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Coping Strategies for Students with Anger Problems

The Psycho-Educational Teacher

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Forman (1993) defines coping skills, or coping efforts, as sets of information and learned behaviors that children can use purposely to bring about positive outcomes in potentially stressful situations. Coping techniques teach psychological, social, cognitive, affective, and behavioral skills that children and adolescents can use to deal with potential stressors. According to the author, knowing and using coping skills can prevent or reduce a variety of academic, emotional, behavioral, and health problems in children and adolescents. On the other hand, the inability to handle potentially stressful situations or stressors may result in emotional, behavioral, and/or physical health problems. Coping skills are a way of promoting general, emotional, and social competence in students, and we can divide them into two major categories: a) Problem-focused. Acting on the stressful stimuli to change or to solve the problem. Using problem-solving techniques, we focus the coping effort in managing or altering the problem that is causing distress in the child. b) Emotion-focused. Managing how the child reacts to the situation (the emotional response) by changing the way the child thinks about the stressor; cognitive procedures and selftalking procedures are two examples of an emotion-focused coping effort. For example, the student uses a coping technique like relaxation or selective attention, focusing on the

positive aspects of the situation while ignoring the negative aspects of the event (Folkman and Lazarus, 1980). When we teach coping skills to a troubled, anger-prone, and/or acting-out student, we help the child move from a habitual state of anger and helplessness to a stage of problem resolution, or at least, some degree of understanding of the situation. When introducing coping skills to children, one kind of coping effort will suit them better than the other does. For example, if the child worries about her parents divorcing, using a problem-solving coping effort is not going to help the child deal with her feelings. With a concern like this, it is more effective to help the child manage her thoughts and feelings about the situation, that is, managing how the child interprets and reacts to this particular situation.

Recognizing the Anger Signals

As an initial coping intervention, we can teach troubled and anger-prone students to recognize when they are angry. There are several ways of doing this. One way is by paying attention to action signals, or to what they are doing. The second way is by paying attention to thought signals, or what they are thinking, and the third way is by paying attention to feelings signals, or the way the child is feeling. Examples: Actions: punch or hit, curse, scream, yell, cry, threaten, withdraw, throws a tantrum, or fidget. Thoughts and feelings:

I dont care! This is stupid! I hate myself! Im stupid! I hate Mr. Evans! He has no right to do this to me! I hate _____! I cant do anything right! I feel like hurting myself!

I wish I were dead! Im going to hit her! I give up! A fourth way children can recognize anger is by paying attention to their body signals. We can train children in identifying the body signals that cue them to anger, for example, the face feels hotter and flushes, the body feels hotter, the muscles tense, the breathing becomes faster, we sweat more, and the heart pounds rapidly.

Anger Coping Strategies for Children

When we teach a child a game-like strategy, the child is more likely to use the strategy than when we simply ask the child to follow a set of steps or rules. We can teach children informal, and fun, anger coping strategies that they can use when other children tease them and/or they feel frustrated. Some examples: The Turtle Technique The child imitates a turtle when he is provoked, retreating back into his shell, that is, the child lowers the head, and pulls the arms and legs tightly to the body. The student cannot act aggressively when he is in this position (Schneider and Dolnick, 1976). Put on a Happy Face The child simply smiles and acts happy. It is a lot harder to feel angry when we are smiling. The Calm and Cool Technique Teach the child to think of someone that is always calm and cool; someone that the child likes. The student emulates the calmness and coolness of the hero. For example, imitating the terminator, the child acts calm and cool. The Ally Technique This ally can be a real or an imaginary person, another cool guy. What the ally will say and do when others tease him, when he is provoked, or when he feels frustrated? The Superhero Technique Spiderman, Wonder Woman, or another superhero is with the child. The superhero gives support when the child feels troubled, and congratulates the child when he manages to keep his anger

under control. With the superhero and ally techniques, the student is using his imagination to see himself as better able to deal with frustrations. The Fogging Technique The student downplays the importance of another childs taunt, for example, Pinocchio! Yeah, yeah, I have a big nose. So what? The Make a Promise to Change Technique The child promises that, for the next hour, she will not get angry or throw a tantrum. After the hour, the teacher challenges the child to extend the promise for longer periods, for example, for an extra hour, then for the whole morning, next for a whole day, for two days in a row, and finally the whole week. The teacher rewards the child for each promise kept. The Big C Technique The child makes a C with her thumb and index finger. The C stands for control. The child looks at it and calms down. This is one way for the student to cue herself. The Distraction Strategy The child uses a distraction to angry thoughts and feelings, for example, counting backwards, counting evens only or odds only, skip counting, or reciting the timetables. Other ways that the child can distract his attention are by focusing on a specific stimulus, visual or auditory (e.g. singing a tune), or thinking about something funny. The student can use a physical disruption like snapping a rubber band on his wrist or pinching himself. Alternatively, the child can use a mental disruption or a thought stopping like, Stop! or Cut it out. The Stop Technique Teach the child to say, Stop! to himself, first aloud and later under his breath. Direct the child to write stop in big colored letters on an index card that he can look at anytime, or teach the child to imagine a stop sign coming down in front of him. Make sure the child understands that stop means, Stop doing it straight away (Butler and Hope, 1995). The Talking to Yourself Strategy The child can keep talking to herself to calm down, or the child can recite self-calming statements.

The Ignoring Technique Teach the child to ignore the first and the second ideas, thoughts, or responses that come to his mind. The child only responds to his third idea or thought. Explicitly discuss with the child when and how she can use these informal coping strategies, and reward the child each time she uses a strategy to cope with angry feelings and/or acting-out behaviors.

Other Strategies
Informal and quick interventions that a teacher, a counselor, or a parent can use to defuse angry feelings and acting-out behaviors in children are: Use a planned shift in attention. For example, you ignore the angry feelings or acting-out behavior, and you distract the child by interesting her in doing something else. Ask the child to do something else, such as going for a walk, playing a board game, playing basketball, reading (or listening to) a short story, or coloring. If the student is angry with another child, convince the angry child to be extra nice to the other student. If the student is angry with another child, have the angry student recall positive experiences she had with the other child, until the student stops feeling angry. Reinforce a competing response. Give the anger-prone student positive attention, such as praise, privileges, or recognition when the child behaves in a way that is incompatible with angry feelings and acting-out behaviors. For example, praise the child when she is calm, when the child apologizes or says Thank you, or when the student shares materials with other children. Use the restitution technique, for example, you might say, If you wronged _____, you must do something good for him. This technique can go either way, asking both the anger-prone student and the other child to do one positive thing for each other. Encourage the anger-prone and/or acting-out child to stay one step ahead of the problem. Predict when anger and/or acting-out episodes are more likely to happen, and plan for dealing with those moments, including identifying the strategies that the student will use to cope.

A Formal Anger Coping Procedure

The best thing we can do for a troubled, anger-prone, and/or acting-out student is to give the child a strategy that the student can use to cope with stressful events. Teach the student when and where she will use the strategy. Then, rehearse the strategy with the child until the strategy becomes automatic to the child. Finally, get a verbal and written commitment from the child that she will use the strategy. To train a student in coping with anger, we can use a formal coping procedure that includes the following steps: A. Problem Recognition: I am angry because _____. B. The Signals that are Telling me That I am Angry are: 1. Body Signals: _________________________________________ 2. Thoughts and Feelings: _________________________________ 3. Actions: _________________________________________

C. The Strategies that I can Use to Deal with this Problem are: ______________________________________________ ______________________________________________ ______________________________________________ Developing a behavior or action plan is another example of using a formal coping procedure. With the student, we set up a plan that includes the following: 1. Identify the area of improvement 2. Set a goal with deadlines 3. Specify the steps the child will follow to reach the goal. To identify the right steps, you can answer, who, what, when, where, and how well (e.g. 4 out of five times or 80% proficiency) 4. Monitor the childs performance and give feedback 5. Reward the student for following the plan We can also develop a contract between the teacher and the student. A contract is a written agreement that states what the child will do and what the teacher, staff member, or parent will do. A behavior contract can follow the what (a description of the target behavior), who, where,

when, for how long, and how well format. We also need to identify consequences for not complying (e.g. losing a privilege) and rewards for compliance. We will get better results when we agree on small gains at a time (e.g. 20%, then 60%, then 80%), rather than expecting 100% success immediately. In chronic anger and acting-out cases, we need to go one day at a time.

Butler, G., & Hope, T. (1995). Managing your mind: The mental fitness guide. NY: Oxford University Press. Folkman, S., & Lazarus, R. S. (1980). An analysis of coping in a middle-aged sample. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 21, pp. 219-239. Forman, S. G. (1993). Coping skills interventions for children and adolescents. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Schneider, R. A., & Dolnick, M. (1976). The turtle technique: An extended case study of selfcontrol in the classroom. Psychology in the Schools, 13, pp. 449-453.

About the Author

Carmen Y. Reyes, The Psycho-Educational Teacher, has more than twenty years of experience as a self-contained special education teacher, resource room teacher, and educational diagnostician. Carmen has taught at all grade levels, from kindergarten to post secondary. Carmen is an expert in the application of behavior management strategies, and in teaching students with learning or behavior problems. Her classroom background, in New York City and her native Puerto Rico, includes ten years teaching emotionally disturbed/behaviorally disordered children and four years teaching students with a learning disability or low cognitive functioning. Carmen has a bachelors degree in psychology (University of Puerto Rico) and a masters degree in special education with a specialization in emotional disorders (Long Island University, Brooklyn: NY). She also has extensive graduate training in psychology (30+ credits). Carmen is the author of 60+ books and articles in child guidance and in alternative teaching techniques for students with low academic skills. You can read the complete collection of articles on Scribd or her blog, The Psycho-Educational Teacher. To preview her books and download the free eguide, Persuasive Discipline: Using Power Messages and Suggestions to Influence Children Toward Positive Behavior, visit Carmens blog.