Many of the students I have seen for counseling have been referred because they are struggling to control themselves when they get angry. As counselors, it can be tempting to create a behavior plan, practice some deep breathing with the student, and give their teacher a list of strategies. Voila, anger management intervention.
How often has that worked for you? It’s failed for me every time and left me with frustrated teachers and disciplined students.
I took a step back to reassess my approach. For most of my students, I realized my counseling approach should be more skill-based. Like a reading teacher would approach instruction with a struggling reader.
So what are the skills a student will need to independently manage their anger? They need to be able to:
- Name how they feel.
- Name the intensity of that emotion.
- Understand the events that triggered the emotion.
- Understand the thoughts that maintained or worsened the feeling.
- Identify and use a range of coping skills.
- Choose a coping skill based on the intensity of the emotion.
- Understand consistent personal triggers.
- Make a plan to disrupt negative patterns.
I list out the core skills needed for almost any referral concern. Without this, I’d feel like I’m counseling in the dark. This list is just a starting point. I know I might approach skills in a different order depending on the student or group I had.
For anger management group or individual counseling, each lesson introduces a new skill and continues to build previously introduced skills. Let’s take a look at just three of the skills and brainstorm some ideas for how to teach them to students in an engaging way. I’d love to hear about activities you use for any of these skills too.
Intensity of Emotions
When students can understand that emotions come in different sizes, they take a giant leap forward to figuring out what coping skills to use. If students are trying to take a break to draw when they are furious, it is more likely there will be ripped paper and broken pencils than successful anger management.
It is helpful to provide students with a metaphor that makes the concept more concrete. These four are my favorite ways to describe the different intensities of anger someone might feel.
I typically use the following scale for the range of anger: bothered > frustrated > angry > furious. Use whatever vocabulary is familiar to your students.
Start with a deflated balloon and label that as calm. Inflate slightly and label this as bothered and so on. You can make the connection that anger is growing like the balloon is filling with air.
I also make the connection to our ability to handle triggers. As we get angrier, we are more likely to react to triggers we could have handled when we were calm.
I take a pin and poke at the deflated balloon. The balloon can handle the poking just fine when we aren’t “filled with anger”. It would take some effortful poking to cause a problem. However as the balloon fills with air (anger), poking with a pin (trigger) will cause it to burst.
Weather and storm clouds are another great metaphor for growing anger. I use this weather forecast in small group lessons. It is a great way to have students better understand how their anger progress, what it feels like, and what it looks like to others.
This one is super simple. Draw three concentric circles. Shade in the smallest center circle to represent a little bit of anger or bothered. Color outward to show growing anger. All three circles would be shaded if the student was furious. Like the weather forecast, you can also write on the circles what it looks like and feels like or a coping skill that could be used.
This can be a great check-in tool for students to communicate how strong their emotions are.
The feelings thermometer is a classic counseling tool to help students understand how their emotions change. I like to use a thermometer and label our body temperature (98.6 F/37 C). This is calm. If our body temperature drops below this, that could signify lack of reaction when expected. As the thermometer rises, this signifies we are getting angry or burning up.
Coping Skills Matched to Emotions
Coping skills are the magic sauce in emotion regulation, right? Well only if students are self-aware enough to use them correctly. Once students have a strong emotion vocabulary, understand the intensity of emotions, and have a toolbox full of coping skills, it is time to use the knowledge and skills effectively. This objective is focused on getting them to figure out what personally works for them and when.
In one group, I have students try different coping skills to find the ones that work for them. Then using the feelings thermometer, they can match coping skills to the intensity of their feelings.
Students try different kinds of coping skills. They then determine when they should use a coping skill based on how they are feeling. Certain coping skills won't work depending on how strong an emotion is. This can also help students not pick more time intensive strategies for small problems. I emphasize that everyone's toolbox is going to look different.
If you are using a curriculum, such as Zones of Regulation, consider making a keychain for each zone. On the red zone key ring are coping strategies that are going to be the most effective for the strong emotions found in that zone.
You can also use this as a portable resource for a classroom teacher.
Once students are familiar with this concept, it can be helpful to play games to practice this skill.
- Make a set of cards with coping skills and emotions and play a simple matching game.
- In the game below, students draw cards with a given emotion and coping skills, and practice the given coping skill.
- In I'm in Charge of My Anger, students look at triggers and resulting emotions, then determine the best coping strategy to use.
Plan to Disrupt Negative Patterns
Part of improving self-management is being able to see negative patterns you fall into and make a plan to change them. For example, whenever another student gets called on, Gavin gets angry, pouts, refuses to do work, and eventually gets sent to the office. It is helpful for Gavin to analyze this pattern and think of multiple ways to stop this pattern from repeating.
I help students analyze those patterns, create a disruption plan, and set goals based on their plan.
I use the metaphor of a ship. When they see rough seas ahead they change their course to get around it. If they can't avoid it, they do everything to prepare.
Students can think of their triggers as rough seas. Then they can come up with a plan to avoid the rough seas (e.g., positive self-talk, signal with a teacher).
Fork in the Road
When I wind up with a student in my office following some incident, we go ahead and plot out what happened on a white board. We start at the end and work our way backwards. Once the incident is plotted out, we look for the fork in the road or a point where the student could have made another choice.
Keeping the metaphor a roadmap, I have students find points where they could have made a U-Turn. I find this particularly helpful when a student escalates and doesn't do much to check their behavior or improve the situation.
How do you plan sessions? What ideas do you have to meet different skill objectives?