The Grump Meter is a colored ladder of blue, green, yellow, orange, and red squares, that I developed to address anger and its resulting behaviors. As a tool, it helps families reflect on mood changes and prevent harmful reactions to anger and other intense feelings. Over twenty years at KVC Behavioral Health and the Prairie Ridge Children’s Psychiatric Hospital and Residential Treatment Center in Kansas City, KS, thousands of children and their families, facing trauma and crises, have used the Grump Meter to reduce physical and verbal aggression toward themselves and others.
At Prairie Ridge Hospital, every child admitted for suicide ideation or attempt can work with the Grump Meter; they discover that they had exploded on red. Thus, the Grump Meter becomes a tool for the prevention of teen suicide: children welcome the chance to return to yellow, green, and blue.
Creating Grump Meters with cardboard and markers, people find common language for communicating feelings and developing cognitive awareness that lead to choosing new behaviors. The goal: prevent the trip to explosive red, stop and think on yellow, and find ways to return to blue, where learning, understanding, and compassion for self and other happens.
Yearning to help children and teens master the challenges they face in themselves, I have searched for tools. Theoretical training about anger control was not enough. I saw kids in front of me who needed a tool to focus their attention on their reactions and responses, and I wanted to make it less scary for them to explore their own feelings. I knew that children loved and responded to color and art. Thus the Grump Meter. To help kids make more meaning from the Grump Meter and encourage more conversation, I wrote questions about self-regulation on a bouncing ball from Walmart, and learned to play the ukulele so that I could play the Grump Meter songs that the kids and I write together. Drawing their own Grump Meters, the kids become their own creative force for recognition, awareness, understanding, and change.
Being an effective leader means challenging myself to create new leaders in control of their behavior, who create safety for others by their responses.
I listen to kids whose universal cry is, “No one listens.” I ask these children what they want others to hear. Finding language to express their most painful experiences is hard, and though children complain that no one listens, often they have not yet begun to speak.
The Grump Meter helps create a safe social climate that encourages language development, enabling people to describe their moods and feelings. With new language, children speak and, in turn, adults respond to them differently. Teaching others about themselves, they feel heard and begin finding internal control and returning to blue and green. On blue and green, they create even more language to communicate with others, thus becoming leaders of their own lives in their families, classrooms, and social environments.
The Grump Meter work spreads from person to person. My daughter, Janet Kaufman, an English Education professor at the University of Utah, joined me in the project; in 2011, we published a book and workbook together: The Grump Meter: A Family Tool for Anger Control. We train mental health professionals, staff in residential treatment centers and psychiatric children’s hospitals, teachers, principals, school counselors, and clergy, who share the work in their own communities. We, along with friends and colleagues, have taken the Grump Meter to India, Israel, Italy, France, Uganda, Ethiopia, and South Korea. The Grump Meter only requires white cardboard and magic markers to reproduce, and people find meaningful results in sharing and teaching it. At Rose Park Elementary in Salt Lake City, a kindergartner just taught it to the custodian. Children teach it to their parents when they learn it first. Adults say they need it for themselves.
Due to the simplicity of the tool and the availability of cardboard and magic markers, the Grump Meter project has been replicated for twenty years with little effort. Children continue to love to draw and express themselves through art. The Grump Meter has been replicated thousands of times, in families, classrooms, mental health settings, summer camps, and undergraduate and graduate classes in social work and education.
Metrics for assessment of the Grump Meter include: 1) Pre/post-assessment through surveys by students, clients, teachers, and mental health professionals; 2) documentation of children’s writing, art, and audio-visual narratives about their experiences; 3) Tracking and charting of one’s “colors” at times determined by participating teachers and mental health professionals; 4) documented anecdotal reflections and observations by school personnel and mental health professionals; 5) measurement of the decrease of classroom and family disruption. In addition to the quantitative and qualitative metrics listed below, I have witnessed consistent decrease in aggression and anti-social behavior with children and families using the Grump Meter, with a corresponding increase in prosocial behavior.