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Staying in control

Written by Paul Dix

Young children who get angry either do it because they have learned that it works for them or are angry but don’t know why. In the first instance the approach is straightforward, ‘I’ll talk to you when you have stopped crying’, ‘I will come back when you can speak nicely to me’ and ‘Screaming at me will not get you what you want’. For children who cannot control their anger or whose anger spills over into violence the strategies are less obvious.
Anger finds its release in different ways. Some children harm others some harm themselves. Charlie hides under the table when he is angry, Callum throws table. Chantelle screams and pulls hair, Chelsea scratches herself and Ashraf just cries. The symptoms are very different, the causes, are depressingly similar.

The problem with anger in a young child is that they cannot release it in a controlled way. They find it difficult to predict or divert away from it on their own. They need you to do this for them. You need to be able to recognise their triggers and act swiftly. What do you have as the ultimate standby distractions? How do you record and track incidents? What is your plan for intervening early? Often a quick, gentle guiding hand can avert a more complicated physical struggle later. A quick quiet word now diverts a half hour scream . Do you have a calm and safe place for children who lose control? What is your planned intervention? Have you agreed it, written it down, shared your plan with the parents? The consistency of your response with individuals is vital. They may not have this consistency at home. You need to make sure that they have it when they are with you.

Build up

The ‘build up’ phase is the easiest place to intervene. Emotions follow thoughts like ducklings following their mother. Intervene in the child’s thoughts and you have a good chance of changing the emotion, averting an outburst. Wait until the emotion is in full swing and you will constantly manage crisis instead of steering behaviour.
Agree a mechanism with the child or with all the children so that they can subtly indicate to you when they are feeling angry. Try tokens placed in the ‘Angry Jar’, blocks placed in the ‘Angry Bucket’ or an individual play dough mouth on a paper face that the child can turn down to let you know they are feeling unhappy.
Teach the child other ways to release angry feelings so that they have safe alternatives. Show them some ways that you deal with those feelings. Ways that don’t hurt others. Show the children how to ‘squeeze it out’ on the playdough, shake the anger away with some wriggle, breathe and count, scream into the cushion or just sit in front of the fish tank and talk to the fish! Teach the child, through your modelling, how to open the release valve and you will teach the child other ways to release that keep windows intact. Try creative visualization as an alternative. Talk the child into a place in his imagination where he feels calm and serene. Granny’s big chair, the top of the tall tree or feet buried in sand. Practice the visualization regularly with the child allow them to enjoy spending time there, to enjoy the feelings it gives them. Teach a calming routine and encourage the child to use it when angry feelings start.


As you get to know the child obvious triggers may appear. Planning around them can be difficult. Particularly if the trigger lies in who goes first or when being removed from a much loved activity (stuffing the sink with paper/pouring sand on Dylan) Not every pot hole can be avoided. Transitions between activities may need time warnings and preparation, changing groups will need careful negotiation and you can never get it right everytime. Some children are difficult to read. The build up is less obvious, the triggers well hidden. One minute it is smiles and painting, the next it is biting and paint Armageddon.


If the child tries to accelerate through the Escalation stage your own behaviour is critical. Calm, predictable and consistent behaviour from the adult will help decelerate. Slow your pace, lighten and lower your voice. Look for ways to help. Resist the temptation to address the behaviours that emerge through the escalation. These are secondary behaviours that are designed to distract you. Focus on slowing down decision making, giving options and choices, perhaps lose a battle to win the war.
As the child tries looks to escalate reframe some of the thoughts that emerge. ‘Estelle was trying to help you, she didn’t want to keep it’, ‘You are not the worst child ever, you are just having a tricky 5 minutes’. Praise the appropriate behaviour, ‘It was good that you put the bin down when I asked’. Remind them of their previous good behaviour. ‘Yesterday you really helped me and you were kind to Kiera. That is the boy I need to see today’. Make a safe space in your room where the child can take time to calm down and you can talk. Think about light, sound, display and avoiding distractions in this area.


When children really lose control and explode then removing the child or removing the other children protects everyone physically but also emotionally. For some children screaming fits of anger are as normal as fish fingers. For others they can be frightening and worrying. Recognising when the anger has exploded is important, it means that you need to change your approach. As the emotional mind consumes any rational thought you need to protect the child, yourself and others. Your physical intervention must be as little force as necessary to protect the child. The thoughts that drive your actions grounded in the childrens’ best interests.


Once the explosion is over some children need to be held, some let go. Some children love bubbling water and plinky music, others need to put their face in a cushion until the world has stopped shaking. Make the recovery phase too comfortable and the cycle appears attractive. Make it too harsh and you risk the cycle repeating itself immediately. Returning the child to activities as soon as you can. Try not to prolong the comfort of the recovery stage.
Having a plan for managing anger means that while you can teach the child how to manage it and share some responsibility. It means that your actions are more predictable, safer and less improvised. You may not be in control of the cause of the child’s anger but you can have a lasting influence on how they deal with their symptoms.


Anger is often a difficult emotion for pupils to discuss / express. It is therefore useful to have an analogy with which children can easily identify e.g. anger can be like a “firework” or a “volcano”. The firework analogy can be particularly useful to explain the stages that the anger goes through e.g.
Preparing the firework to light = the build up
The match used to light the firework = the trigger
A firework has a fuse which can be long or short = the escalation of anger
The explosion of the firework = the angry outburst
Clearing up the mess = the recovery

Create a display or model of the firework and its different stages. Use it to talk children through their behaviour when everything is calm or draw it with them in a quiet moment.

© Paul Dix

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