instead, I should go and do my counting on my mindfulness breathing in the corner, bright, brilliant, it gives you all the right answers in the anger management group. And then three minutes later, they go out on the playground and hit someone. So although kids can often name these techniques, when they're calm in a session in the room, where you're running the anger management sessions in that safe, calm environment, actually, they have a lot of trouble then translating that theory into practice in the real world.

Emma Shackleton  13:58  

Absolutely. And it's different, isn't it in the context of when you are angry. And the problem tends to be because when children get angry or anxious or overwhelmed, it's a really strong emotion that can come on really quickly. We've all worked with children who go from nought to 100, in you know, a few seconds. So because that feeling comes so quickly, it can be difficult for us to be in a position to deploy the strategies that we've learned, because what we know is when we go into that fight or flight, so when our amygdala is fired up, and we go into what we call amygdala hijack, the prefrontal cortex takes a backseat, the logical part of the brain where the strategies are stored, isn't accessible. So at that moment, it's too late to use those strategies. And there are plenty of children who get overcome with emotion, do things that they regret and feel very sorry and sad about it later, and they don't want to behave in that way. And they Do know the strategies such as breathing, such as mindfulness, but they just aren't able to deploy those strategies, because the feeling has come on so quickly. They've gone into amygdala hijack they've acted before they thought about putting the strategies into place, and everything's gone wrong.

Simon Currigan  15:16  

So the research into this backs up that view about this kind of mixed or limited level of effectiveness to anger management groups have there was a meta analysis or anger management groups. So a meta analysis is where scientists and researchers just take lots and lots of different studies, and they look for comparisons between them, see if they can pull out any sort of wider conclusions. They looked at 60 studies between 1979 and 2010, now found out that the impact of anger management groups was small to moderate. So there was an impact. But it wasn't massive, they weren't making huge gains. And another study that looked at the impact of anger and aggression treatments, this time on adults found that anger treatments consistently demonstrated moderate effectiveness. And then on the other hand, some reviews of individual programmes do actually show good results. But then when you dig into those studies, the way those researchers are demonstrating their evidence and collecting that evidence can really be called into question. So the research on this is a very mixed bag, but the impact is generally limited.

Emma Shackleton  16:20  

And of course, to make an impact, the child themselves actually has to want to change, they need to be happy to use the strategies given to them by the adults. If the child's view is fixed, that it's everybody else's problem, and they don't take responsibility for their behaviour, then you can give them all the strategies in the world, but they're unlikely to use them in the classroom or in social time when they need them because they don't actually believe that they need to change their behaviour. Maybe their behaviour is serving a purpose for them.

Simon Currigan  16:59  

I 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 and 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 beaconschoolsupport.co.uk dot uk and click on the inner circle picture near the top of the homepage for more information. So let's think about the cost of running anger management groups. Really, they're not that cheap. If you think of having to run an intervention for nine months to a year to have a significant impact, then you need to think about the wages of the person who's running the group, whether that's a learning mentor, a counsellor, a teaching assistant, they're gonna be tied up with a small group. And that means they can't be deployed to support children elsewhere with academic interventions or supporting in the classroom. And if you add up those wages over those sort of 50 weeks or so that's a considerable sum, you've also got the cost of using the room. I mean, that's fairly low cost in terms of pounds and pence. But if you are limited in scope for the amount of space you've got for running interventions, then that means if you're using the room for an anger management group on a Thursday afternoon for an hour, you can't be using that room for anything else. And also, many schools then invest in resources like like books and curriculums to support the anger management group. And that sometimes can be quite a big investment to

Emma Shackleton  19:16  

also training for staff as well. So there are training courses available and staff might do a whole day or half day training. So that kind of cost can add up as well. Arguably, there is a cost to the children from missing their lessons to go out to an intervention as well say a child is coming out to an anger management class, but they're missing their art lesson. That might be the time of the week where they really excel that might be the lesson that they love that they're really good at it might be their only successful time in school, and the only time that their peers see them in a positive light. So actually the cost of they're missing that session in terms of their social standing and their peer interactions and their esteem is is actually quite large. So Simon thinking about what we've said In this episode, are we saying then that we shouldn't bother running anger management groups in schools?

Simon Currigan  20:09  

Is this where we should have a drum roll? No, we're not saying that. What we're saying is that too many anger management interventions are focusing on giving the kids strategies to use once they are angry. And as you've already said, ever, once you are angry, the part of the brain that you need to access those strategies, the prefrontal cortex is kind of taken offline, to the very part of the brain you need to implement the strategies isn't available to you when you're angry. So we're being reactive rather than proactive. The key is getting the kids to take early intervention at much earlier stage when they're starting to get frustrated. That's when the strategies need to be put in place. It's about when they use the strategies much earlier on, rather than waiting until it's too late. And that's the difference between self control and self regulation. See our episode on self regulation with Dr. Stuart Shanker for more information. And we know from studies that self control is a really poor way to manage any form of behaviour. It's called ego depletion. There is some doubt over whether ego depletion is a real thing Exactly. But there are lots of studies that when we're put in a situation where we have to exercise self control, that self control runs out and fast, there was a researcher called Roy Baumeister, and he had a really interesting study, he set up his lab, and he invited one group of students in to eat some freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Oh, this

Emma Shackleton  21:33  

sounds like my kind of science.

Simon Currigan  21:35  

Well, you wouldn't be in the first group, because the second group that came in was shown the plate of freshly baked cookies, and then asked to resist them and merge on radishes instead, then he gave each group an impossible geometry puzzle to solve and watch to see how long it took them to give up on the impossible puzzle. Well, the students who were just given the cookies worked on the puzzle for 20 minutes on average, but the students who had to use self control and resisted the delicious cookies and ate the radishes gave up after an average of eight minutes. So that shows using self control in one arena effects our ability to exercise self control down the line, as self control runs out. And I think anyone who's ever been on a diet, or tried an exercise programme probably can relate to that at some level. So going

Emma Shackleton  22:23  

back to our points about whether we should or shouldn't run anger management groups, we've got to think about what we said at the beginning. And that is that most interventions have repeat offenders. So kids who keep on coming back to the group when they're calm, they can talk all about what they should have done when they got mad, but they're rarely able to implement the strategies at the right time. So the missing ingredient that we've already talked about really is that kids need to learn about their physiology, so that they understand when to apply their anger management strategies. So the first thing we need to teach them is about self awareness and understanding that that big feeling is coming in time for them to put the strategy in place.

Simon Currigan  23:09  

So what did we learn today that we can pass on to our colleagues who may be delivering anger management interventions, or in our own work with helping pupils to develop the skills to recognise, name and manage strong emotions.

Emma Shackleton  23:22  

The key takeaways from today's episode were number one, anger management groups are a useful targeted intervention where pupils have gaps in their skills which are preventing them from being successful.

Simon Currigan  23:34  

They are small groups with carefully thought out dynamics run consistently by skilled adults for a long period if you want to get the best results.

Emma Shackleton  23:44  

Anger Management interventions need thought out impact measures to prove their success.

Simon Currigan  23:49  

Anger Management interventions can be costly in time for students and staff, so they better be worth it.

Emma Shackleton  23:56  

And without teaching about physiology, so without teaching the children about their brains and bodies, most anger management groups will never be truly effective.

Simon Currigan  24:06  

Of course, difficulties with emotional regulation can be caused by underlying special needs, such as ADHD, ASC or attachment.

Emma Shackleton  24:15  

So if you work with kids with challenging behaviour, and you're not sure why they're acting that way, we've got a download that can help. It's called the fcn Handbook, and it will help you link to behaviours that you've seen in the classroom with possible causes, like autism and ADHD. The idea here isn't for teachers to make a diagnosis. We're not qualified to do that. But if we link behaviours to possible causes quickly, it means that we can get the right help and early intervention strategies in place. It's a free download, go to the website, www dot beaconschoolsupport.co.uk dot co.uk. Click on free resources near the top and we'll also put a link in the episode disk

Simon Currigan  25:00  

We really hope you found today's episode useful. If you did, and you know a colleague, he would benefit from learning about our tips for anger management interventions, please pass on this episode to them. You can do that by pressing the share button in your podcast app and sending them a direct link by email messaging, or whatever you use to contact your friends and colleagues.

Emma Shackleton  25:21  

Next week. We're going to talk to Pamela Zale about the secrets of classroom management. She's got seven tools that improve classroom behaviour, and she's going to talk us through how they work in the next episode.

Simon Currigan  25:34  

If you like what you've heard, and you don't want to miss that interview, open your podcast app now. And give it that friendship card you made for it. The one with the heart on the friends and the message inside saying, Please download all future episodes of school behaviour secret so I never missed a thing. Or then you might find it a little bit quicker and more effective. Open your podcast app and press the subscribe button instead in Apple podcasts that's now called follow. And if you haven't heard all of our previous episodes of school behaviour secrets, where have you been? You can go back at any time and listen to the episodes all the way back to Episode One, where we spoke about the importance of assertiveness.

Emma Shackleton  26:10  

Thanks so much 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.

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