A tantrum or two

31st May 1996 at 01:00
Take two children, different ages, same kind of problem. How do over-stretched teachers deal with them?

Every day when Jade arrives at school, her teacher's heart sinks. As sure as eggs are eggs, at some point during the day, Jade will be crossed. She will fall to the ground screaming or, worse, hold her breath until she turns purple and then let out an almighty yell; she will rush furiously at any child - or teacher - and kick their shins; she will bang her head against the wall and rake her nails down it. Jade is only six, but she is a big girl and can do some significant damage. When Jade is not having a tantrum, she can be very charming. She used to be popular, but her classmates are wearying of her unpredictability.

Tony rarely goes to school and when he does he is quiet - so quiet you would not know he was there. Looking at his work, you would hardly know it either. Yet according to his exhausted mother, he has tantrums at home which can go on for six hours. He has been known to break furniture and assault his mother, who twice has had to call the police. Tony is 11.

How will their teachers cope?

In Jade's case, it will be easy to talk with her parents. They are both out of work, with two smaller children. They shrug helplessly when Jade's temper is mentioned. They have tried ignoring her; they have tried smacking her. No good. They have even resorted to locking her in her room but she did such damage to the door that they gave up. Jade is the boss, it seems.

For Tony, the home picture is more complex. His father works unsocial hours. On his days off he takes the children out to the fun fair or a cinema and buys them "whatever they want" to cheer them up for hardly seeing him.

Tony's mother never cooks and the family lives on junk food, fizzy drinks and take-aways. She is aware that this may contribute to his problems - she has seen a programme on daytime TV - but she does not see any other possibility: none of them likes any other food, it would be a waste to prepare it, she hasn't got the time. She understands that Tony missing school is a problem and is angry at the educational welfare officer for not solving it. It is not easy to talk to her because she seems to frame the problem differently from the teacher. The teacher wants to work together; Mrs Jones wants the teacher to work some magic.

In order to help these children, it would be useful to see why they are so angry. As behaviour modification techniques like ignoring, smacking, excluding, have not worked any more than the voice of sweet reason Miss Flood is going to have to try an imaginative leap and guess that Jade is not happy with a world in which she can control her parents.

Omnipotence is a deeply unsettling condition for a young child, an example of how getting your dearest wish becomes its own punishment. If Jade's parents can find a way of consistently limiting and thwarting Jade's demands, while at the same time demonstrating that they care for her enough to satisfy her needs, that she cannot stay up to watch horror films but she can have a goodnight cuddle, that will go a long way to help.

In school it may also help Jade to feel less singular if the teacher can find a means, perhaps through a circle game or a story-telling exercise, through PE or organised games, to show that win or lose, each member of the class is valued. A system of stars can be useful, but only as long as their award is publicly discussed and celebrated and is always consistent. Jade wants to feel safe within limits; she is kicking to find them.

Tony really needs to be referred to a family support unit. It appears that since his mother feels unequal to the task of being a mother, Tony cannot face being socialised as a child. Neither of his parents seems willing to operate the "reality principle", which dictates adjusting to the mild unpleasantnesses of life, such as getting up and going to school. That is such a heavy burden for Tony to manage on his own, it's no wonder he feels enormous rage at his mother.

Tantrums in school-age children rarely spring from the momentary frustrations which spark them off. Such volcanic anger comes from very deep. Teachers who want to help children with tantrums need to be brave enough to try to help by understanding deeply.

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