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Aggressive Behavior In Students

by Gustavo Ramirez, Guidance Counselor / Education Consultant
Aggressive behavior by a student is unacceptable; it goes beyond the scope of schools’ normal boundaries. Examples of defiant or hostile behavior by a student include:  losing temper easily, constantly arguing with teachers, deliberately engaging in activities that annoy others, blaming others, acting annoyed or chronically touchy, always acting spiteful or vindictive. However, responding to a student’s aggression with yelling or anger makes matters worse.  It shows students how not to control impulses and behave; it creates classroom tension. Students rely on their teachers for cues on how to control impulses and behave in school.  A loud and angry teacher who tries to intimidate an angry student into behaving cannot build rapport with students and remains totally distracted from teaching.  So, how do we deal with a student who is aggressive toward other students or teachers, or who frightens everyone by screaming in class to get his/her way?  It’s easier said than done.  But, we can help him/her to change/replace the behavior, and we can reinforce daily that aggressive and rude behavior at school is unacceptable.

Many teenagers don’t know how to communicate their needs to parents or teachers and have not learned non-aggressive ways to solve problems.  For some, negative behavior is how they get their point across because they have never learned appropriate, non-aggressive ways of communicating when faced with a difficult situation.  Aggressiveness in students may be triggered by several things:  as a self-defense reaction, being placed in a stressful situation, lack of routine, extreme frustration or anger, inadequate speech development; over-stimulation, lack of adult supervision, or to mirror aggressive behaviors of others who live with or around them.  Some students engage in aggressive play all the time; some act aggressively when frustrated or angry, i.e. when they receive a failing grade.  Those who are verbally aggressive usually become physically aggressive when in conflict.

Once we narrow down the reasons why students behave aggressively we can intervene to limit the aggressive behavior in several ways.  Give students clear cut rules at the start of each school term/semester, and “constantly” remind them of clear boundaries within which all students must remain.  Encourage them to be aware of their aggressive feelings and teach them how to calm down and solve problems. Above all, always give the same immediate consequence to any student who lashes out or is aggressive at school.  A clear, uncomplicated, and consistent plan teaches students that all behaviors, good or bad, have a consequence — present and future.

Teenagers will not listen to long fire-breathing lectures of why their behavior was offensive or to someone trying to “talk through” a problem. So, a firm statement and immediate consequence works better than yelling at students and lecturing them about how angry they make us.  If a student cannot calm down, remove him/her from the classroom (without showing anger) and let administration deal with the student.   Also, show self-control and use kind words to encourage students to do the same.  Teenagers need and appreciate teachers’ tips on socializing — some lash out at other students or teachers when they can’t navigate through social circles at school.   We calm students when they are angry by changing/lowering the tone and volume of our voice.  We give the immediate consequence to an aggressive student calmly.  An aggressor who’s not in class has no audience.

Anger is a human feeling.  So, practice with students various ways to de-fuse anger.  Adults and teachers sometimes get angry, too.  Practice with students counting to ten before reacting in anger, and breathing deeply to calm down.  Teach them words to replace violent behavior: “I am very angry and upset now; I need to leave!”   Help them to recognize anger as an emotion and to learn ways to deal with it.  Consequence to uncontrolled anger or aggression in class:  student(s) must leave the class!  Talk to students regularly about aggression and unacceptable behaviors at school. Repeat school rules often and be firm and consistent each time a student becomes aggressive. Always have the same plan and consequence in place for any student who is aggressive in the classroom.  If a student tries to provoke a teacher to see what happens, provide the same consequence.

Many Belizean teenagers do not have the communication skills necessary to help them through stressful situations. For some, hitting someone is the only way they know to show that they are upset; it gives them a false sense of power over classmates.  Encourage and help students to practice the art of diplomacy in tough situations, and show them how to be assertive when they feel like acting aggressively.  “Assertive” phrases that help students trade off aggressive behavior in favor of acceptable behavior:  “No!” said firmly gets a point across assertively, or “No, it’s mine; you cannot have it!” or, “I don’t like that!” or, “Stop! You’re hurting me.”  Remind angry or frustrated students to use firm and assertive language instead of screaming vulgarities or being aggressive.  However, if a student persistently displays violent behaviors that affect class functioning he/she may have other problems that require professional medical help.

Certain situations in the classroom may cause a student to act aggressively i.e. working in a group project; that’s when we stress to him/her to use assertive words.  If we see students getting frustrated, engage them in a different activity that avoids aggressive confrontations.  However, no student who targets another student during class should be allowed in that class until he/she learns self-control.  If a student is exhausted or over-stimulated (right after break or lunch) perhaps low-key, slower-paced activities may make aggression less likely.  Once in a while, review with students those situations that make them angry, and try to come up with solutions (always in accordance with school rules) to help them navigate through those times.  Praising good behavior motivates students to continue to behave well.  

Teachers are human and may sometimes be tempted to show a student what it feels like to be the victim of aggression; but we never show students that aggression resolves conflicts. We maintain our composure always!  TV and video violence influences students to act out aggressively with their peers; however, schools and parents working together can help students achieve good behavior. Teachers, if you get frustrated and angry at a student who is aggressive in class, remember that his/her poor behavior is NOT a reflection of poor teaching skills.  Teaching an aggressive student is one of the greatest challenges any teacher will face, but providing a “sound education” includes helping students to learn appropriate ways to interact with other students and adults around them.  

Each teacher is always the best example to his/her students of appropriate behavior.  

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