Behind the scowls

20th August 2004 at 01:00
Dealing with aggressive behaviour in the classroom requires an appreciation of what anger is and what causes it, says Stan Godek.

It is a young person's job to challenge adults. Without the opportunity to question our beliefs, our values and our political systems in a meaningful and supported way, young people can't grow and develop. Adolescence is a period of rapid and often dramatic physical and psychological change and is a period of uncertainty even for the most well-adjusted young person. But for those young people who have not been treated well by adults, it is a period that is even more fraught with uncertainty, insecurity, doubt and even fear.

As adults, we should always try to accept that, even though our own childhood or adolescence may not have been particularly traumatic or problematic, this will not be the case for the majority of young people who display what has come to be called challenging behaviour.

Anger isn't good or bad, right or wrong - anger is what we use when we want something to stop or when we feel afraid. It is when anger is expressed ineffectively or destructively that it becomes a problem. Aggression is different from anger. It is not a feeling - it is a learnt way of behaving and it can be "unlearnt". Problem anger is often expressed in a hostile way and may involve both physical and verbal aggression.

In order to increase our understanding of how better to deal with challenging behaviour, we need to begin by considering our own attitudes towards young people and our expectations of them. When we ask workshop participants to think of feelings generated by authority figures in their adolescence, they are often struck by the strength of these feelings and how readily they can be accessed. The memory of "not being listened to", of "not being valued", of being "judged", or "labelled" just because of one's age is common.

The young people I have worked with have all expressed the view that they would not find life so difficult or behave the way they do if it wasn't for the attitude of some of the adults with whom they have to coexist or worse, who are in positions of authority over them.

Young people need to push or rebel against the limits and boundaries set by adults but they need boundaries for a sense of security and safety. They have not yet reached a stage where they can set their own boundaries, so they do need this from us. It is what makes working with young people so interesting and sometimes so difficult. The key here is for adults to be clear about what is and is not acceptable behaviour and to be prepared to explain why this is so. Most importantly we need to be consistent in our responses and acknowledge the importance of fairness to young people.

It is important that we check that they know not just what we are saying but why we are saying it. Equally, we should ask ourselves if we really have taken the time to listen to what a young person has been trying to say and that we have understood and taken into account their point of view.

There are three main tools for dealing with conflict, anger and aggression.

First, the depth of the relationship an adult enjoys with a young person affects their ability to deal with challenging behaviour. It is our job as adults working with young people to work at forming and sustaining meaningful relationships.

Second, it is not enough to rely on the authority of your job title to gain respect and trust. How you are seen as a person, not as a representative of an institution, is what affects how much trust young people are prepared to invest in you.

Finally, the ability to convey strong feelings or emotions in a controlled, calm manner is vital. This can be described as maintaining an adult role in all testing situations. It is about responding to challenging behaviour assertively as an adult rather than being forced into, for example, a screaming match where the adult responds as a child or in a childlike way - the best way to make a situation worse.

Stan and Liz Godek are running training sessions this autumn for Children in Scotland on dealing with conflict, anger and aggression and on anger management. This is an abridged version of an article from the current Children in Scotland magazine.

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