Children's anger presents challenges to teachers committed to constructive, ethical, and effective child guidance. This digest explores what we know about the components of children's anger, factors contributing to understanding and managing anger, and the ways teachers can guide children's expressions of anger.
Three Components of Anger
Anger is believed to have three components (Lewis & Michalson, 1983):
The Emotional State of Anger. The first component is the emotion itself, defined as an
affective or arousal state, or a feeling experienced when a goal is
blocked or needs are frustrated. Fabes and Eisenberg (1992) describe
several types of stress-producing anger provocations that young
children face daily in classroom interactions:
Conflict over possessions, which involves someone taking children's property or invading their space.
Physical assault, which involves one child doing something to another child, such as pushing or hitting.
Verbal conflict, for example, a tease or a taunt.
Rejection, which involves a child being ignored or not allowed to play with peers.
Issues of compliance, which often involve asking or insisting that children do something that they do not want
to do--for instance, wash their hands.
Expression of Anger. The
second component of anger is its expression. Some children vent or
express anger through facial expressions, crying, sulking, or
talking, but do little to try to solve a problem or confront the
provocateur. Others actively resist by physically or verbally
defending their positions, self-esteem, or possessions in
nonaggressive ways. Still other children express anger with
aggressive revenge by physically or verbally retaliating against the
provocateur. Some children express dislike by telling the offender
that he or she cannot play or is not liked. Other children express
anger through avoidance or attempts to escape from or evade the
provocateur. And some children use adult seeking, looking for
comfort or solutions from a teacher, or telling the teacher about an
Teachers can use child guidance strategies to help
children express angry feelings in socially constructive ways.
Children develop ideas about how to express emotions (Michalson &
Lewis, 1985; Russel, 1989) primarily through social interaction in
their families and later by watching television or movies, playing
video games, and reading books (Honig & Wittmer, 1992). Some
children have learned a negative, aggressive approach to expressing
anger (Cummings, 1987; Hennessy et al., 1994) and, when confronted
with everyday anger conflicts, resort to using aggression in the
classroom (Huesmann, 1988). A major challenge for early childhood
teachers is to encourage children to acknowledge angry feelings and
to help them learn to express anger in positive and effective
An Understanding of Anger. The third component of the anger
experience is understanding--interpreting and evaluating--the
emotion. Because the ability to regulate the expression of anger is
linked to an understanding of the emotion (Zeman & Shipman, 1996),
and because children's ability to reflect on their anger is somewhat
limited, children need guidance from teachers and parents in
understanding and managing their feelings of anger.
Understanding and Managing Anger
The development of basic cognitive processes
undergirds children's gradual development of the understanding of
anger (Lewis & Saarni, 1985).
Memory. Memory improves substantially during early childhood (Perlmutter, 1986), enabling
young children to better remember aspects of anger-arousing
interactions. Children who have developed unhelpful ideas of how to
express anger (Miller & Sperry, 1987) may retrieve the early
unhelpful strategy even after teachers help them gain a more helpful
perspective. This finding implies that teachers may have to remind
some children, sometimes more than once or twice, about the less
aggressive ways of expressing anger.
Language. Talking about
emotions helps young children understand their feelings (Brown &
Dunn, 1996). The understanding of emotion in preschool children is
predicted by overall language ability (Denham, Zoller, & Couchoud,
1994). Teachers can expect individual differences in the ability to
identify and label angry feelings because children's families model
a variety of approaches in talking about
Self-Referential and Self-Regulatory Behaviors. Self-referential behaviors include viewing the self as separate from others and as an active, independent, causal agent.
Self-regulation refers to controlling impulses, tolerating
frustration, and postponing immediate gratification. Initial
self-regulation in young children provides a base for early
childhood teachers who can develop strategies to nurture children's
emerging ability to regulate the expression of anger. [This may be particularly problematic if I child has been diagnosed with a disorder such as ADHD or ODD.]
Sidebar: There appears to be a link between ADHD and bullying. A 2008 study conducted in Sweden, showed that children with ADHD are four times more likely than their peers to bully other children, and they are almost ten times as likely than other children to be bullied.
Guiding Children's Expressions of Anger
Teachers can help children deal
with anger by guiding their understanding and management of this
emotion. The practices described here can help children understand
and manage angry feelings in a direct and nonaggressive
Create a Safe Emotional Climate. A healthy early childhood
setting permits children to acknowledge all feelings, pleasant and
unpleasant, and does not shame anger. Healthy classroom systems have
clear, firm, and flexible boundaries.
Model Responsible Anger Management. Children have an impaired ability to understand emotion
when adults show a lot of anger (Denham, Zoller, & Couchoud, 1994).
Adults who are most effective in helping children manage anger model
responsible management by acknowledging, accepting, and taking
responsibility for their own angry feelings and by expressing anger
in direct and nonaggressive ways.
Help Children Develop Self-Regulatory Skills. Teachers of infants and toddlers do a lot of
self-regulation "work," realizing that the children in their care
have a very limited ability to regulate their own emotions. As
children get older, adults can gradually transfer control of the
self to children, so that they can develop self-regulatory
Encourage Children to Label Feelings of Anger. Teachers
and parents can help young children produce a label for their anger
by teaching them that they are having a feeling and that they can
use a word to describe their angry feeling. A permanent record (a
book or chart) can be made of lists of labels for anger (e.g., mad,
irritated, annoyed), and the class can refer to it when discussing
Encourage Children to Talk About Anger-Arousing Interactions.
Preschool children better understand anger and other emotions when adults explain emotions (Denham, Zoller, &Couchoud, 1994). When children are embroiled in an
anger-arousing interaction, teachers can help by listening without
judging,evaluating, or ordering them to feel differently.
Use Books and Stories about Anger to Help Children Understand and Manage Anger.
Well-presented stories about anger and other emotions validate children's feelings and give information about
anger (Jalongo, 1986; Marion, 1995). It is important to preview all books about anger because some stories teach irresponsible anger
Communicate with Parents. Some of the same strategies
employed to talk with parents about other areas of the curriculum can be used to enlist their assistance in helping children learn to
express emotions. For example, articles about learning to use words to label anger can be included in a newsletter to parents.
Children guided toward responsible anger management are
more likely to understand and manage angry feelings directly and
non aggressively and to avoid the stress often accompanying poor
anger management (Eisenberg et al., 1991). Teachers can take some of
the bumps out of understanding and managing anger by adopting
positive guidance strategies. References
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Condensed by permission from Marian Marion, "Guiding Young Children's Understanding and Management of Anger," Young Children 52(7), 62-67.
Copyright 1997 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Marian Marion, PhD, is Professor of Early Childhood Education at Governors State University, University Park, Illinois.
This publication was funded by the Office of
Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education,
under contract no. RR93002007. The opinions expressed in this report
do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI.
Page last modified or reviewed by AH on July 7, 2011