Positive Relationships: Behaviour - Strength of feeling

How should practitioners deal with a child who is always angry and is making life difficult for everyone at the setting? Cath Hunter explores some strategies both for nursery and for home

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Jamal, aged four, has regular outbursts, when he shouts and throws things or lies on the floor kicking his legs. He becomes upset easily when he gets something wrong, is asked to do something he doesn’t want to or isn’t chosen to do an activity. His behaviour can also be unpredictable, when he lashes out at other children, seemingly for no reason.

Recently, his tantrums have become more regular and intense. As a result, he is taking longer to calm down and settle back into the nursery day. He has begun to challenge staff when asked to do something and has started to blame other children, pointing at them and saying ‘He did it’, rather than admitting to his behaviour.

The staff are finding Jamal’s behaviour increasingly difficult to manage and are worried about its impact on the other children. Some of the children become wary of him and move away when he approaches them.


It is not uncommon for four-year-olds like Jamal to still be having tantrums, though this pattern of behaviour is more common in children aged two and three. Other features of his behaviour, such as being challenging, are also quite typical, though more usually associated with older children. However, the level and frequency of Jamal’s outbursts of anger are a concern, as are his lack of resilience and poor relationships with the other children.

When children are happy and settled in their world, they are usually happy and settled in nursery. When a child shows us behaviour like Jamal’s, they are clearly communicating to us that they are not OK and it is our job to find out why. An angry child is often feeling upset, anxious and scared as well.


There may be a variety of reasons for Jamal’s behaviour, so it is essential that staff explore potential causes, rather than focusing simply on ways of changing it.

As sensitively as possible, talk to his parents about their approach to managing Jamal’s behaviour at home, including areas such as boundaries. Are these applied inconsistently, or lacking? Do Jamal’s parents give him what he wants, because it avoids his angry outbursts and so makes their life easier?

It is also vital to try to establish whether Jamal hears or witnesses any conflict, or violence, on screen –perhaps on inappropriate computer games – or between family members.

As importantly, staff need to recognise that young children are often unable to understand and articulate their feelings.

Jamal is not yet developmentally capable of finding the words to express his feelings. This is particularly the case when he is locked in rage and will be experiencing the feelings as a bodily sensation, which can be overwhelming and frightening. Rather than focusing on his anger, and reprimanding him anyway, it is the role of the adults to help Jamal to manage and express his feelings.

Strategies in the nursery

All staff need to use a consistent, predictable, positive and nurturing approach to help Jamal feel safe and secure at nursery. To achieve this, they should:

  • avoid trying to coax Jamal out of feeling angry or upset. Instead affirm and acknowledge his emotions so he no longer feels alone – remember that children express their feelings through their behaviour
  • acknowledge the intensity of Jamal’s feelings through their comments, facial expressions and the tone of their voice to show that they truly understand the strength of his emotions – ‘You really wanted the banana with the skin on, it made you furious when I took it off’
  • help Jamal to put his feelings into words by providing him with the necessary vocabulary – for example, ‘I can see it made you really cross when you couldn’t be at the front of the line’
  • remind Jamal gently about their expectations of his behaviour in nursery – for example, ‘At nursery we share our toys’. This will be particularly important if boundaries are lacking or applied inconsistently in the home.

Strategies in the home

Encourage Jamal’s parents to use the same behaviour strategies as the nursery at home. Emphasise the importance of both parents using the strategies, being consistent in how they apply them and establishing firm boundaries, while at the same time offering Jamal encouragement and praise.

His parents could also offer him some sturdy crayons and a large pad of paper that he can scribble on when he feels angry to help him release his feelings of rage.

The parents will, however, have to model how to use the scribble pad and help Jamal identify when he needs to use it.


Once nursery staff have spoken to Jamal’s mother and explored his home life more fully, it is essential that he is monitored closely to see if his anger lessens.

If he has experienced trauma, such as witnessing or hearing domestic violence, and his behaviour remains the same several weeks after implementing the strategies, then Jamal may benefit from some play therapy sessions.

These sessions would enable Jamal to explore and express his feelings in a safe and accepting environment with support from the play therapist who, alongside the sessions, would also provide support for his parents.


Cath Hunter is a therapeutic consultant, trainer, play therapist and author of a three-part series of books, Understanding and Managing Children’s Behaviour through Group Work, covering ages three to five, five to seven, and seven to 11. For more information, go to http://therapeuticfamilyinterventions.co.uk

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