Understanding and managing anger

Every individual will have a different disposition to anger. This means that, particularly in the case of pupils with BESD, you will need to be aware of:

  • What triggers their anger
  • How they react to anger
  • What helps to calm the situation
  • How you can work with them to raise their awareness of – and improve their reactions to – things that make them angry

The unit examines a range of approaches to anger management and includes information about:

  • How the environment affects anger and the contexts in which anger may flare up in your school
  • The physiology of anger
  • Psychological theories of anger
  • Managing anger
  • Emotional training

The physiology of anger

The body goes through many changes when a person gets angry.

Select different areas from the image to find out more about these reactions.

  1. Muscles
  2. Sharpened senses
  3. Heart rate
  4. Breathing
  5. Metabolism
  6. Digestive system
  7. Skin
  8. Endorphins
  9. Judgement


Muscles in the body tense as fight or flight reflexes begin to engage and the body prepares for action.

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Sharpened senses

Pupils dilate to improve vision and body hairs stand on end to enable enhanced sensitivity.

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Heart rate

The heart rate increases and the body makes changes to the cardiovascular system. Arteries constrict to maximise blood pressure and veins enlarge to ease the return of blood to the heart.

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The throat and nostrils open up to expedite breathing, which enables oxygenation of the blood and allows muscles to work harder.

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Fats from fatty cells and glucose in the liver are metabolised to create energy.

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Digestive system

Blood vessels to the kidneys and digestive system constrict, temporarily shutting down non-essential systems.

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Blood vessels to the skin are constricted to reduce blood loss in case of trauma. The sweat glands also open to improve body temperature regulation.

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Endorphins are released to minimise pain and reduce its impact upon the body’s ability to respond to threats.

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The brain’s propensity for logical judgement is reduced and gives way to more primitive responses.

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The five phases of anger

Select a column from the diagram to find out more about any one of the five phases of anger, as modelled in Glynis M. Breakwell’s 1997 book, Coping with aggressive behaviour.

  1. Trigger
  2. General frustrations towards the outside world or a specific threat – such as a personal attack – trigger angry emotions. It is the perceived threat, rather than the reality of the situation, which causes angry outbursts. Prevention techniques such as distraction or moving to a less stressful environment are likely to be most effective at this stage.

  3. Escalation
  4. At this point, adrenaline is released into the bloodstream and physical changes begin to occur. Muscles tense, breathing becomes more rapid and blood pressure rises. The individual becomes less receptive to reason.

  5. Crisis
  6. There is an explosion of anger and the individual’s ability to make rational judgements, demonstrate empathy or listen to others is severely impaired. The body’s prime objective becomes fight or flight.

  7. Plateau or recovery
  8. At this stage, anger begins to subside. The body can take up to 90 minutes to return to normal and remains partially ready for action during this period. Recurrences of the crisis stage are possible if provocation persists.

  9. Post-crisis depression
  10. Anger consumes incredible amounts of the body’s resources, and it now needs time to recover. As the individual becomes more able to listen and think logically, they may feel guilt or remorse. During this phase, carers and teachers should focus on turning these feelings into a positive response, and try to avoid the development of negative emotions such as low self-esteem.


Baseline behaviour

Different theoretical approaches to psychology may affect interpretations of the motivations and functions of anger. The resulting perspectives are summarised here.


Psychological theories of anger

The behaviourist perspective

From this perspective, anger is a learned response to past events, and is influenced by the individual’s experiences of rewards or sanctions.

The behaviourist approach reasons that, if angry behaviour has produced positive results in the past, it is likely to be used again.

Behaviourists believe that behaviour can be unlearned in the same way it is learned, through the reinforcement of good behaviour and the sanctioning of bad behaviour. Behaviourist approaches also stipulate that it is easier to eliminate bad behaviour if it is replaced by a better, alternative way to act.

This perspective underlies some of the approaches taken by social training strategies such as SEAL, which encourage pupils to recognise triggers and consider alternative responses.

Managing anger

Select a circle to learn about various techniques for managing anger and calming situations. All interventions need to be carried out according to clear guidelines for managing conflict, with recognised procedures for the use of appropriate physical restraint.

  1. Triggers
  2. Techniques
  3. Management
  4. Reflection
  5. Follow-up


Different people have different things that make them angry. Stressful situations, personal attacks, or general frustrations towards the outside world may all function as triggers that move individuals towards crisis.

By being aware of what a pupil’s anger triggers might be, you can come up with strategies that allow pupils, parents and carers to avoid them. It is important to understand that it is the perception of threats as perceived by the individual, rather than the ‘reality’ of the situation as perceived by others, that triggers anger responses.

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If you notice a pupil becoming angry, there are several techniques that you may be able to employ to help calm them down. They include:

  • Distraction – Changing the focus of a child’s attention can encourage them to forget the original source of an angry emotion.
  • Relocation – By moving a child away from an anger trigger you can help to remove the perceived threat and allow the child to settle their emotions.
  • Humour – Sources of positive emotion like humour can interrupt negative cycles of emotion.
  • Active listening – A pupil may find it useful to discuss the source of negative emotions, and empathetic, non-judgemental listening can be useful.
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Careful management of pupils can help them to avoid anger triggers and halt major crises. For example, if two students have difficulty getting on, separating them until negative emotions have subsided may be an effective intervention. The long-term separation of pupils may even be necessary.

Be consistent in the way you manage behaviour and make sure that all parties involved receive fair treatment. A sense of having been treated unfairly may be a source of further anger for some pupils, or may result in them losing respect for teachers.

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After an anger flare-up, it may be useful for students to reflect on what has happened. Encourage them to think logically about the triggers of their anger and why their emotions escalated, as well as what they can do to prevent future outbursts.

Appropriate time and space should be given to pupils for this, as well as guidance on how to think constructively about events. In the post-crisis depression phase, pupils may be prone to feelings of guilt or low self-esteem, and it is important to encourage positive thinking after an outburst.

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The way a teacher deals with students after an anger crisis may have an impact on future outbursts. It is important to follow up with effective sanctions of inappropriate behaviour.

Restorative approaches, which focus on repairing the harm done to relationships rather than on assigning blame, can also be useful in ensuring that the social and emotional effects of anger outbursts are constructively interpreted.

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Models of anger

You may find it useful to use models to teach pupils about the processes of anger. Visual representations such as ‘the match’, ‘the fuse’ and ‘the explosion’ help children to understand responses to anger by mapping an anger model to pictures. In this case, the match represents the anger trigger, the fuse represents escalation, and the explosion represents the crisis phase.


This mind map shows some of the social and emotional training techniques you can use with individuals or small groups to help pupils deal with anger.


Training techniques

  • Assertiveness training

    Individuals can sometimes become angry when they feel like their needs are not being met. By training pupils in assertiveness, you can teach them the skills they need to achieve their goals without having to resort to anger.

  • Anger models

    Models of anger can help pupils to understand how emotions can quickly escalate and get out of control. Different anger models can be simplified with visual learning aids to make them more accessible to children.

  • Identification of conflict responses

    By learning about their own and others' responses to conflict and frustration, pupils are better able to explore and develop alternative, more appropriate responses.

  • Creative representations

    Role play and drawing games can be used to explore conflict situations in a fun and safe environment. Pupils can use these to communicate their feelings about certain situations and examine potential solutions.


Counselling and therapeutic approaches

Long-term counselling and therapeutic techniques can be used if angry tendencies persist. Select each technique on the mind map to find out more.


Counselling and therapy

  • Long-term training

    Sustained training over long periods may be necessary to help pupils manage their anger. Learning support units, nurture groups and withdrawal facilities can offer the necessary level of support and guidance.

  • Professional counselling

    A sustained programme of counselling sessions with a professional counsellor may be beneficial to some pupils with anger management problems.

  • Support groups

    Anger management support groups provide individuals with the opportunity to share their feelings with others in a safe and sympathetic environment. Groups may involve regular workshops, but can also exist virtually as online forums.

  • Circle of friends groups

    Circle of friends groups aim to increase inclusion in social peer groups by selecting a focus child for the attention of the group. The circle then acts as a resource to suggest strategies and set targets to deal with the child’s difficulties.

  • Mentoring/coaching

    Mentoring or coaching by an experienced coach may be of benefit to pupils with anger management difficulties. These approaches help pupils to achieve desirable outcomes through:

    • Setting personal goals
    • Implementing constructive behavioural strategies