How to Train the Chronic Tantrum Thrower

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I have a (generally) well behaved 4th grade class, but I have one student who has serious anger issues. He gets angry, especially when he has to do work. I can see it coming a mile away. I always tell him that he could do the work if he just tried. This has had no effect. When he doesn’t have a tantrum and just does it, he’s actually done before a lot of other kids, which I always tell him. He’s very smart. His parents have sent him to therapy because of his anger. It has not helped at all. In fact, things have gotten worse since the therapy started. How do I get him to not throw a fit and just do the work?

Amy, Kansas City, Missouri

Amy,

Thanks for the excellent question. It is so excellent that I am going to answer it in two separate blog entries, because you are really asking two totally separate questions.

1) How do I stop this kid from having a temper tantrum?

2) How do I get him to do his work?

I am going to answer them separately, just as you should think of them separately. These are two different negative behaviors that need to be handled using two different skills. Let’s tackle how to avoid either one of you having a temper tantrum first.

First, you need to come to the baseline understanding that you cannot “make” him not have a tantrum. As Love and Logic® teachers, we never try to control what can’t be controlled. We can change things that we can control in order to drastically increase the odds of compliance, but we never try to control the uncontrollable. This sounds like common sense, but how often do we try to control that which cannot be controlled? When we tell a kid what to do, and the kid says “you can’t make me!” they are absolutely right!

 Therein lies the reason why 99% of kids throw tantrums: they know that we can’t stop them! They are seeking control by exhibiting this negative behavior. Tantrums over work can be hard to get rid of because the behavior can be control seeking, attention seeking and work avoiding. If the behavior gets any of those things, the behavior will be reinforced. The idea that kids “have anger issues” that need therapy is downright silly in 99% of cases. I often have children tell me when they walk into my class for the first time that they have anger issues. I simply smile and say “Nice try.” Remember:

Kids do things that work for them!

I am very familiar with children who have gotten what they want over a long period of time by throwing fits. I have a student who is The Jedi Master of temper tantrums. I was informed by his second grade teacher that he hadn’t learned a thing the year before and had basically held the class hostage with his antics. She told me that he was the most difficult child she had ever worked with in 25 years of teaching. At the beginning of the year, he averaged twice daily rolling around on the floor, punching himself in the face, screaming and yelling, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. They would sometimes last for an hour. Now, in February, his tantrums occur every few weeks, last for a couple of minutes, and mainly consist of growling to himself and turning red. Like your student, having to do work was usually the trigger. Now, impending work almost never triggers a tantrum.

Here’s my Love and Logic intervention to his work avoiding, attention seeking, control seeking tantrum. Like you, I see it coming after I have told him about writing a final draft for his rough draft, but I cut it off at the pass:

Kid: (anger building but contained) You mean… to tell me… that even though… I have written this entire letter… I HAVE TO WRITE IT ALL OVER AGAIN?

 

Kid Whisperer (whispered and smile): Well, either that or you could throw a huge fit.

As the Kid Whisperer walks away, Kid makes a sound like a metal roller skate in a blender, followed by silence. The Kid Whisperer wonders if he broke the kid’s brain. Kid turns bright red. After kid has returned to a normal, human shade of pale, kid sighs and starts to work.

Do you see what I did? I responded to the incoming tantrum tsunami by not satisfying any of the three functions of the behavior.

1) Attention Seeking: I whispered and gave it minimal attention.

2) Control Seeking: I gave him permission to throw a fit, thereby stopping the kid from taking control from me: I gave him the control before he could take it.

3) Work Avoiding: The fun thing about challenging kids is that they don’t usually have a lot of skills that they use to get their way. They are just really great at using a few. So when you render a kid’s skill useless, the kid often has nothing else! This child had used up his one skill. Once he did this, he still had work in front of him, to which he then surrendered (more on increasing the probability that he will do work in the next blog post).

At first, a kid may still throw a fit even when you give permission for the fit. The kid figures that if he gets worse (i.e., louder and angrier), he can still get you to enter into a control grabbing power struggle. If he does, just use the Love and Logic response of continuing to give permission for the tantrum:

Kid is on the ground pounding his fists into the grounding and yelling. As usual, the rest of the class is ignoring him.

Kid Whisperer: Oh man, I see you are pounding your fists. Feel free to do some kicking too if that helps.

Kid Whisperer walks away.

I hope this helps! Stay tuned for part two of my answer regarding how to get your student to do his work!

-The Kid Whisperer