How To Respond To An Angry Student

Smart Classroom Management: How To Respond to An Angry StudentIt happens, often without warning.

A student becomes so angry they verge on losing control.

They fume and seethe. They glare and tear up. They turn dark crimson.

Sometimes we know the cause of their infuriation and other times we have no idea.

The worst mistake is trying to get to the bottom of it too soon. Asking why they’re upset almost always makes matters worse.

It brings their frustration to boil and can trigger a temper tantrum or ugly outburst. So too can holding them accountable for any accompanying misbehavior.

It’s best to wait until the student has forgotten the incident—sometimes hours later—before addressing the cause or enforcing a consequence.

In the meantime, there are three ways to help calm them down and hasten their return to normal.

1. Move on.

The sooner you move on with your lesson, the sooner the student will be able to move on as well.

Calmly pretending that nothing happened—or that what happened wasn’t a big deal—will take the attention off the student and release the tension in the room.

One reason students stay angry is because they’re embarrassed. They can’t get past it because everyone is watching them. Only by leaving them alone and shifting attention back to you and your lesson will they be able to calm down.

2. Reassure.

A reassuring word from you can make a big difference. It’s important, however, that it doesn’t require any response from the student. In fact, it’s best to speak to them on the fly. Lingering will only cause more embarrassment.

As for what to say, just let them know you’re giving them time and not making any judgments. Cruise by their desk and say, “No worries, Karla, I understand. We’ll take care of it later. I promise.”

3. Encourage.

I’ve found this strategy to be especially effective with students on the brink of losing control, when it appears their anger is escalating. It has a way of giving them exactly what they need to hear.

Internally, angry students are battling for self-control. They’re trying not to behave in the way that every fiber of their body is compelling them to. If you can encourage them to win this battle, they often do—and quickly.

“Hang in there, Luis. Be strong. Be of good courage (or be brave). You can do it.” Oddly, they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.

Divine Messenger

Our normal inclination upon seeing an angry student is to rush to their side. But in the immediate aftermath it’s best to step back and widen your perspective.

Like a first-responder who calmly surveys a chaotic scene, take a look around you first. Ensure the safety of the rest of your class before worrying about the angry student.

Pause a moment and let your calmness and equanimity envelop your classroom. Your students will take their cue from you.

Only after establishing control and removing tension will you consider your options for helping the student overcome their difficult moment.

Only then will you approach and impart your nourishing words. Only then will you act with the compassion of someone who has been there.

Because we’ve all been there.

We’ve all been filled with anger and on the edge of losing our cool. And in those moments, what we need is not a lecture, not 20 questions, and not accountability.

What we need is an angel to speak into our hearts.

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9 Responses to How To Respond To An Angry Student

  1. Cameron October 5, 2015 at 9:17 am #

    Michael : Would you please consider doing an article on what to do if a student doesn’t have their supplies. I teach math and occasionally students don’t have pencils ready for class. I’m trying to figure how to make the time out situation work . . . . such as giving them a pencil to use but also giving them a 15 minute time out. The problem there is I would need to collect them at the end of every class and that doesn’t feel very efficient. (We teach in 70 minute blocks). What I’ve been doing is not giving them any pencil, and not allowing them to sharpen pencils during math class since this can be done in homeroom. The problem with my current situation is that the student then sits there and does nothing. Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated!

    • Michael Linsin October 5, 2015 at 4:34 pm #

      Hi Cameron,

      I definitely understand wanting to teach students the importance of preparation. However, I don’t think it should be at the expense of a day’s learning and I don’t think it should ever make your life more difficult. There are just too many other priorities. I would remove any excuse not to do work by having a jar of pencils available for them to borrow. You can simply require them to stay after class for one minute to make sure the pencil they borrowed, as well as any others in the jar, are perfectly sharpened.


  2. Cameron October 6, 2015 at 10:56 am #

    Thank You. I agree, there are many other areas to focus in on and I will be doing as you suggested shortly. We rotate classes and I feel a lot of students without supplies will take my pencils with them throughout the day. If I find that a student doesn’t return a pencil, and I find them with it, would I give them a 15 minute time out for their failure to return the pencil? (I wouldn’t see this student again until the next day) I feel most students without supplies would be willing to risk a 15 minute timeout in order to have something to write with in their other classes. Lastly, I’m unable to hold students past rotation time. Thanks again for any thoughts.

    Have you considered putting a donation button on your website? I think paypal has some way to set it up. You’re website has (in regards to classroom management) been more beneficial to me than 8 years of training! I’d be willing to donate. 🙂

    • Michael Linsin October 7, 2015 at 6:50 am #

      When in doubt, look for the simplest solution. For example, you might assign one of the serial borrowers the task of collecting pencils at the very end of class. There is always a way. You just need to find one that fits your particular situation. No need for donations, Cameron, but I appreciate your idea.


  3. Lisa November 9, 2015 at 4:34 pm #

    I have 2 angry kindergarteners in a clas of 22. They constantly erupt. Ignoring them does no good. The problem is they are violent and agressive. They throw things, push or hit kids, and scream at the top of their lungs, with no end. One of them has a traumatic past, the other i have no idea why he behaves the way he does. The only thing that prevents them from destroying my classroom and hurting the other students is to let them do whatever they want, which means they’re playing and not doing the work the other students are doing. I am at a loss. I have never had students like this before. I am alone, with no para support. What do I do?

    • Michael Linsin November 9, 2015 at 5:13 pm #

      Hi Lisa,

      I wish I had quick advice for you. For behavior so severe, I would have to see you and them in action to pinpoint exactly what the problem is and how to address it.


    • Kim April 10, 2016 at 12:23 am #

      I have a severely angry student…. One minute the student will work the next she breaks a rule receives warning, then time out…. She erupts like a volcano. This is everyday. Administration has made a social book for me to use in class every morning at the beginning of the day. I give reminders and hold pictures up if any further disruptions. The student is verbally abusive to other students and clears my tables throws items. This student did this in preschool at our school and has been trying to continue throughout kindergarten. The student is finally seeing a behavioral therapist. I do not reward the behavior. The student erupts wrecks the room and has lessened the time in which to pick up the mess. I move the other children quickly from the student. When the student goes into the rage I usually send to an area in the back with a single desk so not to hurt others. I find this unfair to the students that behave, work hard! These students do not engage in the negative behavior for they know the rules the consequences and hold each other as well as themselves to a great standard of responsibility and leadership!

  4. Sharon February 21, 2016 at 2:36 pm #

    I see this with one child who is very active, hyper, and has very little self control. Unfortunately, he is probably not in control of most of his day so every little bit of encouragement and space I give him is helpful, but takes a great deal of time.
    I have questions about two types of kids and how to handle their situations. First, as a first grade teacher, I am seeing more and more Autistic children at varying levels of the spectrum. Their parents want them to be in a regular ed classroom and not receive special education intervention. These children are very disruptive on many levels throughout each day. Something that may work well one day may actually set them off the next day. How do we as teachers help these students without taking so much learning time away from the other students in the class?
    Secondly, students with attention and hyperactivity problems also take much time from the rest of the class & their learning time. Every year, we see more and more kids that fit these two groups and we see more and more of our valuable teaching time wasted on their behaviors.

    • Michael Linsin February 21, 2016 at 2:49 pm #

      Hi Sharon,

      Both of these topics are on the list of future articles as well as for treatment in an upcoming book.