Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 19 2012

Witchcraft for Angry Boys

I was talking to a psychologist about how to help angry kids calm down when they don’t yet have the mechanism to calm themselves. We’ve tried various forms of breaks, none of which work very well. If we let kids decide for themselves, they don’t yet know what works for them. If we let kids leave the room, they quickly take advantage of that. If we let kids sit alone, their thoughts just keep them angry.  If we let kids write, they aren’t ready to productively reflect yet.


The psychologist suggested that I print out coloring book pages and let kids color. He said it’s soothing, it’s mindless, and it isn’t fun enough to seem like an incentive. I can’t imagine the tough kid who would turn to his friend and say, “Watch me pretend to be angry. They’re gonna let me go color!” I immediately went online and started printing pages, just in case.


Within an hour, I got to test his theory. A boy was really upset at lunch and got in another kid’s face, yelling, cursing, and threatening to fight him. When I brought him down to the office, he was so mad that he wouldn’t speak. He was clenching his fists and rocking in his chair like he might spring up and go punch someone. Speaking to him in that moment clearly wasn’t going to be productive for anyone. I said the discipline things I needed to say in response to what he’d done, and then I put down my coloring pages and markers in front of him.


“You’re going to think I’m joking, but I’m entirely serious. I need you to pick one of these pages and some markers, and color it in. You need to be done when I get back.” Without seeing if he was going to listen, I walked out.


When I came back, he was putting the finishing touches on Porky Pig. He had used a brown marker for the skin, pink for the eyes, and orange for the shirt. Bugs Bunny was grey and white next to him. It was carefully done, and he had signed his name across the top. He handed me the picture, and I sat down to talk to him. He was still a little bit upset, but he was talking to me. He explained the whole story, listened to me reprimand him, and talked through with me what he should do next time. He took his consequence without arguing and went back to class. I’m not kidding.


Later in the afternoon, a kid got kicked out of class for misbehavior. When I went to talk to him, he had clearly been pretty riled up and thought a gross injustice had happened. He was staring straight ahead and shaking slightly, with fury all across his face. He wouldn’t even look at me, much less tell me what had happened. Again, I got the coloring things, put them in front of him, and then walked away.


Ten minutes later, he was about halfway done coloring in a superhero. He was carefully dividing the outfit into orange and blue sections and very slowly tracing along the lines. When I walked in, he capped the marker and sat up. I asked him what had happened, and he told me. Before I spoke again, he gave me a play-by-play of the whole incident, explained what he was willing to take responsibility for, and explained why he was still mad at the teacher. He let me say my piece and give his consequence, and then he let me walk him back to class.


This magic must be witchcraft. Who ever would have thought that angryangryangry middle school boys would sit still and carefully color pictures for me? Who ever would have thought coloring would help them transition from Shut Down Mode to Reflective Conversation Mode? Who ever would have thought they could be so incredibly cute while they are busy being so incredibly difficult?


I’m going to hang all these pictures up on my wall. I think they’re absolutely hilarious.

4 Responses

  1. Lucas

    As a man who, as a younger boy, unfortunately had a lot of experience in that empty, emotionally and conversationally paralyzed mode you describe, both due to anger and due to fear, I found nature to be the best antidote to that silent, impotent fury that consumes us. For me, it can be as simple as one lone plant growing on a window ledge, or a bubbling little fountain in a plaza, or the shadows of tree leaves in the sun, cast on the concrete or asphalt in the heart of the city. It just has to remind me that life transcends the sheer pettiness, in the grand scheme of things, of the human dynamics that seem, in that moment, to have trapped me. The other remedy I have found effective for those emotions is exercise. I worry that younger people are less and less able to make those sources of strength, perspective, health, and confidence an integral, habitual part of their lives, especially if they live in the city, because the schools, for the most part, are not designed to promote or facilitate physical movement, or contact with nature. In fact, they often seem to do exactly the opposite.

  2. Ms. Math

    ha ha! love it. my counselor had me paint things when I was really angry. I was supposed to paint about how I was feeling. My goodness, that was a hard task, but I really made some progress. There was something about trying to express your feelings in such a different way that connected me to them and calmed me down.

  3. edwonk

    “I’m going to hang all these pictures up on my wall. I think they’re absolutely hilarious.”

    Really, “hilarious”?

    So are you saying that the solution the psychologist gave you was laughable? It seems to me that it worked really well. It seems to me (and I’m “just a mom”) that the theory behind it (kinesthetics) is pretty basic.

    Maybe you mean “hilarious” as in the joke is on you? I’m honestly confused by your conclusion.

    • katb

      First, I don’t think most of us, as teachers or administrators, would look at a parent and say, “she’s just a mom, her opinions don’t matter.” I often find myself amazed by people who pile family on top of career on top of… I can often barely handle just being employed, much less imagining coming home to offspring.

      I know nothing about you or your children – where your kids were raised, how old they are now, whether or not you are Mom to boys or girls. I will say, in defense of Mathinaz, that as teachers of middle schoolers who are developmentally unprepared to exhibit social skills like self control unaided, we see a lot of violence. We see a lot of children acting like they’re adults.

      And sometimes, on the bad days, it’s hard to remember that they’re really children.

      I would have laughed at the coloring pages too, because it’s a reminder that these little adults are actually still kids, and that some things, like coloring cartoons, are universal.

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