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Strategies for Dealing with Aggression in the Classroom

Ozalle M. Toms, Ph.D.

University of Wisconsin- Whitewater


There are two different types of aggression, verbal and non-verbal. Verbal aggression includes a student being defiant or non-compliant, continuously arguing with others, belittling, threating or bossing others, swearing and using sarcasm.  Physical aggression can be exhibited as kicking, hitting, biting, fighting, spitting, and throwing objects with intent to do harm others or destroy property. In addition to vandalism, stealing can also be classified as aggressive behavior. There may also be other behaviors displayed that were not listed. This brief will provide some strategies and considerations when working with students who display aggressive behaviors. 

Proactive Strategies

 What proactive interventions are effective in changing hostile-aggressive behavior?

The most important proactive strategy is providing environmental supports in your classroom. Rules and procedures should be clear. The consequences for following the rules or breaking the rules should be explicated, fair, and implemented with consistency. Rules and procedures must be taught so students have a clear understanding of what’s expected. Modeling and role-playing can help the student learn what’s expected in the classroom environment and new behaviors that may need to be taught during social skills training. Incorporating self-monitoring and cuing into your classroom management system can help a student assume more responsibility for his or her behavior. Token economy systems can be implemented to allow for positive reinforcements and therefore motivating students to change behavior. The use of cooperative learning in your classroom should also be considered. Cooperative learning gives students the opportunity to learn from their peers both academically and behaviorally.

            For more information and resources on Token Economy Systems see:

            For more information about Cooperative Learning see:

What other proactive measures should be taken?

Functional assessment. Functional assessment is a prescriptive approach that is used to determine what function an aggressive or violent behavior serves for the student.

Amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which were mandated in 1997, required that schools use function-based intervention plans that focus on positive behavior strategies. In fact, the use of FBAs has shown to be effective in reduction of problem behaviors and increasing appropriate behaviors of students (Reid & Nelson, 2002; Ervin et al., 2001).

An FBA includes a four step process that involves: (a) conducting interviews and direction observations to obtain information about a student’s behaviors and background, (b) developing a hypothesis about the functional relationship to determine if the student is trying to obtain something or escapes something, (c) conducting  functional analysis to manipulate selected variables to test the hypothesis; and (d) creating, implementing, and assessing appropriate interventions to teach the student more socially acceptable alternate behaviors (Herzinger & Campbell, 2007).

For more information on conducting functional behavior assessments see:

 Knowing the warning signs of a violent episode and how to respond. It’s vital to get to know your students.  This will allow you to recognize cues, signals, or other stimuli that typically precede a violent episode may help to avert a crisis. These signs will vary from student to student, but may include any or several of the following: turning red, tightening fists, using profanity, crying, abrupt silence, glaring, narrowing of eyes, hyperventilation, increase in heart rate, abnormal noises, or any other extreme alteration in behavior. Your response to these signs is also important. Many times verbally reprimanding students can have an adverse effect on their behavior. The use of non-verbal cues may be considered such as, a particular hand gesture, written or pictures cues of which the meaning has already been taught to students.

Crisis management plan. A crisis plan should be developed for any student who has a history of displaying aggressive behavior. When creating the plan, the setting in which the behavior occurs should be considered. The behavioral signals that are apparent in the student before the behavior occurs is also helpful. Looking at the ABCs of the behavior will be beneficial in answering these questions.


            A (Antecedent), is what happens right before the behavior occurs. This could be the time of day, a request of the student, a particular activity, etc. B (Behavior) is the actual behavior that occurs. This could be in the form of verbal or non-verbal aggression. The last component of the ABC is the C (Consequence), what happens immediately after the behavior. Is the student given something? Is something taken away? Is the student removed from the setting?

            Even when using proactive strategies a student may still become aggressive. When a student becomes aggressive; the teacher should follow the individual crisis management plan that has been created for the student.

Guetzloe (2000) provided the following information in an article that discussed strategies for working with students who displayed aggression and violence behavior:

            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:

  • Play the role of “calm, cool, and composed.” Acting in this manner actually helps a person to remain calm.
  • Be assertive and directive but not aggressive. Do not threaten the student verbally or physically.
  • Be as nonintrusive and noninvasive as possible. Do not move toward the student or invade his or her space. • Communicate expectations verbally and nonverbally. Always tell the student to stop (with an accompanying hand signal) and give a directive statement, as further explained below.
  • Send for help and get rid of the audience (the rest of the students).
  • Wait for help (if possible).
  • Do not argue and do not respond to verbal abuse.
  • Use physical intervention only as a last resort, and then only if policies permit and you are well trained in its use”. (Guetzloe , 2000 p. 35)


This brief has provided strategies and considerations for working with students who are aggressive.  A proactive approach is best practice but when an episode does occur a behavior plan and steps for implementation should be available.



Ervin, R. A., Radford, P. M., Bertsch, K., Piper, A. L., Ehrhardt, K. E., & Poling, A. (2001). A descriptive analysis and critique of the empirical literature on school-based functional assessment. School Psychology Review, 30, 193-210.

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

Herzinger, C.V. & Campbell, J.M., (2007). Comparing functional assessment methodologies: A    quantitative synthesis. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 37, 1430-1445.

Reid, R., & Nelson, J. R. (2002). The utility, acceptability, and practicality of functional behavioral assessment for students with high-incidence problem behaviors. Remedial and Special Education, 23, 15-23.