Once again, I feel compelled to show this hilarious clip from Summer Heights High, a mockumentary of high school students. Originally, I thought it was from England, but my fellow school psychologist from New Zealand pointed out last time Australia actually deserves credit. Thanks, Shirley! In this clip, our friend Jonah is getting “Anger Management” lessons from the school psychologist. If the f- word offends you, I wouldn’t click on this. But if you are not around small children and want a laugh, click away.
Any school psychologist will tell you that this is pretty accurate when trying to give a scripted “Anger Management” program with a student who is angry. Allow me to reminisce about my foibles at Haides Middle School when I was an intern. That first year, our school truant officer stopped showing up and our “anger management therapist” got so angry that she was never given a key to an office and quit. Oh delicious irony! So the principal asked me if I could start an anger management group and gave me a list of about 20 candidates for the group. Being an obliging young intern, I took the list and started at the top with recruitment.
Here are some pitfalls, that I wish for other young psychs to avoid:
1) When you call a group the “Anger Management Group” it sounds to kids like the opposite of fun. Pizza may be the only way to get them there.
2) Parents also can be standoffish when you cold call to recommend that their child be in this group.
3) When principals put together these lists, they put the most severe kids on the top. And when you put several angry kids together, you form a gang.
4) When you are alone in a room with a gang of angry students, you have very little control over the situation, even with the best structure and positive reinforcement strategy in the world. There is one of you and 5 or 6 of them. Longest hour of your life.
So after a long period of recruitment and cajoling participants, I held my anger management group and it was melee. They cursed at each other, threw things, exploded into WWE Wrestling parties in the middle of my “take a deep breath!” speech. Later, my “Anger Management Group” banded together to go pop locks off of everyone’s lockers together. That wasn’t the group cohesion I was going for. After this first group, I consulted with a colleague about what went wrong and how to improve it for next time. We were CSI: Group Autopsy Unit.
Cause of death: Poor planning with group composition.
I have now renamed my group the “Talent Group” and it has a positive focus of developing assets in these students instead of trying to get them to not be angry. I also recruited a co-facilitator. The group goal is to develop a plan to showcase the group’s talent at the end of the 12-week session. The beauty of the “Talent Group” is that a) kids want to be in it, b) parents are less threatened by the content, c) you get to see your kids in a new light, and d) the anger/conflict that arises out of having to make group decisions is naturalistic and meaningful, not a poster of tips like the one Jonah rejected.
What I do is get teachers to “nominate” kids they think have a talent that is un-tapped. I have them rank this kid as “low” “medium” or “high” risk for oppositional and angry behavior based upon the DSM-IV criteria for Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Zero to one symptoms in the checklist is “low risk,” 2-3 symptoms is medium risk and more than 3 is high risk. Then I pick ONE high-risk kid, a few medium-risk kids, and a few low-risk kids. The importance of having low-risk kids cannot be underscored enough. They can serve as calming forces and models for good coping for the other students. I did some research to make sure that the role model kids don’t get damaged in this process, and fortunately, they do not. What the do is get experience on how to cope with a hostile peer in a safe environment.
The most rewarding thing about changing my Anger Management Group to the Talent Group is that the kids begin to identify themselves as talented individuals, not angry kids in need of help. I will never forget this little boy from my group one time. I was recruiting for my group, and I pulled this 6th grade kid out of class with his teacher to tell him his teacher had “nominated” him to be in the talent group because he showed “leadership potential.” This kid’s face went from this angry scowl that said “who the hell are you and why I am in trouble now” to this soft, doe-eyed child with a huge smile. He looked at his teacher and honestly asked, “You think I have talent?” The teacher smiled and said he did, and that kid was on Cloud-9 for the rest of the day. It changed the dynamic between the kid and this teacher and this kid was always the first to arrive at group, ready to learn.