Ask Alex: Why are students’ angry outbursts so unpredictable?

I’m trying out a new type of blog post! In these posts I’ll briefly answer a question from a reader, friend, or colleague on trauma-informed teaching and challenging student behavior. If you want to submit your own question, email me at Alex@UnconditionalLearning.org or tweet me at @AlexSVenet. I’ll be posting three or four of these over the next week – comment below with any feedback and if you’d like to see more of these!

Today’s question/wondering comes from Susan Koch on Twitter:

“Unpredictability of anger outbursts still mystifies me… although The new  “reset spot” in our room seems to be comforting and helpful to the students and to me at these times..”

My thoughts: 

Just like the unpredictability of the traumatic experience itself, the impacts of trauma can be unpredictable. Add to this the fact that many of our students are still developing the tools to process big and difficult events – and you have a situation where students may feel just as confused by their emotional outbursts as you are! Here are two things you can do in tandem proactively (and they both will fit right in with your “reset spot”):

  • Help students develop their emotional vocabulary. Many kids struggle to name emotions beyond “happy,” “sad,” “mad.” Use a tool like an emotion wheel to help students expand their awareness of the full range of emotions (and validate that it’s OK to feel any of them!). You can also use books or videos as opportunities to practice naming emotions in others. “How does Harry Potter feel at the end of this chapter?” + the emotion wheel as a handout = opportunity to develop empathy and other-awareness. If a student has better language to communicate how they’re feeling, they may be more willing to communicate those feelings to others.
  • Help students develop their emotional self-awareness. In schools we often focus so much on academics that we inadvertently cause kids to detach from their emotional and physical experiences during the day. Use check-in and check-out systems that invite students to name (privately or with a vulnerability-level-by-choice aspect) how they’re feeling. Provide moments to pause throughout class/during the day and invite students to think about how their bodies and minds are feeling. Pause in the middle of a suspenseful read-aloud to ask, “Does anyone else have their shoulders up by their ears? Mine always do that when I get tense!” Model self-awareness and find ways to encourage it.

The more students get in the habit of noticing how they are feeling, and gain the ability to describe those feelings, the more likely they are to then be able to self-intervene when emotions feel intense. If you have a particular student who doesn’t seem to be benefiting from this whole-class level of intervention, definitely connect with others in the student’s support network (could be a caregiver, social worker, counselor, special educator, or other supportive person) to discuss more in-depth interventions. The outbursts may never feel fully predictable, but we can work together to help students develop their awareness of how to manage strong emotions. 

“In the real world”

One of the most common lines of resistance when it comes to social-emotional learning in schools: “But what about in the real world?”

I’ve heard this objection over and over in response to social-emotional learning and support strategies in schools. “In the real world, there’s no such thing as a Peace Corner.” “In the real world, no one is going to sit in a circle and talk things out with you.” “In the real world, you don’t get unlimited chances.”

Let’s look a little closer on what it means to invoke “the real world” as a reason not to provide children with social-emotional support.

Real world versus…fake world?

The most obvious objection here is the implication that schools are somehow not “real.” When students spend most of their waking hours on school and school-related activities for at least 13 years, I don’t see how we can argue that this time isn’t “real.” Yes, children are preparing for adulthood – but all of the time they spend on the way to adulthood counts, and students deserve to develop skills and experience supports specific to their time in school.

It’s also essential here to remember that children’s brains are different from adult’s brains, and children developmentally need different support as they grow. Just as you use training wheels on a bike, you also need support as you develop skills to manage your emotions, develop healthy sense of self, and learn to connect with others.

The real world isn’t black and white

One of the common threads of “real world” objections seems to be that “in the real world, there’s no support.” Is this really true? In the “Peace Corner” video linked above, the strategy presented is essentially a way to support students to take a break when things are stressful. Don’t most adults find ways to do this during their work days? We go to the water cooler, we take a quick walk, we space out at our desk for a few moments, we linger on the way to the restroom.

In objecting to restorative practices or alternatives to suspension, the “real world” argument goes that “people aren’t that understanding in the real world.” While this one varies largely depending on context, let’s look at it from the lens of interpersonal conflict (which describes a huge portion of what ends up being “disciplined” in schools). Yes, it’s true that some behaviors may get you fired on the spot. But most of the time, when we mess up in the “real world” we actually do “talk it out.” We meet with our supervisors. We talk things through with our spouses. We get messy with conflict rather than receiving a harsh sentence from above. We need to be able to tolerate frustration, find ways to solve our own problems, and manage relationships.

Another one I’ve heard is, “in the real world, you don’t get do-overs.” Tell that to the many folks who have retaken drivers tests, reapplied for jobs or college admissions, or revised work assignments. Part of the real world often involves the process of evaluating our mistakes and incorporating that reflection into a new course of action.

Whose real world?

There are also cultural assumptions built into the “real world” objections. There seems to be an individualistic stance, an idea that in the “real world” we are all on our own. While this may be the dominant view of white Christian America, the reality is different in other cultures that emphasize connectedness, community, and mutual care. When we perpetuate the myth of meritocracy, kids suffer.

In many people’s “real worlds,” connections are how we survive and thrive. We need to support students to learn how to create and sustain healthy relationships – the “social” aspect of social-emotional learning.

Real world, or a better world?

Most importantly, we should stop talking about the “real world” because it keeps us from talking about a better world. If the premise of a “real world” argument is that the real world is harsh, why would we want to replicate such a world in our schools? From a developmental standpoint, exposing children to harsh conditions causes lasting neurological damage, whereas surrounding children with loving, supportive relationships buffers them from future trauma.

We need to surround them with more caring, not less. And when these children, raised with the confidence that they matter, enter adulthood, they’ll be more equipped to make change. They won’t merely be prepared for the “real world” – they’ll create a better one.

 

Photo credit: Emma Craig, flickr