I am a primary school teacher and I have a pupil whose behaviour can become aggressive and out of control, and the cause is tricky to determine. Is there much advice out there for teachers in this situation?
There is a bit. According to the NHS, there can be many triggers that make a child feel angrier than is usual for childhood behaviour. It lists examples such as witnessing disputes between family members, friendship problems or feeling anxious. As a teacher, identifying and understanding the cause is key.
But how can I find out which of these issues might be causing the problem?
The most effective – and simplest – way is to ask the child: “What makes you feel angry?”
I have tried that, the child says they don’t know...
OK – spend some time observing the child to identify what triggers the aggressive behaviour – this can be particularly useful during unstructured play. Make a note of your observations and speak to previous teachers who might have more knowledge of the child’s situation. Use this information to pre-empt scenarios that they might find difficult and figure out when you need to step in to diffuse a situation.
What if I am too late and the child has lashed out at someone?
Stay calm. Addressing them directly and firmly can cut an outburst short, but raising your voice or shouting risks escalating the situation. Try to get the child to a safe space where they can calm down. In the most challenging circumstances, where the child’s behaviour continues to be a risk to the safety of other pupils or themselves, you may need to call a senior leader for assistance or to help you use "positive handling" strategies – but only if you have the appropriate training – to physically move the child to a safe space.
Wait for calm. Often children who are dealing with anger can become emotional after losing their temper. There is no point trying to talk to a child who is sobbing uncontrollably or shaking with rage. Explain that you are going to wait for them to calm down and then you will talk about what happened together.
How long will this take?
Usually a few minutes, but sometimes you might have to "weather the storm" a lot longer. Be patient. Listen to the child when they are ready to talk and deal with the issue fairly. Try to get to the root of the problem. But make sure there is a consequence – even if this risks another outburst. Don’t give in to the temptation for an easy life – it makes life harder in the long run.
What can I do to help this child deal with their anger in future?
Teach the child to take deep breaths or count to 10 when they can feel themselves becoming angry. Encourage them to move away from situations to either calm down privately or talk to a member of staff.
How can I manage this moving forward?
Praise the child when they use a strategy successfully – eg, “Well done for coming to tell me how you are feeling” – and be consistent with your sanctions. If the child in question faces a "timeout" for shouting at a classmate, then every pupil should face the same consequence in similar circumstances. Likewise, do not offer extrinsic rewards to the child for behaving as you would expect the rest of the class to behave normally – this can create resentment. You may wish to try restorative approaches, too.
Finally, keep trying to find out the root cause of the anger problem, so work closely with your Sendco on this.
But is this behaviour a SEND issue?
Yes, Social Emotional and Mental Health Needs (SEMH) are one of four categories of special educational needs and disability (SEND) defined in the Code of Practice (2015). Your Sendco should be able to suggest further provision to put in place to help the child.
I tried all that but am still having problems. Am I failing as a teacher?
No – speak to your colleagues, we have all been there. Talking to the Tes last year, anger management expert Ryan Martin suggested that teachers should embrace sharing their own frustrations with colleagues to avoid losing their patience on the job.
And if all else fails?
If further support is needed, the child may be referred to external specialists such as the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).
Jay Birch is a primary school teacher and freelance writer