Preventing Violence Through Anger Management
By Mary Drecktrah, Ph.D., and Amy Wallenfang

Lisa Turner, a teacher, is concerned about some of her students and their reactions to frustration and anger. Michael is explosive when things don't go his way, like being first in line or waiting for his turn. He yells, hits, or throws objects when he gets upset and behaves aggressively on the playground, bumping other children and running away. At the other extreme is Jennifer, who doesn't show any emotion other than becoming very quiet and withdrawn. Children like Jennifer are often considered "just shy" and are easy to overlook. When Lisa supervises the playground she is overwhelmed with the "wild" play, teasing, and minor conflicts. She isn't certain if aggressive activity has actually increased at her school, or if she is just more aware of it with the recent publicity about the violence in schools.

Now more than ever, educators and parents can't help but be concerned with the possibility of violence in their schools. The recent tragedy at Columbine High School and other incidents at Jonesboro, Arkansas; Paducah, Kentucky; and Springfield, Oregon have saturated news headlines. These shootings have killed almost three dozen people and injured many more, with thousands affected emotionally the past two years (Gregory, 1998). The statistics are frightening:


  • Every six seconds a murder, rape, assault, or robbery takes place in or near a school (Sautter, 1995).

  • One in four students and one in ten teachers reported being victims of violence on or near school property (Remboldt, 1998).

  • A gun takes a life of an American child every two hours (Lantieri, 1995).

  • Homicide is the third leading cause of death for children between the ages of five and 14 (Children’s Defense Fund, 1996).

  • An average of 25 violent acts per hour occur in children’s television programs on Saturday mornings (Aid Association for Lutherans, 1996).

  • Between 100,000 and 200,000 guns are brought to school each day (Licitra, 1993).

A Look at the Problem
Violence from aggression and hostility appears to be increasing, particularly among the younger generation. The above statistics are chilling and such episodes undoubtedly interfere with teaching, learning, and even daily events such as walking outside at night or playing alone without supervision. In the past five years the following trends have been noted by Curwin and Mendler (1997): a) the rate of behaviorally disruptive students is increasing; b) behaviors previously typical only of high schoolers now occur in preschool and primary grades; c) educators describe students as more aggressive and hostile; and d) many children lack any sense of caring or remorse.

Violence is defined by Curwin andMendler (1997, p. 5) as “an assault to one's person that can take three forms: body (physical injury), esteem (verbal harassment such as name calling), or property (damage to things one owns).” A tendency toward violence usually develops in an environment encouraging aggression rather than tolerance when one's wants are not realized. In this environment, children as young as two and three years old are exposed to violence and imitate it. They know what "violence looks like, what it sounds like, and where it can be found and what it can mean to them" (Parry, Walker, & Heim, 1991, p. 2). By the age of six, violent and aggressive behavior becomes a stable personality trait, while violent behavior at age eight is a predictor of aggression at age 30 (Aid Association for Lutherans, 1996). The American Psychological Association (APA) has studied youth violence extensively the past 50 years. They found the history of a child's involvement in violence, either as a victim or aggressor, is the strongest predictor of violence. They found 70 percent of men in prison were abused or neglected children. For many children, therefore, school may be the only safe place away from an abusive home.

Educators as well as the community must come to terms with the reality of the ongoing problems of violence. In addition to the very real physical threat posed by such rampant violence, education itself is threatened. When fear is paramount in their minds, students cannot learn and teachers cannot teach. Many administrators, teachers, and parents feel a sense of hopelessness about the role of schools in combating violence, in which the emphasis has historically been on social control rather than improving the school climate. This approach has been unsuccessful despite increasing security such as metal detectors, permanent school-based police officers, and zero tolerance. Learning how to deal with aggression and hostility in nonviolent ways before violence becomes a stable personality trait is critical.

Early Intervention
One of the most encouraging educational implications from the APA report is that much of the social violence is learned behavior and if it is learned, it can be unlearned (American Psychological Association, 1995). Early intervention can help prevent both social conflicts and academic problems in later years by instilling strategies for recognizing and expressing strong emotions in acceptable ways. Daniel Goleman (1995), in his book Emotional Intelligence, describes critical periods for development of emotional intelligence in childhood during which children should learn beneficial emotional habits. If appropriate emotional development during this period does not occur, corrective efforts in later years become much more difficult. Unfortunately, children that begin their school years with antisocial behavior patterns often end up as school dropouts, delinquents, and adult criminals (Walker, Severson, Feil, Stiller, & Golly, 1998). Early intervention at the preschool level is the single most effective strategy available for the prevention of later delinquency (Zigler, Taussig, & Black, 1992). The earlier the intervention occurs for vulnerable, at-risk children, the more likely it is that positive outcomes will be achieved, particularly when parents are involved in the intervention.

Strategies for Teachers
Teachers can do many things to manage anger and/or aggression in the classroom and minimize interruptions of instructional time. One of the most obvious and helpful strategies is to recognize emotions and discuss them openly with students. Such discussions are incorporated into each of the following ideas.

Using Literature
There are many excellent books on feelings and anger management for students of all ages. A sampling of such books is listed below. Two books that could help both Michael and Jennifer are Feelings by Aliki (1984) and When I'm Angry (1998) by Aaron. Children need to learn to identify and recognize their own emotions before they can control them. The use of stories as instructional tools provides children with peer role models with whom they can identify and familiar situations to which they can relate. Such identification can increase a child's awareness of possible ways to deal with his or her own situations. Self-control can be taught to students through literature by anticipating consequences, learning from past experiences, and resolving conflicts (Hanley, 1997).


ABCD Conflict Solving
When students have disagreements, the four steps in the ABCD method can be very helpful in reaching resolution. The steps are as follows: a) ask about the problem; b) brainstorm some solutions; c) choose the best idea; and d) do it. Children as young as three can be led through this procedure, and older elementary children can be trained in conflict resolution skills to act as mediators for playground conflicts. When elementary children mediate minor problems, it reduces tattling and minimizes the need for adult intervention.

The Anger Thermometer
The anger thermometer provides children with a way to reflect on their feelings. Children color in the picture of a thermometer to show how upset they are, write or tell what caused their anger, and think of ways to handle the situation next time. This strategy is particularly beneficial for children like Jennifer who have difficulty expressing themselves. The descriptors written on the thermometer can be decided by the children and discussed so their meanings are clear.

"Peace Table"

The idea behind a peace table is to have children talk about a problem or situation civilly, instead of using angry words or physical aggression. The table can be placed anywhere in the room where children can have privacy during the conversation but is still visible to the teacher should the conversation need adult guidance.

Angry Notes
Angry notes help children to deal with emotions by writing or drawing instead of acting them out. Children who have difficulty verbalizing their feelings, like Jennifer, often are more comfortable drawing how they feel and then talking about their drawing. Children create special notebooks in which, when angry, they are encouraged to write or draw what they are angry about. By doing this, children become accustomed to expressing intense feelings and releasing frustration through these activities.

The de-bugging strategy is a five-step process children can use in a conflict situation in order to resolve the problem on their own before going to an adult. If one step doesn't work, the child should try the next one. The steps are as follows: a) Ignore, b) Move away, c) Talk friendly, d) Talk firmly (use "I feel....."), e) Get adult help. After children know this technique, the teacher can ask them if they de-bugged themselves before intervening, thus minimizing classroom interruption.

Calming Strategies
Children can learn self-control techniques such as calming and problem solving to manage their strong feelings. Teachers need to demonstrate and help children learn these nonviolent strategies before they can use them by themselves. Self-calming and relaxation techniques help students reduce impulsive reactions and thus control their anger. There are several ways that children can calm their anger. Children like Michael and Jennifer could be taught some of these strategies. Following are several calming techniques which give children a different activity on which to focus rather than responding immediately to their strong emotion of anger.


·         Counting. When children concentrate on counting, they don't react immediately to the anger. Children can slowly count to ten on their fingers, from one to 19 (forward), from ten to one (backwards), or backwards by fives starting at 100 as is age appropriate. Michael could benefit from this type of strategy as it would help him control his impulsivity.


·         Deep Breathing. Children are taught to take deep breaths for three minutes. They may combine either counting to five while inhaling and again while exhaling, or silently say such calming words as “chill out,” “re-lax,” or “be cool” with the rhythm of their breath (Curwin and Mendler, 1997).


·         Hand “C” Circle. Children can do this by themselves very quickly to calm themselves. The child forms his or her left hand into a “C” shape (index and thumb facing child). The child uses his or her right index finger and traces the “C” repeating the two phrases: “Calm down. Control yourself.” The motion and repetition helps to calm and relax the child.


·         B.A.T.S. This acronym stands for: Breathe, Ask yourself to count to ten, Think of your favorite place, and Say, "I'm okay. I can handle it!" A poster of this strategy can be created by the class and hang in the classroom to serve as a reminder to think before acting.


Problem-Solving Strategies
Problem-solving strategies need to be taught, demonstrated, role played, and practiced in the classroom. Published programs such as Quest International (1998) or Second Step Anti-Violence Curriculum (Committee for Children, 1991) are often used by counselors and have effective problem-solving approaches. Some examples of problem-solving strategies are:


  • Stop, Think, Plan (STP). This technique can prevent physical violence by teaching children to stop when they become angry instead of acting out immediately, think of several possible actions and plan a reasonable resolution. By reinforcing use of STP, a teacher can instill in her students positive social habits. This is another strategy that Lisa could teach to Michael to help him develop self-control.

  • Song. This variation of the tune “If you're happy and you know it” can teach and remind children of positive responses to conflict. Substitute the following words: first verse, “If you're mad and you know it, walk away”; second verse, “if you're mad and you know it count to ten”; third verse and “if you're mad and you know it, talk it out."

  • Use of Verbal Skills. Children need to learn vocabulary for talking to themselves and others about their wants and abilities. By teaching appropriate words, pasting them around the classroom, and modeling their use, a teacher can develop a critical skill in children.

Techniques to Avoid


  • Substitute Objects. Encouraging children to vent their anger by punching or kicking a pillow or doll is not a viable strategy. Contrary to public opinion, this technique does NOT reduce the probability that the child will behave aggressively in the future, and may, in fact, encourage and increase this behavior (Slaby, Roedell, Arezzo, and Hendrix, 1995).

  • Time-out. While a brief time-out for young children (one to two minutes) can be useful, poorly planned, overused, or extended stays in time-out can be detrimental. Time-out does provide the child with an immediate consequence for dangerous or destructive behavior and should be reserved that type of problem. Other approaches like reasoning or practicing alternative behaviors should be used for infrequent behaviors when children get very excited or impulsive. A warning should always be given for the first offense, and children should not be isolated or given attention during that time. If this procedure is not effective, time-out should be modified or discontinued. Slaby, et al. (1995) have an in-depth discussion and suggestions on time-out with young children.

As educators, we play a crucial role in helping children manage their anger, which is critical to their emotional development. Together with parents, we are children’s first role models. By using the strategies discussed in this article, children like Michael and Jennifer can gain independent skills to control anger and other emotions, skills which are critical in early childhood and throughout their lives.

Mary Drecktrah, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the special education department at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.

Amy Wallenfang is a senior at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh with a dual major in elementary education and special education. This article is the result of a faculty/undergraduate student collaborative research study project at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.

Recommended Children's Literature
Aaron, J. (1998). When I’m Angry. New York: Golden Books. This book discusses several ways to deal with anger: cry, eat, or be alone. The colorful pictures are very appealing to the eye. It also includes an excellent, easy-to-read parent guide, written by Dr. Barbara Gardiner, which follows a question-and-answer format.

Aliki. (1984). Feelings. New York: Greenwillow Books. Various emotions are depicted in this book through pictures, dialogues, poems, and stories. Children can enjoy this book in short sections, choosing which emotions they need to explore more.

Crary, E. (1991). Dealing With Feelings Series. Seattle: Parenting Press, Inc.
This series includes titles such as I’m Mad, I’m Frustrated, I’m Furious, I’m Scared, and I’m Proud. In this series the reader has a choice of what he or she wants the character to do. There is also a helpful part for parents to read ahead of time to help their children to understand their feelings more.

Dragonwagon, C. (1983). I Hate My Brother Harry. New York: The Trumpet Club. Name calling, teasing, and fighting are common occurrences among siblings. The book goes through common angry feelings and how communication between children helps to relieve the problem.

Everitt, B. (1992). Mean Soup. Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company. Often children go home at the end of a school day angry about their bad day. This is what happens to the main character in the story and he takes it out on his mother when he gets home. She helps him to get rid of his anger and frustration by making mean soup. They both scream into the pot, bang the pot, and stick their tongues out at it to make themselves feel better.

Joosse, B. (1989). Dinah’s Mad, Bad Wishes. New York: Harper & Row Publishers. Dinah and her mother are angry with each other. In the book they learn positive ideas for dealing with anger, such as a cooling-off period, contemplating what caused the feelings, being physically active, and not holding a grudge.

Moser, A. (1988). Don’t Pop Your Cork on Mondays and Don’t Rant and Rave on Wednesdays. Kansas City: Landmark Editions, Inc. These books show the reader the causes and effects of stress and anger and positive methods to deal with stress and anger.

Viorst, J. (1972). Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. New York: Athenum. Alexander has negative feelings some days and nothing goes right for him. He deals with them in several ways and often thinks about moving to Australia.

Wilhelm, H. (1986). Let’s Be Friends, Again! New York: Crown Publishers, Inc. A young boy becomes angry with his sister for setting his pet turtle free. The text and pictures describe his reactions to anger and how he eventually makes up with his sister.

Zolotow, C. (1969). The Hating Book. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers. Two friends have misunderstood each other and ignore each other until they are unhappy and angry. They eventually talk and work everything out.

Aaron, J. (1998). When I’m Angry. New York: Golden Books

Aid Association for Lutherans (1996). Without violence: Take action against violence and conflict in your life. Appleton, WI: Author.

Aliki. (1984). Feelings. New York: Greenwillow Books.

American Psychological Association (1993). Violence and youth: Psychology's response, l, Washington, DC: Author.

Children's Defense Fund (1996). The state of America's children. Washington, DC: Author.

Committee for Children (1991). Second step: A violence-prevention curriculum. Seattle, WA: Author.

Curwin, R.L. & Mendler, A.N. (1997). As tough as necessary. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam.

Gregory, J.L. (1998). Roots of violence. Christian Century, 115 (20), 692.

Henley, M. (1997). Teaching self-control. Bloomington, IN: National Education Service.

Lantieri, L. (1995). Waging peace in our schools: Beginning with our children. Phi Delta Kappan, 76 (5), 386-388.

Licitra, A. (Aug. 11, 1993). Youth violence rampant but preventable psychologists say. Education Daily, 5.

Parry, A., Walker, M. & Heim, C. (1991). Choosing non-violence. Chicago, IL: Rainbow House/Arco Iris, Inc.

Quest International (1998). Skills for growing. Newark, Ohio: Author.

Remboldt, C. (1998). Making violence unacceptable. Educational Leadership, 56 (1), 32-38.

Sautter, R.C. (1995). Standing up to Violence. Phi Delta Kappan, 76(5), K1-K12.

Slaby, R.G., Roedell, W.C., Arezzo, D. & Hendrix, K. (1995). Early violence prevention: Tools for teachers of young children. Washington DC: NAEYC.

Walker, H.M., Severson, H. H., Feil, E.G., Stiller, B., & Golly, A. (1998). First step to success: Intervening at the point of school entry to prevent antisocial behavior patterns. Psychology in the Schools, 35(30, 259-26.

Zigler, E., Taussig, C., & Black, Y. (1992). Early childhood intervention: A promising preventative for juvenile delinquency. American Psychologist, 47(8), 997-1006.