Some years ago, teachers at a New Hampshire school asked me to do a training on “Anger in the Classroom,” to which I responded: “Whose anger? Students or  teachers?” Silence for a few moments.... “Well, the students, of course!” With that, we agreed on a date. Once the workshop started, some of the teachers seemed very agitated.

One teacher: “This one student is constantly challenging me. Asking way too many questions. He’s a distraction, consuming too much of my time.”

Me: “Is he typically angry?”

Teacher: “Um, not really. Just much too active, on the go. Hard to handle.”

Me: “It sounds like your day is really hard with such an active, curious child. Keeping control of the class is that much more challenging.”

Teacher: “Yes! I’m really frustrated!” 

Me: “I wonder if it might be helpful to shift our focus to what happens when students trigger the adults’ reactions.”

Soon the audience was buzzing with heated examples of different scenarios of children’s behavior and how exhausting each day in the classroom becomes.

There were certainly other examples of children’s aggression, for which we engaged in role plays and problem solving. Once the focus shifted from behavior, understanding that was only the clue to each child’s emotional state, we made significant progress. One teacher cited a kindergarten child tormenting several other children on a daily basis. The teacher and assistant had tried different approaches — time out, talking with him outside the classroom, sending him to the director’s office — yet were frustrated that nothing was working. Empathizing with their difficulty, we explored other factors that might be influencing his behavior. They discovered his home life was chaotic, with parents going through a contentious divorce, the recent death of a beloved grandparent, and an impending move.

In exploring what happens when students’ behavior or attitudes trigger their reactions, the teachers learned how to gain more cooperation and successfully influence behavior in their classrooms by reframing their perspectives, understanding how to disengage from their respective “trigger points,” transforming reaction to response. Children’s aggression was then regarded differently. All children want to be successful and will do well when they can. Unacceptable behavior’s our clue that something is amiss, that this student is trying desperately to get his needs met. Punishing that behavior adds insult to injury. When children are punished for their anger, we lose an opportunity to connect to what’s driving their behavior. Often, aggression is a protective barrier for hurt, humiliation, rejection, or sadness.  Rather than risk transparency, particularly for males, boys will sometimes act out angrily to shield their vulnerability.

Anger is everywhere. Understanding the meaning of the behavior — whether it’s a child having a meltdown or an adult acting aggressively — we need to address its root and significance. It’s essential to own what’s our problem and allow the other person to own his/hers. Trying to control someone who is angry, aggressive or loud doesn’t work. It’s not only an exercise in futility, it can escalate the aggression. With children and adults alike, the need to escalate isn’t an issue if we don’t try to control or contain the aggression but instead really listen and understand the unmet need behind it. Whatever the conflict, genuine listening and understanding work in defusing the trigger!

Our reactions provide important information about ourselves. When children’s behavior hits a trigger point for us, we know our “reptilian brain” has kicked in. There’s unfinished work to which we have yet to attend. When another adult triggers us, our goal is to reach a mutually satisfying agreement rather than having an angry confrontation. That doesn’t translate to disrespecting our feelings, but offers a chance to understand the root of the aggression. The following example demonstrates some key elements of problem solving, helping parent and child avoid a power struggle. This dialogue can be applied to any situation where there’s anger, or a power struggle.

Mom: “I’ve told you to clean your room for three days now, Ben. I’m tired of your excuses. Do it now.”

Ben: “You’re such a nag! It’s my room!”

Mom: “You’re right. I am a nag.”

Compassion: She’s letting him know she understands how he feels, even though she’s angry with him.

Mom: “However, we have a problem. I nag you and you ignore me and both of us get very angry.”

Communication: She’s addressing the reality that they both need to look at.

Mom: “I’m angry at you for not cleaning your room, and you’re angry that I’m on your back.”

Connection: She lets him know she understands.

Mom: “We’ve got to solve this. Do you have any ideas?”

Competence: She encourages her son to come up with a solution.

Ben: “Let me keep my room the way I want.”

Mom: “That may work for you but it doesn’t work for me. Your room doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does need to be cleaner than it is.”

Ben: “I’m tired. Can I do half my room tomorrow and the other half Friday, when school gets out early?”

Mom: “That sounds reasonable. I need to know your plan will work.”

Comprehension: She reconsiders the situation and helps Ben think ahead.

Ben: “If I don’t do it, you can take away my allowance for two weeks.”

More Competence: Ben, engaged by his mom’s reasonable approach and his new responsibilities, offers a suggestion of consequences if he doesn’t follow through.

What Ben’s learned:

• We’re entitled to angry feelings, while still needing to meet our obligations.

• Commitments need to be kept.

• Problem-solving helps to defuse struggles and bring agreement.

• Children are also powerful, capable of advocating and negotiating for themselves. 

Although it may be true that many boys are “naturally” more aggressive than girls, the goal is to help both boys and girls channel their aggression in healthy ways. Some kids may need help in strengthening their resolve to stand up for themselves, while others who are more aggressive may need help in modulating this. Both boys and girls need to learn how to be bold as well as tender. Once we’ve helped our child channel her aggression into constructive action, she’ll be better prepared for her encounters in the world.