Angry kids get help in the classroom

Teachers, counselors help kids develop “emotional IQ”



Thirteen kids at Iqaluit’s Aqsarniit Middle School are taking part this month in a new kind of healing: group anger management.

The program is the first of its kind in the territory, and is designed to fill a need some teachers think has been ignored for too long.

“They lash out when they’re angry, then they’re suspended, and we tell them they need to get anger management, but there really wasn’t anywhere in the community where they could access anger management,” says Charlotte Borg, a teacher who started the project.

Throwing kids out of school leaves the kids dealing with the anger that caused the incident on their own, and often contributes to it.

Borg was thinking about these issues when she encountered David Rattray, an aboriginal counselor and speaker, who spoke at a conference about tackling anger in aboriginal youth.

In Rattray’s view, anger is about pain. That pain is not unique to aboriginal youth, but is widely shared among First Nations in British Columbia, where he lives, and among Inuit.

“He was really strong and clear that anger is about pain and hurt,” says Borg, “and so kicking a kid who’s angry out of school, you’re just adding to the hurt… but you’ve still got to take into consideration overall safety of all students, so there needs to be something in between the school and nothing. There’s still a gap there.”

With that in mind, Borg and two others applied to the Iqaluit District Education Authority’s Students First Fund — a pot of money dedicated to helping students at risk. IDEA kicked in money for a pilot project in Iqaluit schools, while the Embrace Life Council donated funds to try the program across Nunavut.

They brought Rattray to Iqaluit for an intense three-day workshop, and developed their course from there.

If the concept of group therapy for 12- and 13-year-old kids sounds frightening, don’t worry, says John Vander Velde, a mental health consultant for the Government of Nunavut and a collaborator on the program.

”It’s not about counseling. It’s about psycho-education,” Vander Velde says.

He views the program as an extension of the school mandate to prepare kids for life. Increasingly, schools are teaching children more than just reading and writing, but also something called “emotional intelligence” — how to understand yourself better, which contributes to healthier relationships.

The program, which is divided into groups of girls and boys, teaches students about the science of anger, the biology of anger, what happens to the brain when you’re angry. Students learn relaxation strategies and coping skills. They also eat snacks and talk about how healthy eating affects the mind.

The classes are in Inuktitut and English, with lots of storytelling, and some journal-writing.

Before starting the program, the three partners — including Rosie Kopalie, Aqsarniit’s school/community counselor — spent a lot of time discussing the values of the program to make sure they fit the community.

Now that it’s underway, the kids are also contributing to the program. The 13 students were chosen not just because they need anger management, but also because they are leaders with potential to be role models and ambassadors for the program when it rolls out into a wider program in the school.

“It’s a group of children who could teach us a lot about what we’re doing,” says Borg.

“The kids learn from each other of course because they’ll talk about their own experiences and their own examples of getting angry,” says Vander Velde. “We all learn from each other in a group setting.”

The 10-hour program also has another motive: saving time for an overworked counselor.

Next year, when a new addition on the building is complete, Aqsarniit expects to take in an extra 100 students, with no additional counseling resources. That leaves Rosie Kopalie in a tough spot.

Group anger management for 13 kids only takes up about 30 hours of work, compared to 130 hours if each child were to receive individual counseling. And it’s hoped the results will be the same, but for now it’s too soon to tell.

“We’re just beginning,” Kopalie says. “Maybe at the end.”
Other schools in Canada are watching closely, hoping that if it works out, they can use the material themselves. The three behind the project say they are open to doing workshops with other teachers in Nunavut who want to develop a similar course.

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