Aggression in the Classroom: Healthy Ways to Intervene

Everyone with a stake in educating children wants to create schools where students thrive. We want our classrooms to be places that encourage curiosity and learning, where students can challenge themselves, develop their social and emotional skills, and feel supported and safe.

Even before schools shut down last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, educators had noted a rise in disruptive, aggressive, and even violent student behavior that can undermine children’s learning and the safety of the school community. Teachers everywhere were reporting physical and verbal outbursts directed at them and other students. They cited being hit, kicked, punched, stabbed with pencils, and being subjected to other aggressive actions. In some schools, these eruptions had become alarmingly common, upsetting classmates and teachers alike, and at their worst, rendering classroom learning impossible.

The return to full day, in-person learning this fall has brought a cascade of mental health crises and a surge in aggressive behaviors. These outbursts are not confined to older students: some of the biggest increases in aggressive behaviors have been among elementary school children, and teachers and administrators feel ill prepared to handle it. Many school personnel themselves are exhausted and depleted, struggling to meet academic goals while managing pandemic-related safety protocols and helping dysregulated students settle into school routines. Staffing shortages further exacerbate the problem.

Prior to the pandemic, teachers in one state, Oregon, said that aggression in the classroom had reached crisis proportions. The Oregon Education Association put out a special report to call urgent attention to the problem. “Students are coming to school with complex needs, students and educators don’t feel safe, and schools and districts don’t have the resources to address the root causes of these incidents,” the report concluded. “Without appropriate resources to support communities, students are biting, kicking, punching. Young children are cursing, yelling, screaming. Innocent objects are turned into dangerous weapons.”

And the issue isn’t unique to Oregon. Districts around the country have been facing a similar plight. In Connecticut, teachers had grown so unsettled by the behavior in their classrooms that they were seeking legislative action, calling on lawmakers to pass a bill that would address this troubling trend.

“Students are disrupting classrooms and putting themselves, other students, and teachers at risk at an alarming rate,” says CEA [Connecticut Education Association] President Sheila Cohen. “Oftentimes, the disruptive students are taken out of the classroom for a short period of time and then returned right back into the same classroom, where the aggressive behavior continues.” Cohen adds, “These behaviors and lack of support for teachers are adversely affecting the learning environment for students.”

What’s Going On?

There is a consensus that classroom aggression is an escalating problem. What’s less clear-cut is what exactly is behind the increase. As with most widespread phenomena affecting large numbers of students, the causes are likely to be varied and complex, and the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a whole new set of factors.

Look Behind the Aggression, and You Often Find Trauma

When teachers encounter defiant, angry, or aggressive behavior in a student, particularly if the acting out is chronic, the impulse might be to label the child as “oppositional” or simply “a problem kid.” But it’s rare that a child truly wants to be difficult. Labeling a child as “problematic” or “difficult” is incomplete at best. There is always a root cause that underlies a problematic behavior, and often the cause is trauma.

All children must weather their share of hurts and fears. But many of the students in classrooms today are shouldering more serious traumas. The types of traumatic experiences these young people have lived through — or might still be living through — run the gamut: extreme poverty, homelessness, violence, neglect, the toxic effects of racism, parental substance abuse, and the list goes on. There is no end to the hardships that life can throw at kids. And, of course, the shared trauma of the pandemic has added layers of stress to the lives of children and their caregivers.

As the educational community continues to learn more about the many aspects of trauma, teachers and administrators have come to understand that trauma doesn’t always look like trauma. In fact, children who have experienced traumatic events can manifest any number of behaviors, including aggression.

According to experts at the Child Mind Institute, “Trauma is particularly challenging for educators to address because kids often don’t express the distress they’re feeling in a way that’s easily recognizable — and they may mask their pain with behavior that’s aggressive or off-putting.”

Apart from the emotional fallout of deeply injurious experiences, research has shown that traumatic experiences alter the brain and can affect children socially, emotionally, behaviorally, and academically. Traumatized kids can appear angry, depressed, uncooperative, or distracted. These children may be behaving in ways that are unpleasant, but what they urgently need is understanding and help.

Other Causes of Disruptive Behavior

While trauma is much more prevalent than we used to think, there are certainly other reasons for aggressive and disruptive behavior at school. A wide range of underlying issues can give rise to extremely challenging behavior in kids.

  • Children with ADHD can experience high levels of frustration in classroom situations, and they can act out as a result.
  • Students who have undiagnosed learning disabilities might lash out when they’re faced with school assignments that they find particularly challenging. Young people with sensory processing issues are easily overwhelmed by too much noise, too many people, and other uncomfortable sensory inputs. When this happens, they can become anxious and distressed, which can lead to aggressive behavior.
  • Another group of kids who are prone to high-powered meltdowns are children on the autism spectrum. When they experience frustration or are forced to deal with an unexpected change, they can become anxious and agitated and thus, prone to aggressive outbursts.
  • Undiagnosed anxiety or depression can be another cause of children’s explosive outbursts. We might expect anxious and/or depressed students to look shy or reserved, but anxiety and depression can present in any number of ways, including emotional volatility.

For anyone dealing with difficult or disruptive behavior, it’s helpful to remember that “behavior is communication.” Children who are lashing out in harmful ways are always in some kind of distress. Throwing a tantrum may be the only behavior they have at their disposal because they “lack language, or impulse control, or problem-solving abilities.”

Dealing with Disruptive Behavior: Restraint, Seclusion, and Classroom Clears

Punishment of one sort or another has a long history in our educational system as a means of keeping students’ behavior in check, with frequent use of suspensions and expulsion. In the 1990s, schools enforcing “zero tolerance” policies often harshly punished students, even for low-level infractions. Such stringent practices have fallen out of favor, in large part because studies showed they disproportionately affected racial minorities and students with disabilities. “In recent years, districts have begun to discourage and even ban suspensions and expulsions.” At least 22 states have changed their laws, to reflect these new policies.

Two other controversial practices have been implemented in some schools around the country: “restraint” and “seclusion”. Restraint involves restricting a student’s movement by physical means. This can entail anything from holding students’ arms, to grabbing or seizing their bodies, to pulling them to the floor. Seclusion, on the other hand, involves isolating students in a room or space, and preventing them from leaving. This intervention is distinct from a “time out” — a common practice in classrooms — because in cases of seclusion children cannot voluntarily leave the space.

Most people agree — and federal guidelines instruct — that such practices should be reserved for only the most extreme situations, that is, when students’ behaviors pose an imminent danger to themselves or others. But there is considerable evidence that these practices are being used far more frequently, in less urgent situations. In a report by the Department of Education’s Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports (PBIS), the authors write, “According to documents we reviewed, a variety of behaviors have landed children in seclusion. Sometimes students were violent. Other times they were simply non-compliant.”

And in 2017, Education Week reported, “One out of every 100 special education students was restrained by school personnel or secluded in school from his or her peers in the 2013–14 school year, presumably to quell behavior that teachers considered disruptive or dangerous.”

These practices can be upsetting and stigmatizing for children, and in some cases traumatizing. Children have been physically harmed and developed post-traumatic stress disorder after being subjected to these stringent practices.

Another method known as “classroom clears” has gained traction in some schools in recent years, as a less invasive response to behavior that’s particularly disruptive. In these instances, the teacher rounds up all the other students in the class and vacates the room, leaving the child in crisis alone to calm down. It goes without saying that frequent classroom clears — and some teachers report that they employ them often — make it hard for children to focus and learn.

A Better Way

Educators everywhere have been looking for ways to effectively address the mounting problem of classroom aggression in ways that benefit everyone involved. The surge in mental health symptoms and disruptive behaviors that has been triggered by pandemic-related stressors has certainly increased the urgency to find solutions.

Go Positive!

Experts have found that giving kids positive rather than negative attention is much more effective in changing behavior. Ample research shows that recognizing and responding positively to the behaviors we want to encourage gets better results than punishing or criticizing the things we want children to stop doing. Full-hearted attention to the behaviors that we are hoping to increase must go hand-in-hand with clearly articulated rules and boundaries that are consistently enforced. Ignoring minor disruptions will cause that behavior to be extinguished over time. Consequences for other inappropriate behaviors or rule-breaking should be delivered consistently, and in a matter-of-fact, unemotional way. These consequences can include a variety of actions, for example the deduction of points in a level system or losing a privilege.

In the report by PBIS, the authors suggest that prevention is the best alternative to dealing with challenging behavior. By universally employing positive, and preventive intervention practices, we can support all students, including those who present the most disruptive behaviors. The report encourages teachers and administrators to have “positive expectations for students, explicitly teaching social and emotional skills, providing positive, specific feedback, and reinforcing accomplishments.” Doing so creates an environment that functions as a “protective factor” for students with a history of challenging behavior.

Bring a Trauma-Informed Perspective

When children are lashing out verbally or physically, remembering that their behavior is their way of communicating distress may not be easy to do. But learning to look beyond the behavior to address the root cause is an essential step toward changing the behavior and fostering healthier, happier kids.

One elementary school in Columbus, Ohio, has found that implementing a trauma-informed mindset has made a difference in a school where many of the children have grown up in the face of multiple adverse events. At the school, everyone on the staff receives training on the various ways children respond to trauma. They learn about the impact that trauma has on kids, particularly that it can make them emotionally volatile. This helps teachers and other school staff interpret misbehavior through a different, more productive lens. They also learn methods to de-escalate conflict. As a result, they actively seek out ways to help their students manage their overwhelming feelings and control their impulses. As a result, learning is up, and problem behaviors are down.

Support and Training: A Whole-School Approach

There is no quick fix for addressing an issue as complex and challenging as classroom aggression. But what teachers in districts across the country have made clear is that they need increased support. Educators need training, but they can’t handle these situations on their own. It takes a whole-school approach. And, just as students and families need support to emerge from pandemic related traumas, so do teachers and other school personnel.

There are several actions that districts can take as part of a whole-school approach:

  • Engage parents and teachers of each student with a history of aggressive behavior in a discussion about trauma history and known triggers for that child.
  • Examine classroom environment and practices to eliminate or reduce triggering stimuli for all students, as well as for individual students with a history of aggressive behavior.
  • Provide information and consultation for teachers about how to recognize the early signs of dysregulation in all students, and in specific at-risk students.
  • Provide teacher training and create a de-escalation manual with strategies that can be used to turn down the heat when one or more students begin to exhibit dysregulated behavior.
  • Avoid placing a student back in a classroom setting after an aggressive outburst warrants removal from the classroom. Create a de-escalation/safe room where an agitated student can calm down and re-regulate.
  • Ensure that incident reports are created for any aggressive outburst and create a process for regularly aggregating and analyzing the data. These findings often point directly to policies/procedures/actions that need to be changed.
  • Create a model for community learning — help parents and guardians learn how to identify the early warning signs of aggression in their children and how to minimize triggers and de-escalate situations. Help parents understand what factors contribute to aggression in children.
  • Make referrals to school-based or community mental health services BEFORE a major aggressive incident occurs.

How Effective School Solutions (ESS) Can Help

ESS helps districts create trauma-attuned schools so that learning and social-emotional support is accessible to all students. Using the Trauma-Attuned Model® and a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) framework, we help educators create school-based systems to support students with a wide range of emotional and behavioral challenges. With the infusion of COVID relief funding for school systems, many districts are exploring the development or enhancement of an array of school-based mental health services, and ESS can help with this process.

ESS offers powerful professional development for frontline educators and consultation and technical support for district leaders who are looking to re-invent their onsite mental health services. Classroom Environment Assessments and Classroom Management Coaching can equip teachers with effective tools for dealing with the effects of trauma in young people and for dealing with challenging classroom behaviors that interrupt learning and a sense of safety for all.

We’re here to help all students learn and succeed, and to support educators during this most challenging of times. Contact ESS to learn how to implement proven Trauma Attuned, MTSS mental health programs in your district.

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Reinventing K-12 Mental Health Care. Effective School Solution partners with school districts to help develop K-12 whole-school mental health programs.

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Effective School Solutions

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Reinventing K-12 Mental Health Care. Effective School Solution partners with school districts to help develop K-12 whole-school mental health programs.

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