Practical strategies for working with students who display aggression and violence

Eleanor Guetzloe

Incidents of aggression and violence in the classroom should be met with immediate, nonaggressive consequences. The author discusses specific strategies for preventing violent episodes and for reacting appropriately when they do occur.

Instructional programs for students who act in aggressive and violent ways need to provide teachers and other staff members with knowledge of aggressive behavior and instruction in the social, emotional, and cognitive domains in which the youngsters exhibit difficulties. Regardless of where the services are provided (in the regular classroom or a segregated setting), the classroom environment needs to be highly structured, with reasonable, clearly understood rules that, when broken, are reinforced with consistent consequences. Aggression and violence must be disallowed (Bandura, 1973) with specific rules against any aggressive act, whether verbal or physical. Instances of aggression, if they do occur, should be followed immediately by nonaggressive consequences.

As suggested by Kauffman, Mostert, Trent, and Hallahan (1998), if a child stands out from his or her peers as being highly aggressive, we are doing the child and our society no favor by ignoring it. We err in assuming that the child will grow out of it or that expression of aggression may help to reduce it. “Engaging in aggressive antisocial acts is not good for children; it does not help them develop appropriate behavior, but increases the likelihood of further aggression, maladjustment, and academic and social failure” (Kauffman et al., 1998, p. 14).

Responding to Aggression
But what exactly should a teacher do when responding to verbal or physical aggression from a student? Adult responses to aggression must be, to the greatest extent possible, both nonaggressive and instructive (Kauffman et al., 1998). Nonaggressive consequences suitable for classroom use include response cost (removal of points or tokens already earned); deprivation of treats, desired activities, or other rewards; and all levels of time-out. Other specific classroom strategies aimed at prevention of aggression and violence include

Reducing access to victims. When students who display aggression are grouped together for classroom instruction, it is highly possible that there will be sworn enemies among the group, as well as potential victims of the more dominant youngsters. Sometimes the mere presence of a potential victim is a trigger event. Access to victims can be reduced through placement or grouping that ensures that the aggressor and the potential victim are not in the same setting at the same time. If there is only one setting available, the schedule can be used to separate the problem students by time (e.g., they should not leave the room at the same moment). Transition times, such as bathroom breaks, change of classroom activities, or any time in which supervision is reduced, can be particularly difficult. An instructional aide can be assigned to work individually with one of the students, which can help to deter violent acts.

Establishing reasonable norms and expectations. Classroom norms should be functional and realistic expectations that the students have the skills to achieve. The rules for classrooms containing youngsters who commit violent acts may therefore differ from the normal expectations of the regular classroom. If the rules and expectations are appropriate and realistic for the group, most of the students will be earning most of their points most of the time.

The entire school program for students at risk for aggression and violence must be more structured, more supervised, and more individualized than either the regular classroom or the classroom provisions for students with emotional/behavioral disorders (E/BD). Special programming will also be necessary for an extended period of time because aggressive and violent behaviors are highly resistant to change.

Avoiding confrontation. It is important for teachers and other adults to avoid confrontation with aggressive youngsters when possible. Kerr, Nelson, and Lambert (1987) have suggested that teachers can simply refuse to participate in a confrontation. A teacher can suggest a later, private conference with a student, rather than continuing a public discussion. A teacher can also leave a student mumbling under his or her breath, rather than insisting on having the last word.

Minimizing competition. Competition in the classroom can be minimized in a number of ways. Each child can be compared for purposes of evaluation to himself or herself only, rather than to the entire group. Cooperative learning strategies can be used to show the value of working together. Huber (cited in Kerr & Nelson, 1989) has offered suggestions for modifying normally competitive games (e.g., kickball, softball, and volleyball) to enhance cooperation and reduce competition.

Using nonverbal signals and reminders. Verbal reprimands have been found to reinforce the very behaviors they are in tended to reduce (Bandura, 1973). Students who are prone to aggression seem to respond well to the use of signals rather than teacher talk (such as nagging, hostile verbalizations, threatening, or shouting). Even simple commands (e.g., stop, ignore, sit, stand, or walk) expressed in American Sign Language may be readily followed, when a verbal request would be met with resistance (Guetzloe, 1991).

Providing desirable backup reinforcers. Bandura (1973) has found that aggressive individuals who could not be reinforced in other ways responded favorably to primary and other concrete rewards. Other desirable reinforcers (particularly for adolescents) include activities such as weight training sessions, guitar lessons, and individual sports. Since effective reinforcers are highly individualized, it is appropriate to use a token system with a “menu–-a variety of items and activities as backup reinforcers.

Intervening early. Walker, Colvin, and Ramsey (1995) have proposed a model for the understanding of and intervening with antisocial behavior in the classroom. According to their model, acting-out behavior escalates through phases as a result of ineffective (and aggravating) interactions with teachers. These authors emphasize the importance of appropriate intervention early in the cycle-before the behavior escalates to destructive and dangerous levels. Walker, Colvin, and Ramsey have also indicated a number of ways in which teachers can avoid the escalation of acting-out behavior, including assigning a preferred task for a short time, engaging the student in problem solving (identifying alternative ways to deal with the problem), sending the student on a errand, engaging the student in relaxation exercises, allowing the student to work in a quiet area, or allowing more time to finish an assignment.

Providing constant supervision. A “golden rule” for teachers of students who exhibit aggressive and violent behaviors is “Never leave them alone and never turn your back” (Guetzloe, 1991). Constant supervision is absolutely necessary. In a setting in which just one aggressive or violent youngster is placed, there is a need for more than one adult. Sufficiently trained staff should be available to remove a student from the classroom when necessary.

Other strategies. Kerr and Nelson (1989) have suggested several other strategies for classroom management of students who act in aggressive and violent ways. These include avoiding modeling or encouragement of aggressive acts by the adults in the environment and discouraging reinforcement of aggression by the other students. Specifically, adults themselves should avoid aggressive solutions (such as corporal punishment). Teachers can also withhold reinforcement from students who act as a cheering section for fights. Kerr and Nelson have also suggested that teachers instruct students in a “readiness drill,” which would be implemented in the event of an aggressive act in the classroom. For example, students should be taught how to leave the room quickly, quietly, and in an orderly fashion, and where to go to wait for the teacher or another adult. They should not approach the student in distress or look in his or her direction. They also need to practice simple instructions for asking for help, such as “My teacher needs help now in room 35.” Other teachers and administrators should be informed of these procedures so they can respond quickly when needed. With a well-established and rehearsed routine, a teacher can send for help or remove the other students from a dangerous situation.

Assessing Behavior and Preparing for Incidents
Two key strategies for effectively responding to aggression and violence are assessing behavior and preparing for incidents. These involve completing functional assessments, recognizing the warning signs of a violent episode, and developing individual crisis management plans.

Functional assessment. Functional assessment is a prescriptive approach that is used to determine what function an aggressive or violent behavior serves for the student (what benefit is derived from the act), what physical or environmental factors are associated with the exhibition of the behavior, and what communicative or other responses might be functionally equivalent. Functional assessment is mandated by the 1997 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) if violent, aggressive, or otherwise dangerous behavior is exhibited by a student who is either receiving special education services or being evaluated for eligibility.

Warning signs of a violent episode. Recognizing cues, signals, or other stimuli that usually precede a violent episode may help to prevent a crisis. These signs will differ from student to student, but may include any or several of the following: turning red, clenching fists, cursing, crying, sudden silence, glaring, narrowing of eyes, hyperventilation, increase in heart rate, strange noises, or any other extreme change in behavior. Walker, Colvin, and Ramsay (1995) include darting eyes, nonconversational language, questioning, arguing, and verbal abuse as indicators of escalating crisis behavior.

Crisis management plan. An individual crisis management plan should be developed for any student with a history of violent or dangerous behavior. Analysis should be made of the student’s previous aggressive acts, considering

Responding to a Student Who Loses Control
When a student becomes aggressive or violent, the teacher should follow the individual crisis management plan created for that student. This will likely involve giving directives and presenting choices to the student and may also involve, as a last resort, using physical intervention.

Following the crisis management plan. The steps to follow during an aggressive or violent episode should be rehearsed until they become automatic, so that when a student shows signs of impending loss of control, the plan can be followed precisely without hesitation. Guidelines for carrying out the individualized crisis management plan are as follows:

Giving directives and presenting choices. Suggestions for giving directives or choices to a person who may lose control are adapted from Thackrey’s (1987) techniques for crisis intervention in a therapeutic setting. First, it is preferable to be directive-state the required or desired behavior clearly and specifically. “Sit down now” and “Put the knife on the table” are examples of stating the desired or expected behavior, which is helpful to a confused or emotionally overwhelmed person. “Do not come any closer” and “Do not throw the chair” are examples of stating a prohibited behavior, which will not tell the person what to do.

Second, limited choices among acceptable alternatives should be presented. “You may sit down and discuss this matter or you may go to time-out (or to your room or another designated place).” If the person does not make a choice, then a time-limited choice should be made for him or her. “If you do not sit down in 5 seconds, I will understand that you are choosing to leave, and I will have the resource officer escort you to timeout (or another designated place):” The adult has to ensure in advance, of course, that the resource officer (or other assistant) can carry out the alternative.

Using physical intervention as a last resort. Authorities are in general agreement that physical restraint should be used only as a last resort, when there is imminent danger of physical harm to the student or others, and when all other intervention measures have been unsuccessful (Kauffinan et al., 1998; Sprick & Howard, 1995; Walker, Colvin, & Ramsay, 1995). Wolfgang (1995) has described some commonly used procedures for managing student assaults, including examples of physical intervention techniques. He highly recommends the Nonviolent Crisis Intervention' program, which includes workshops, written materials, and videotapes, and is conducted by the Crisis Prevention Institute, Inc. (The institute can be reached at 3315K North 124th Street, Brookfield, Wisconsin, 53005, phone: 1-800-558-8976, web:

From Fear to Confidence
Students who display aggressive and violent behaviors are a source of fear and concern to classroom teachers in both regular and special education settings. The practical classroom strategies discussed in this article are effective and appropriate for use by teachers who work with students who have a potential for aggressive and violent behaviors. Knowing what to do in the event of a violent or aggressive episode and knowing how to avoid a possible angry confrontation can help those who work with youth move from fear to confidence in their classrooms and group settings. 


Bandura, A. (1973). Aggression-a social learning analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Guetzloe, E. (1992). Violent, aggressive, and antisocial students: What are we going to do with them? Preventing School Failure, 36, 4- 9.

Guetzloe, E. (1991). What should we call them? What difference does it make? What are we going to do with them? In S. Braaten & G. Wrobel (Eds.), Perspectives on the diagnosis and treatment of students with emotional/behavioral disorders (pp. 74- 90). Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota Educators for the Emotionally Disturbed and Minnesota Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders.

Kauffman, J. M., Mostert, M. P., Trent, S. C., & Hallahan, D. E (1998). Managing classroom behavior: A reflective case-based approach (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Kerr, M. M., & Nelson, C. M. (1989). Strategies for managing behavior problems in the classroom (2nd ed.). Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Kerr, M. M., Nelson, C. M., & Lambert, D. L. (1987). Helping adolescents with learning and behavior problems. Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Sprick, R. S., & Howard, L. M. (1995). The teacher’s encyclopedia of behavior management. Longmont, CO:  Sopris West.

Thackrey, M. (1987). Therapeutics for aggression: Psychological/physical crisis intervention. New York: Human Sciences Press.

Walker, H. M., Colvin, G., & Ramsey, E. (1995). Antisocial behavior in school: Strategies and best practices. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Wolfgang, C. H. (1995). Solving discipline problems: Methods and models for today’s teachers (3rd ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

This feature: Guetzloe, E. (2000). Practical strategies for working with students who display aggression and violence. Reaching Today’s Youth 5(1) pp.33-36

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