In dealing with a student who is acting aggressively toward his classmates, you want to send a strong message that aggressive behavior will not be tolerated in your classroom. In addition, you want to help him develop more appropriate ways of settling disputes with his peers. Be sure, however, to avoid harsh punishment or humiliation . Harshly disciplining an aggressive student might fuel his anger and make him more determined to continue the aggressive behavior.
What You Can Do
Be assertive when breaking up fights. If two elementary school students are engaged in a fight, use a strong loud voice to stop it. If that doesn’t work, you might say something odd ( “Look up! The ceiling is falling!”) to divert their attention. If they still don’t stop and you can’t separate them, send a student to the office to get help. If a crowd of children is gathering, insist that they move away or sit down, perhaps clapping your hands to get their attention. After the incident is over, meet with the combatants together so they can give you their versions of what happened and you can help them resolve any lingering problems. Also notify the parents.
Respond calmly but firmly to an aggressive student. Speak in a firm, no-nonsense manner to stop a student’s aggressive behavior; use physical restraint as a last resort. When responding to the student, pay attention to your verbal as well as non-verbal language. Even if he is yelling at you, stay calm. Allow him to express what he is upset about without interrupting him and then acknowledge his feelings. Avoid crossing your arms, pointing a finger or making threats; any of those actions could intensity his anger and stiffen his resistance.
Consider giving the student a time out. You might conclude that a student’s aggressive behavior warrants separating him from the rest of the class, either to send him a strong message that what he did merits a serious consequence or to protect the other students. You can do that by giving him a time out in class or by sending him to the office. In the classroom time-out area, have him sit in a chair and instruct him to remain quiet. Let him know that he can return to the class activity after a predetermined number of minutes. If he leaves the chair or acts in a disruptive manner, reset the timer to zero.
After the aggressive student cools down, talk with him privately. Although he might expect you to react punitively, surprise him by reacting supportively. Express your confidence that he can resolve problems without being hurtful to his peers . Tell him that you think he must be upset about something to lose control as he did and you want to understand what might be bothering him. If he does open up to you, listen attentively without interrupting. Speaking in a calm voice, tell him that you understand why he was upset, but stress that he has to find a way to express his anger with words rather than with his hands.
Have the student apologize. You don’t want to force an aggressive student to say he is sorry because that might fuel his anger, however, you do want to strongly encourage him to make amends with the student he hit. If he is willing to do that, it will help soothe hurt feelings and avoid future conflicts.
Have students who were involved in a conflict fill out a behavior form. After the fighting students have calmed down, have them complete a form describing what triggered the conflict, how they behaved, and how they could have handled the situation differently. Meet with both students to discuss their responses. The form provides a record of the incident that you can use when meeting with parents and/or administrators, and it helps students learn to reflect upon and modify their behavior.
Dr. Ken Shore’s Classroom Problem Solver
Dealing With Student Aggression