Five ways to tame anger

Five ways to tame angerDownload a printable copy of this article (PDF 335KB)

  • It’s okay to get angry. Teach this explicitly.
  • Explore how anger shows up in our bodies.
  • Build simple and agreed plans for anger before it is out of control.
  • First try – talk to the angry girls, walk with the angry boys.
  • Have fun with anger in a non-threatening activity.

Schools are emotional institutions perhaps even the most emotional. On a single site we cater for potentially hundreds of young people whose brains are not yet fully formed! We try to teach them things they don’t always want to learn, and we report their progress to their parents or carers whose emotional connections with them can be complex.

There is little wonder that some conflict and tension exists in such environments. In any functional relationship or relational system there’s at least an element of conflict. Despite the insistence of many that conflict is a sign of a problem, healthy conflict levels are actually a sign of productive and high-expectation cultures. Conflict is therefore neither good nor bad – it just is.

“You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.”
– Buddha

In much the same way as we demonise conflict, we also tend to demonise the emotional byproduct of it. This is often anger. Increasingly I’m in conversations with teachers about how to handle anger in our students and to circuit break the seemingly inevitable transition that many students make from anger into aggression, or even violence.

The good news is that there are a handful of strategies that teachers of all learning phases can use to improve attitudes and responses to anger in their schools. Here are five of them:

  1. Teach students that it’s okay to get angry.
    When I work with students and classes where anger is a problem, I often commence the lesson by asking them to chat about a question, “Is it okay to get angry?” Of concern but not surprise to me, is that  about 60% of students from Year 1 to Year 10 will  answer No. What this tells us is that they are viewing  anger as a bad or unnatural part of themselves. And when matters of personal weakness emerge publicly the next awful emotion we experience is shame.  Within this stigmatising shame, students’ behavioural responses to anger get even worse. Thinking that anger is bad is the first step to reacting poorly to it. Anger is normal – it’s simply the emotion that lets us know that something we value or care about has been compromised. It’s okay to get angry if my team loses a close match – it’s what I do with that anger that matters.
  2. Know the physiological signs of anger.
    Because anger is such a strong emotion, our ability to rationally process it with our neo-cortex, the thinking part of our brain, is compromised when anger is present. As such, males in particular struggle to understand that they are angry, even though it’s blindingly obvious to the rest of us. The positive is that anger turns up in our bodies when our brains can’t process it. Find out your students’ top three anger signals. Are they sweaty palms, tight fists, hot cheeks, shaking arms, stiff muscles, clenched teeth, wild heartbeat or stomach pain? Know these and you can recognise anger and respond appropriately, before it gets out of control.
  3. Have a plan.
    Because the neo-cortex can’t conjure a  strategy when we’re angry, we need to have one or  two ready in advance. One of my favourite anger case studies was a Year 7 student I shall call Ken. When I saw Ken’s fists tighten, I knew we were potentially only a few moments from a disastrous choice. So I kept a bag of rubbish under my desk and when Ken made a fist I handed him a piece (or the whole bag!) and asked him to run it outside to a bin fifty metres or so from the classroom. Ken and I both agreed in advance that this was a good strategy. Ken usually returned from his bin run with open hands.
  4. Work with the stereotypes.
    Anger is the one emotion processed quite differently by males and females. This is due to the connective tissue between the hemispheres of the brain being thicker in females than in males, allowing females to transfer feelings into words more effectively than males. As a result stereotypes emerge, such as the angry woman talking to a friend on the phone to resolve her anger and the angry man needing to chop some wood. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule but a good starting point is to have a chat with any girl who’s angry and listen well, but try walking and talking or kicking the footy with an angry boy. Work forward from there.
  5. Have some fun with anger instead of demonising it.
    In the wonderful resource A Volcano In My Tummy (Pudney W. and Whitehouse E. (1998) A Volcano in My Tummy: Helping Children to Handle Anger, New Society Publishers, 80 pages)  there’s a story called Craig’s Angry Day where students can identify the moments where Craig breaks the book’s Anger Rules. In a nutshell, the rules are that it’s okay to get angry, however, its important to think. Don’t hurt yourself, don’t hurt others, don’t hurt property. Do talk about it. By practicing these rules and making a mantra to focus on them in silly voices, videos, plays, songs, posters or any other manner of creative pursuits, the students learn to embed this thinking in their neo-cortex for later use. The more they see, create and mess with the strategy in a non-threatening activity the more likely they are to get it right when under pressure.

None of this is a guarantee for success. Anger is an unpredictable beast and improving behaviour involves chronic relapses. We’re simply looking for an improvement which can be measured by a reduction in both frequency and severity of inappropriate responses to anger. If you’re getting that much, then you’re onto something. Stick at it.


Link to synopsis and purchasing info for this interested in “A Volcano In My Tummy”
Bibliography: Anger, Whitehouse, E. and Pudney, W. (2019). A Volcano in My Tummy. [online]
Available at:

Further reading

More articles in the Managing behaviours topic

“Great Scott!” – Behaviour can improve!

Through this article, I’d like you to be fully versed in building a flux capacitor geared directly at improving student behaviour. You can talk about improving a targeted behaviour all you like, but if you ignore one of these components, you’re going to land in a time and place you’d rather not be in.

Read more

Triggers and antecedents

The events and conditions around us heavily impact our behavioural and language choices every second of every day. Students behave in certain ways, both positively and negatively in response to the conditions in the classroom. But they are also incredibly impacted by the things that happened in their lives long before getting anywhere near your classroom door.

Read more

Flipping Conflict

This article is designed to provoke. Occasionally, we all need to hear something provocative, forcing us to place our beliefs, our practice and our status quo under the microscope. This provocative statement is that we’re doing conflict all wrong in Australian schools and that the most significant mistake we make is to focus on the student who is being bullied. I believe that, when conflict or a fight or a bullying situation emerges, then the first person we should speak to is the student engaging in the bullying behaviour.

Read more

Buttered behaviour management

Most of us are comfortable in the belief that any good and effective behaviour management work needs to be both firm and fair.

Read more

Beyond the punishment code

Most of you will have arrived at work today by car. That trip can be an event in itself. For some it’s bedlam, a manic period of dropping children off, fixing hair at the traffic lights because you didn’t get time between brushing the hair, teeth and attitudes of the little people in your homes. For others, it’s respite, a couple of quiet songs and a newsbreak before the mayhem of the school day begins.

Read more

The golden behaviour management rule

Every behaviour has a meaning and a context. This is the Golden Behaviour Management Rule.

Read more