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. 

Social-emotional learning can be simple, part 2

In follow-up to this post, I wanted to share a quick strategy that is deceptively simple yet sets the stage for social-emotional learning:

Edutopia recently shared this video about Peace Corners:

 

It’s simple, right? Set up a comfy corner, invite students to use it to take a break, add in a little reflection sheet. Yet, there are so many layers to how this can help students:

  • Honors and respects students’ autonomy by choosing when to take a break
  • Gives students a safe and non-shaming “out” (since it’s open to everyone in the class)
  • Encourages reflection and development of self-knowledge through reflection sheets
  • Creates space within the classroom community rather than asking to students to leave the classroom community completely
  • Provides sensory tools for self-regulation
  • Helps students internalize self-management skills that are transferable across settings
  • Communicates care and a whole-school commitment to social/emotional support

Peace corners – or any other name you choose to call this self-regulation space – are a simple, visible way to incorporate social/emotional support. It’s a trauma-informed strategy that benefits all students. I’m trying one this year with a mixed-elementary age extracurricular class – I’ll update on how it goes!