When a Child Gets Angry – We Punish

It has been two days since a black unarmed teenager was shot and killed by a police officer here in Madison.  15 minutes from my house.  He went to the high school across my street.  For the past two days, we have checked the news, watched the protests unfold, and searched for answers much like the rest of the country.  This is not a post on what happened, because I do not know.  But in the past two days I have been inherently aware that we live in a country that solves its problems with force.  That we keep ending up in situations where unarmed children are being killed because that is the resort we go to.  As the teen’s grandmother shouted to the police, “Why not just tase him?”

We see it in our schools as well; the escalation of punishment and force when a child, according to us, gets angrier.  When a child loses control and reacts in a negative way, we take away the rest of their control to show them that we mean business.  They lose all power over their day and then we wonder why they get angrier rather than just give in.  When a child comes to us angry, we assume more will follow and we prepare plans for what to do when that anger comes, not plans for how to keep it at bay.  We live in a society that punishes rather than investigates.

I have had the angry children in my classroom.  I have had the kids with the file, with the police records.  With the outbursts that scared me.  I have had the child who threw a table across the room when another child called him a name.  I have had the child where parents didn’t want their child in the same room, afraid of what would happen.  I get it; fear is a powerful emotion, and when it comes to being fearful for our own safety or that of others, it becomes critical that we react.

Yet it is within our reaction that we must pause.  If a child is angry or violent, we must ask why?  We must dig for answers until something is uncovered.  Yes, start the plans, but start the investigation at the same time.  Relationship and trust has to be our first line of defense, not excessive force.  Not assuming that the worst will happen, thus waiting for it to happen, and then not being surprised when it does.  If we look at an angry child and expect anger, we will find it.  If we look at a child that may become out of control, they will.  Our mindset is what has to change, even if it means pausing before reacting.  We have to stop our line of escalating punishments if they are not solving the problem.

So with all of my angry students, I had the showdowns.  I didn’t always call for the principal, and perhaps I should have, but instead I stood my ground and asked questions; why are you doing this?  Why is this your reaction?  How can I help?  I even cracked a joke or two.  And it wasn’t a miracle, these children did not change overnight, they still got angry, they still threw chairs, but at least sometimes I knew why and I could work on that.  Yes, there were consequences, but they were ones that made sense; speaking to the counselor or the psychologist, working through it with me, parents getting involved, teams put in place.  Not suspension, not detention, not always.

For the past 5 years I have tried to give power back to my students.  I have asked them what they need in our classrooms to learn.  I have listened and tried to provide a classroom that they felt in control over, where there was room for them, where they didn’t have to escalate to get what they needed.  I have moved away from my own instant judgment and punishment as much as possible.  It has been hard.  My gut reaction has often been to punish, yet I knew that long-term it would not help the child but only grow the problem.  I am not alone, other educators have been doing this for years, so how do we do it as a nation?  How do we move away from more and more force being used, from creating more angry children who end up becoming angry adults?  What can we change?  And what can we change right now?

PS:  I don’t know what prompted the officer to shoot Tony, I don’t know if there was anger.  The post is simply the train of thoughts that were prompted based on what my community is going through.

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA but originally from Denmark,  who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  The second edition of my first book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” will be published by Routledge in the fall.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Join our Passionate Learners community on Facebook and follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

10 thoughts on “When a Child Gets Angry – We Punish

  1. “We live in a society that punishes rather than investigates…Yet it is within our reaction that we must pause.”
    Pernille- this is my take-away from your post. We cannot continue the power struggle. I admire you for not taking the easy route- punishment after punishment- and trying to find out why this is happening. What are the reasons or motives? It is this kind of reaction that will help us reach kids.

    • Thank you for the admiration but I can tell you it it hard, my gut reaction is still to punish no matter what my heart tells me. It is an effort to stop myself from just reacting.

  2. I think part of our problem is that what you are advocating is hard – incredibly difficult – and takes time, and those are two things we often shy away from in our current system. I also think that many times you are right. The before and after-school care program at my school is hosted in my classroom (I have a modular, no-desk setup, which makes it easy for transform into a child-care space), and I am always amazed at what the two caregivers accomplish, simply by taking the approach that you do. Part of that comes because they have fewer children than I have in a classroom; part of it comes from that fact that they have no principal to call – they are all there is, and they have to deal with the situation; part of it comes from the way they’ve been trained. But why is always there, as part of the equation – and while there are meaningful consequences, there is also always a conversation. I am in awe of them, and learn from them every day.

    Will be thinking of you and your community much in the coming days. I know that there is a challenging conversation waiting for me tomorrow, as one of my students comes to me with a “why, Madame, why again?”. He is one of very few mixed-race kids in my building, and every time a shooting happens, he feels it very deeply, because he knows it could be him.

    • You are so right, having less kids and little alternative simply does force us to deal with things in a different way. I know that some of my least thought through decisions when it comes to reacting to a child has been when y patience is thin, many kids are either in my class or acting up, and I don’t have the energy to deal with it.

  3. Education and law enforcement are far too dissimilar to make a comparison here. I do not like when others tell me how to deal with my students because I know them well. With their parents help I am able to hopefully not over react to a problem. Unfortunately law enforcement does not have that luxury. But we cannot put ourselves in their shoes. It is not often I disagree with anything you post but today I do.

    • Thank you for your comment, as I stated in my PS – these are my train of thoughts that stemmed from the incident, not a comparison and also prompted from discussions with my husband. I agree law enforcement does not have that luxury, which is also why I said I do not know what happened.

  4. Hi Pernille,
    What a deep, thoughtful and provocative post. However, I think that unfortunately education does have a lot to do with law enforcement. If we are unable to deal with the anger of these students in the classroom, they will take their anger out onto the streets. If they feel powerless, the only way they can feel powerful is by intimidating others, and they can find a great variety of ways to do that.
    I think your suggestion to take pause is a good one. Just as we teach children to recognise their feelings and gauge when their levels of frustration and anger are rising, and to pause (count to ten, take a depth breath or whatever to defuse), our response to them also requires a pause, to think before we react, to find a way of defusing rather than escalating the problem. It is difficult. I have not always been able to achieve it. When the safety of other children and teachers is in jeopardy, there is sometimes no time to pause. But once removed from the situation, discussions can take place. But building trust is an important part of the process, and that can take time.
    It is a good thing you have given us so much to think about and discuss in this post.
    I feel for you and your community. It must be quite unsettling. I am pleased our gun laws in Australia are quite strict.

  5. What words people are leaving you regarding this. Children, kids, students take work. They take time and lessons and boundaries and structure and love and trial and error and time. Kids who make good choices and kids who make bad choices…they take time and effort to keep them on the right path or to bring them back. I think you are right on about aknowledging kids for where they are. We can not let what we are afraid of stop us from reaching out and trying to connect and be that teacher, that adult for our students. It does start with us. We can make an impact on our students and help bridge that gap…filling their need…teaching them there are different ways. The problem is so much bigger then us and that is the struggle. A system not made like our classroom. I do think we can teach our students, work with them and enable them to be better people, have more control, see that there are different ways and that in itself will change their future.

  6. Thank you thank you thank you for this! Your heart so speaks to mine. I just held with a child yesterday who was in a cold rage. It has been so hard for me to do as I had a rage-oholic father. Just recently I learned to stay neutral in the face of rage/ anger, not have my nervous system freak out. Yesterday I was able to hold with presence as the child’s anger turned to tears. This is so vital. Know I deeply appreciate what you are doing and support you whole heartedly. Thank you!
    heartfully,
    savannah

  7. Powerful post and comments. It’s true that the schooling system we’re trying to move away from takes everything away from students except the requirement to learn. Syllabuses are set, teachers are available, progress levels are managed, school provides resources, good grades are rewarded… I complied and felt suffocated, I was never surprised when my peers got angry within this situation.

    One thing I read recently on the ‘Virtues Project’ (http://www.virtuesproject.org/) was around approaching anger/tears not by asking ‘why’ as that word subtly implies there is something wrong with the emotion, but rather ask ‘what are those tears for?’ or ‘what is the anger for?’ It makes sense when it’s thought about. Amazing the influence of words.

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