“Oh, no!” groaned Julia as she saw four-year-old Carlos shove Sarah. “Here we go again.” For the third time in as many days, Carlos was angry and he had once again responded to his anger by hurting somebody. It will come as no surprise to early childhood teachers that some young children like Carlos express anger aggressively (Fabes & Eisenberg, 1992). What strategies can teachers use to help Carlos and other children learn to control their anger?
Using time out for example, did not help Carlos deal with the root of his anger or reflect upon his interaction with Sarah. Julia tried making Carlos consider the other child’s perspective by asking him, “How do you think Sarah felt when you shoved her?”
Encouraging children to think about another person’s perspective is a good long-term goal in child guidance (Marion, 1995), but the method is not very helpful. Young children focus on one thing at a time; they have not developed the ability to take the other person’s point of view in a conflict. Taking another’s perspective is a skill that does not develop automatically; it has to be learned and practiced over a period of several years. Similarly, telling Carlos, “Use your words and not your hands,” is helpful, but only after he knows the words. Young children must also learn this skill gradually over long periods of time.
How Do Young Children Experience Anger?
One of the most puzzling and frustrating things about anger in early childhood classrooms is that the anger emotion has three different parts. Children definitely feel anger and the undoubtedly express anger, but they do not seem to understand anger (Kuebli, 1994). This article focuses on encouraging teachers to guide children toward understanding and managing anger. Furthermore, the article describes what elicits children’s anger, identifies typical ways children express anger in early childhood classrooms, explains how children use emotional scripts, and identifies several strategies through which teachers can help construct helpful emotional scripts.
What Causes Anger in Young Children?
Young children usually feel angry when they blocked from achieving an important goal (Lewis, Allesandri, & Sullivan, 1990). Therefore, anger is the ability to appreciate that somebody or something is blocking one’s attainment of a goal—and even infants can do that. It does not take higher-level cognitive skills to feel anger (Campos, Barrett, Lamb, Goldsmith, & Stenberg, 1983; Karraker, Lake, & Parry, 1994).
How Do Children Express Anger?
Anger is normal, but it is often perceived as an unpleasant and stressful emotion (Ballard, Cummings, & Larkin, 1993). Young children who express anger are signaling to teachers that they are trying to deal with their stress by attempting to remove whatever is blocking the achievement of their goal.
Anger is called a basic emotion because it can be expressed in many ways (Campos et al., 1983). The two most common causes of anger in preschool children are conflicts over possessions and physical assault (Fabes & Eisenberg, 1992). Some children will defend their possessions, self-esteem, or position nonaggressively by saying, “Give that back. It’s mine!” This type of reaction is called active resistance. Other children will take a nonaggressive approach to expressing anger by crying, sulking, or talking about an incident. They will not, however, do anything to solve the problem. This type of reaction is called venting. Venting indicates that a child either does not know how or chooses not to use a more direct and positive method of expressing his or her emotions. Many children vent when an adult asks them to do something they do not want to do. They realize that there is a power difference between them and adults (Levine, 1995; Zeman & Shipman, 1996). Carlos, for example, often indirectly expresses his anger by pouting when his teacher asks him to do things he does not want to do. With peers, however, children express their anger more directly. Some children, like Carlos, use aggressive revenge, like hitting or name calling, to get back at provokers or by telling a teacher about provokers. Most of the time children vent or actively resist a provoker. When physically assaulted, however, about 20 percent of the preschool children studied by Fabes and Eisenberg (1992) expressed anger aggressively.
Younger children express anger more frequently than do older children. Boys tend to express anger by venting or by mildly aggressive methods. Girls, on the other hand, use active resistance more frequently (Fabes & Eisenberg, 1992; Zeman & Garber, 1996; Zeman & Shipman, 1996). These differences result because boys and girls are socialized differently (Davis, 1995).
What Is the Role of Emotional Scripts in Anger Management?
One explanation for the aggressive way in which children like Carlos express anger lies in the concept of emotional scripts. Children construct emotional scripts as they watch television, movies, and videos; as they interact with family and friends; and as they read books (Honig & Wittmer, 1992). These scripts are then used as guides for responding to situations involving emotions (Lewis, 1989; Russel, 1989).
Many children who aggressively express anger exist in family systems that accept, model, and reward aggressive responses to conflict. These children might be direct victims of aggression or they might observe what is known as background anger, anger observed by a child but not directed at a child (Cummings, 1987). Children react to high levels of anger with increased stress, fear, and aggression (Hennessy, Rapideau, Cummings, & Cicchetti, 1994) which keeps them from understanding anger-arousing situations (Denham, Zoller, & Couchoud, 1994). Children from such systems construct emotional scripts that tell them to use aggression when they are confronted with some sort of anger-provoking interaction in school (Huesmann, 1988).
How to Help Children Write Healthy Emotional Anger Scripts
Early childhood teachers can nurture children’s ability to express angry feelings in anonaggressive manner by encouraging them to develop helpful emotional scripts. Developing good emotional scripts is an age-appropriate strategy for all young children, not just the aggressive ones. Carlos, for example, needs individually appropriate guidance so that he may begin to rewrite his emotional scripts. Even when the script has been rewritten, teachers will need to remind some children about the new way of thinking and acting. The reason? A young child’s memory improves during early childhood (Perlmutter, 1986), but he or she can still remember the unhelpful way of responding to anger. They can revert to using the old script even after teachers have worked on developing new scripts (Freeman, Lacohee, & Coulton, 1995). Consider trying some of the following strategies to help children develop healthy emotional scripts for expressing anger.
- Send helpful messages to children about feeling and expressing anger in early childhood classrooms. The tone of your classroom and your child guidance philosophy should convey four important messages to children. First, it is perfectly natural and normal to feel angry at times. Second, we will not laugh at, ignore, or get upset with children who are angry. Third, it is not acceptable to express anger in a way that hurts other people, animals, or objects (Baumrind, 1996). Fourth, we will help you figure out how to tell others you are angry without hurting them. These messages will help create an emotional climate that is safe and that does not shame the child who feels anger.
- Teach young children how to use words to express anger. Children need direct instruction on how to use words to express anger. Many of our children observe their parents talking about anger in an unhelpful way. Parents, for example, threaten the provoker without ever talking about or producing a word label for angry feelings (Miller & Sperry, 1987). Therefore, children come to our centers unable to produce word labels for emotions and to understand that anger is a feeling. Julia could teach Carlos this skill by saying, “Carlos, you seem to be feeling very upset right now. You can use words to tell Sarah how you feel. Say, ‘Sarah, I’m angry because you pushed me out of the way.”
- Teach children about being “a little angry” or very, very angry.” After you have helped children understand that they are having a feeling and that the feeling has a name, teach them that there is a range of feeling. For example, “The bus driver seemed to be a little angry. He was annoyed when we were late,” or “That man was very, very angry. He was irate when somebody trampled his flowers.” By discussing the different levels of feeling, you will help children expand their anger vocabulary. Make and refer to a chart of the word labels generated by the class.
- Explain angry feelings and encourage angry children to talk about situations that made them angry. Carlos will begin to understand his anger is Julia talk with him about his feelings, listens non-judgmentally, and explains his emotions (Brown & Dunn, 1996; Denham et al., 1994). As they talk, Julia could guide Carlos through the anger management process by helping him recognize and label his anger. Then she can help him come up with a plan that move him from an angry state to a more rational state. Finally, she can help him evaluate how the plan worked.
- Use thinking puppets to put discussion about managing anger into the curriculum. Treat anger management like other parts of an early childhood curriculum by planning activities focusing on the topic. Julia, for example, wrote a lesson plan for group time using Jessica, a thinking puppet. Jessica visited the children at group time and told the children that she was angry because somebody had taken the last snack from the plate, leaving her with nothing to eat. Jessica said she had yelled at the puppet who swiped the snacks but that the other puppet has only gotten angry back at her. Julia and the thinking puppet asked the group to think about some different ways Jessica could have handled this problem. The teacher used the thinking puppets several times to encourage the children to use appropriate anger management skills:
· Thinking puppets named some of the things that make them angry.
· Thinking puppets demonstrated how to use words to express anger.
· Thinking puppets visited an interest center and children practiced anger management skills with them.
- Use books and stories about anger. Choose books about anger carefully so that children get correct information about anger and its management. Ask these questions when evaluating children’s books about anger (Marion, 1995):
- Does this book use correct terminology about anger?
- Does this book expand or clarify anger vocabulary?
- Does this book tell children that anger is a natural and normal emotion?
- Does this book identify the specific event that caused the anger?
- Does this book show children how to manage anger responsibly, without hurting others or damaging property?
Each day children encounter frustrating situations in which they may become angry. Although each child will express his anger in unique ways, our challenge as early childhood professionals is to help children understand their anger and to guide children with helpful, nonaggressive strategies for managing anger.
Marian Marion, Ph.D., is a professor of child development and early childhood education at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie, WI. She is also the author of Guidance Young Children, Fourth Edition.
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