Picture the scene:
A classroom full of students working on what looks like math problems. One student in the middle of the room begins to get restless. He starts making sounds of frustration. He snaps his pencil in half. The teacher recognizes the signs and becomes very authoritative and calm as she moves in to stave off the next stage. However, something sets him off before she gets there. He clears his desk with one sweep of his arm. She arrives at his desk, and he yells, “I can’t do this shit!” directly at her. Then, he quickly leaves the room. He walks into the main office and sits down. The woman at the front desk asks, “What do you need?” “Man, my teacher made me mad,” the student replies.
Now, switch gears and picture this:
You are an instructional coach observing a first-year teacher who has been complaining about a student losing his temper and “trashing the room.” The teacher is moving from student to student, giving very shallow feedback to each on how they are doing. She uses phrases like “good job” and “I’m so proud of you. Keep working!” Every once in awhile, she says, “That one’s not right, and you didn’t finish this one. I will come back in a few minutes, and I would love to see both of them done correctly.” She looks over as a young man snaps his pencil in half. She takes a deep breath. You’ve noticed the young man escalating some time ago. She starts to move toward him and is loudly trying to calm him down as she approaches. He clears his desk and yells at her that he can’t do the work, along with some profanity. He leaves the room, and the teacher goes about quietening down the remaining students. She then calls the front office to let them know that Dave has left class again. After the students have left and you are alone, the teacher bursts into tears and starts going on about how angry she is that nothing ever seems to happen to the student when he acts out like that. She says she tries to be helpful, but that he always blows up at her. She ends her rant with how teaching isn’t what she thought it would be.
I have seen scenes like this play out in countless classrooms at both the elementary and secondary levels, including my own. After years of experience, I often can sense another person’s frustration before they even sense it within themselves. For sixteen years, I taught students with emotional/behavioral disabilities, learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorders. There’s no way even to count how many teachers I have had to coach through their own frustration or guide them in how to address the feeling in their students.
Mindfulness and metacognition are handy tools to use, whether you are a teacher who wants to learn how to coach students through frustration or you are an instructional coach who needs to train a teacher to reduce acting out behaviors caused by frustration.
The Secret Jobs of Frustration and Anger
Frustration is an emotion I deal with every day, both within myself and with the teachers and students that I coach. I could easily choose to see frustration as a “bad” thing to push away, but then I would completely deny myself or the individual the opportunity to grow in really positive ways.
When I was going through a particularly challenging time wherein my anxiety was out of control, I found myself getting frustrated and angry often. My therapist explained that I must identify the emotion(s) behind the frustration and anger.
Over the next nine months, through books and mindfulness practices, I would learn how to lean into the frustration, become completely mindful of what was happening around each occurrence, and apply metacognitive strategies to identify the roots and move through the frustration.
Frustration is no longer an emotion I dread. For you see, it is a signal emotion that alerts you to pay attention to something that is going on. Frustration is the feeling of struggling to hold back another negative feeling.
Individuals often hold back on expressing anger. Frustration then grows and can suddenly erupt into an outburst when something triggers the disruption of emotional self-regulation.
Something fundamental to note: Anger is a secondary emotion. It plays an active role in protecting the angry individual from another feeling that makes them feel more vulnerable, such as:
- Hurt (feeling betrayed falls in this category)
In the student scenario above, it stands to reason that the frustrated student was angry because he was either fearful or ashamed of his seeming inability to do math well. Additionally, he could have been embarrassed by the teacher calling him attention when he was in this state.
In the teacher scenario, her frustration and anger possibly hid that she was afraid of failing as a teacher or that she was ashamed of the anxiety she had been experiencing about coming back to work each morning for fear of how this student would behave each day.
Frustration signals that there are other negative emotions beneath it that need to be addressed to improve the situation.
Where Mindfulness and Metacognition Come In
Mindfulness practices will help you tune into the frustration at its early stages so you can identify and address the issues causing the negative feelings underneath. It will also help emotional self-regulation and other executive functions develop with practice.
Metacognition will help you to identify the path to take to address the frustration and its underlying causes. Metacognition is thinking about thinking.
For Hennessey (1999), metacognition is the
- “awareness of one’s own thinking,
- awareness of the content of one’s conception,
- as active monitoring of one’s cognitive processes,
- an attempt to regulate one’s cognitive processes in [relation] to further learning, and
- an application of a set of heuristics as an effective device for helping people organize their methods of attacks in general.”
To coach any individual through frustration to decisive action, is a simple process in theory. Remember, however, that the frustration you are seeing could either be from or cause a series of patterned behaviors that may be difficult and time-consuming to change. For example, procrastination, work avoidance, and lashing out can all develop because of poorly addressed frustration.
One Process That Has Been Successful for Me
- After an episode of frustration, guide the individual (or yourself) to process through the emotions of frustration and anger using metacognitive strategies to identify the negative feeling(s) driving them. This phase will take a lot of active listening or deep introspection (listening to your thoughts as you ask yourself questions).
- Metacognition strategies for young students are foundational.
- Here, use mindfulness practices to calm the nervous system and lead to clearer thinking.
- Use reflective questions that are invitational to activate metacognition during this process. These types of questions help the individual go beyond reflection into problem-solving.
- Support the further development of mindfulness practices so the individual can become more aware of when frustration is rising. Once they establish this awareness, they can begin to apply de-escalation strategies and the ideas that came out of their problem-solving stage.
With this approach, the coached individual regains, retains, and develops their emotional self-regulation skills. It is a cyclical process: each time they experience frustration, they practice their mindfulness. Each time they practice mindfulness, they are able to better regulate their emotions and use metacognitive strategies to make a plan.
Their plan should begin with an analysis of what they can and cannot control. Then, they can make decisions or take advice on changes they could make and strategies they can use in those areas they can control. Continued support will likely be necessary as they change established behavior patterns and establish new, more productive ones.
Stay Tuned for Next Week…
I will cover accessible mindfulness practices for beginners and intermediate practitioners in my article next week. Please subscribe at the bottom of this page to receive future articles directly in your email in-box.
Stay mindful. Be intentional. You are not alone.
Hennessey, M. G. (1999). Probing the Dimensions of Metacognition Implications for Conceptual Change Teaching-Learning. Distributed by ERIC Clearinghouse.