How To Prevent Aggressive Behavior

By Brian J. Abram & Amiel Segal
Originally published in Teaching Exceptional Children Magazine

It's an understatement to say that students like Jon, Kerri, and Maury have poor self-control and low frustration, or that they display maladaptive behaviors. These students and others with emotional and behavioral disorders are often disruptive to the point of threatening the safety of others and interfering with teaching. No wonder that teachers often become anxious and frustrated in their efforts to deal with such behavior.
    Teachers of students with behavioral disorders work with a volatile student population. Words such as unpredictable, confrontational, and displaced aggression characterize the students they teach. Clearly, these students present a wide range of behavioral excesses and deficits, conditions that can arouse negative feelings in their teachers (Dedrick & Raschke, 1990, p. 43).
    Aggressive behavior in the classroom is likely to result in increased levels of stress and frustration for the teacher and the student. The major premise of this article is that student aggression is directly related to teacher behavior, and that teachers have the ability to modify their classroom environments, greatly reducing student aggression. "Staff attitudes and behavior may be the most important factor affecting aggressive behavior" (VanAcker, 1993, p. 28).
    This article reviews what teachers can do to prevent aggressive behavior in students with emotional and behavioral disorders. "Aggressive behavior refers to those behaviors--verbal, nonverbal, or physical--that injure another indirectly or directly and/or result in extraneous gains for the aggressor" (Zirpoli & Melloy, 1997, p. 332).
    Preventing aggressive behavior involves, first, understanding the dynamics of aggression in students with emotional and behavioral disorders. With this understanding, then, teachers can learn how to be more therapeutic in the classroom, how to create a positive classroom climate, how to conduct functional assessments, and how to teach students alternative behaviors.


    Aggressive behavior is learned and maintained in a similar manner to other behaviors; three important factors are modeling, positive reinforcement, and negative reinforcement (Wehby, 1994; Zirpoli & Melloy, 1997). Teachers need to be aware if they are modeling aggressive behaviors, or if students modeling aggressive behavior are reinforced, either positively (through attention from staff or peers, or getting their way), or negatively (by escaping or avoiding aversive stimuli, such as removal from a boring or frustrating class).
    Another important factor in understanding aggressive behavior is the role of frustration. According to Dollard, Miller, Doob, Mowrer, and Sears (1939), frustration does not always result in aggression, but it is always an antecedent of aggression. Students with emotional and behavioral disorders are more likely than other students to engage in aggression due to deficits in cognitive and social skills. Aggressive students often exhibit deficits in social information processing--they are likely to misinterpret social cues and misassign hostile intent to others, especially during times of stress (Akhtar & Bradley, 1991). The result is that these students often feel threatened and become defensive, even when no real threat initially existed. Social skills deficits of these students often include poor impulse control, low frustration tolerance, limited ability to generate alternative responses to stress, and limited insight into the feelings of self and others (Coleman, 1996; Hughes & Cavell, 1995; Wood & Long, 1991). These cognitive and social skills deficits result in a high level of frustration during many social interactions.
    Adding to this frustration are the experiences of these students in the classroom. Sources of frustration for students with emotional and behavioral disorders in general and special education classrooms include the following (see Shores, Gunter, Denny, & Jack, 1993; Swick, 1987):

  • Disorganized or inconsistent teachers.
  • Failure.
  • Boredom.
  • Lack of positive reinforcement.
  • Irrelevant curriculum.
  • Overuse of punishment.
  • Feelings of powerlessness.

    As Kauffman stated: "Many antisocial students do not know how to do the academic tasks, and do not have the social coping skills to be successful in the typical classroom, and each failure increases the probability of future antisocial responses to problems" (1997, p. 348).
    The effects of student aggression on teachers often include an increased level of frustration and stress within the classroom. Common teacher reactions to stress (including aggression) are irritability, fear, counteraggression, negative thinking, fatigue, and avoidance (Dedrick & Raschke, 1990; Swick, 1987; VanAcker, 1993). When teachers are unable to manage the stress and frustration inherent in working with such students, they are more likely to overreact to minor problems and escalate the frequency and severity of student aggression in the classroom.


    The therapeutic teacher is one who is able to manage the stress of working with students with emotional and behavioral disorders and create an environment that meets the students' academic, social, and psychological needs, thereby reducing the frustration experienced by the students in the classroom (see Figure 1). According to Kauffman (1997): "To be therapeutic, teachers must listen, talk, and act in ways that communicate respect, caring, and confidence, both in themselves and in their students" (p. 519).
    Therapeutic teachers possess ego strength and mental health; teachers with good mental health demonstrate a high level of self-awareness and self-confidence, realistic expectations of self, and the ability to exhibit and model self-control in managing stress and frustration (Long & Newman, 1980; Kauffman, 1997). These teachers are able to remain calm in a crisis, and they do not become defensive or confrontational.
    Therapeutic teachers are able to establish trust and rapport with their students. Myles and Simpson stated:

Such rapport does facilitate effective use of a variety of verbal and physical interventions, and other less intrusive methods. Moreover, trust-oriented relationships facilitate student learning and application of alternatives to aggression and violence. (1994, pp. 43-44).

    Therapeutic teachers understand that most students exhibit low levels of frustration before becoming aggressive. Teachers should be aware of the stages of frustration and intervene early before negative behavior escalates (Colvin, Ainge, & Nelson, 1997; Rutherford & Nelson, 1995). Johns and Carr (1995) identified several stages of frustration and recommend what teachers can do during each stage to help de-escalate the situation.

  • During the anxiety stage, the student shows nonverbal behavior, such as sighs and putting his or her head down; teachers should respond by active listening and nonjudgmental talk.
  • During the stress stage, the student often shows frustration through minor behavior problems, such as tearing paper or tapping pencil; teachers should use proximity control, boost their interest, or provide assistance with assignments.
  • The defensive (verbal aggression) stage is characterized by students' arguing and complaining; teachers should briefly remind students of rules, use conflict resolution, and encourage students to ask for help.
  • During the physical aggression stage, a student has lost control and begins to threaten others, throw objects, or hit others; teachers should remind the student that he or she still has choices, escort the student from class, get help from other staff, protect the safety of other students, and restrain the student if necessary.
  • In the final stage, tension reduction, the student releases tension through crying or verbal venting; teachers show empathy and help student gain insight into feelings and behavior.
  • The therapeutic teacher understands the frustration and anxiety of students who may become aggressive (VanAcker, 1993). These students are often confused and frightened by their lack of self-control during stressful situations, and are often receptive to teachers who respect the students' dignity while providing assistance to the student without resorting to hostile threats or confrontations.

    Teachers who are able to respect student's dignity during the initial stages of frustration, and remember that it is important to allow students to save face in front of others, will help students to feel more competent in managing stress and maintain a positive teacher-student relationship (Curwin & Mendler, 1988; Myles & Simpson, 1994). Good and Brophy (1990) discussed several characteristics of effective classroom managers that are shared by therapeutic teachers:

  • Display an enthusiasm for teaching and learning.
  • Are cheerful.
  • Are liked by their students.
  • Have positive expectations of self and students.

    These teachers place a high value on personal traits and talents of students (Swick, 1987). They see students as individuals and are able to individualize the classroom environment to meet each student's needs, values, and interests (Curwin & Mendler, 1988); they are aware of the universal needs of students--need for love, acceptance, belonging, competence, self-esteem, a sense of purposefulness, and identity (Sabatino, 1987).
    Therapeutic teachers are aware of the negative effects of stress on their abilities. They place a high value on stress management and the ability to cope with the many frustrations of daily teaching. They use a variety of stress-management strategies (see Dedrick & Raschke, 1990; Swick, 1987):

  • Awareness of negative attitudes.
  • Realistic perception of stressors.
  • Diet and exercise.
  • Social support systems.
  • Creative problem-solving.
  • Time management.
  • Healthy sense of humor.
  • Personally rewarding interests.
  • Engagement in professional and personal renewal activities.

    A final characteristic of therapeutic teachers is that they are effective in creating a positive classroom climate where students experience success and joy rather than failure and frustration (see box, "Annotated Resources on Therapeutic Teaching").

    Researchers have described the environments of students with emotional and behavioral disorders as unstable, inconsistent, and chaotic (Paul & Epanchin, 1991). They need order, structure, and consistency if they are to learn and feel good about themselves (see Figure 2). Kauffman's discussion of the role of teachers of students with emotional and behavioral disorders describes a positive classroom climate: "The teacher's primary task is to structure or order the environment for the pupil in such a way that work is accomplished, play is learned, love is felt, and fun is enjoyed--by the student and the teacher" (1997, p. 516). A positive, well-organized classroom environment promotes student success, as follows:


  • A well-organized and predictable classroom (including clear expectations, rules, routines, and schedules) helps students begin to feel safe (and less threatened). A key element of a structured environment is the consistency of the teacher--not only in terms of consequences for positive and negative behaviors, but also in attitudes and expectations.
  • A positive classroom climate promotes success and student achievement (academically and socially). Researchers have identified that frustration due to task difficulty (DePaepe, Shores, Jack, & Denny, 1996) or boring curriculum (Clarke et al., 1995) is associated with increases in disruptive behavior. Attempts to improve student behavior by modifying curriculum based on students' interests (determined through discussions with student and parents, and direct observations) have been successful (Clarke et al.). Students who are actively engaged in learning are much less likely to become frustrated and aggressive.
  • Curriculum that stresses students' interests and talents are more likely to produce more successful learners. An observation shared by many teachers working with students with emotional and behavioral disorders is that in the general or special education classroom students often appear apathetic, restless, and defensive, yet in other environments they appear confident, capable, sociable, and relaxed. These other environments may be the music room, art room, gym, a vocational class, or the lunchroom where the student feels safe, enjoys the task, and feels good about his or her abilities (and consequently exhibits much less aggressive behavior).
  • Multiple intelligences theory (Armstrong, 1994; Gardner, 1993) stresses that schools should nurture students' various intelligences and learning styles. Too often, schools emphasize linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences (traditional academics) and neglect or classify students whose intelligences and strengths may lie in one of the other intelligences (spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, intrapersonal, and interpersonal). Research by Dunn and Dunn (1993) also stresses that learning style variables (such as the immediate environment, students' emotionality, physiological factors, and information processing styles) do affect learning.Teachers who are able to implement a positive classroom climate communicate effectively with students. "A major factor contributing to a classroom climate where respect for students is evident is the teacher's ability to interpret the communicative intent of the youngster" (DeLuke & Knoblock, 1987, p. 18). Teachers who are able to understand and interpret the student's verbal and nonverbal behavior and communicate this with the student are more likely to develop a positive teacher-student relationship.
  • Students feel more secure in classrooms where they have input into what happens there. Giving students appropriate choices and input into decisions regarding rules, reinforcers, and curriculum are an important component of a positive classroom climate (Curwin & Mendler, 1988; Sabatino, 1987).
  • Encouraging students to express their feelings can help to teach them more effective methods to manage stress and understand their emotions. Affective curriculum assists students in positive emotional expression, improved self-concept, and facilitates social skill development (Morse, Ardizzone, MacDonald, & Pasick, 1980). Encouraging social interaction in the classroom through peer tutoring, cooperative learning, group projects, and games can promote social skill development and meet students' needs for belonging, competence, and self-esteem.

    A positive teacher-student relationship is common to classrooms with a healthy climate. "Teachers must be skilled in using the setting, the curriculum, and most especially the relationship with the child to provide an atmosphere that promotes both academic and social development" (VanAcker, 1993, p. 31). A positive classroom climate will not eliminate classroom stress, but it will reduce it so that teachers and students can experience more daily success.

    Functional assessment can be helpful in reducing aggressive behavior. Through this kind of assessment, teachers can identify specific antecedents and consequences that are associated with maladaptive behaviors. Teachers can collect individual data on each student to show time, setting, situation, antecedent, and consequences for each specific maladaptive behavior. When teachers analyze the data, they may see patterns that help in understanding the function of disruptive or aggressive behavior for a student (Foster-Johnson & Dunlap, 1993).
    Common functions served by maladaptive behaviors include attention seeking (positive reinforcement), escape or avoidance (negative reinforcement), or sensory feedback and stimulation; common antecedents to maladaptive behaviors include frustration, boredom, models, overstimulation, and environmental expectations (Alberto & Troutman, 1995). "Identification of the functional relationships is essential to the development of interventions that not only are effective, but also are least intrusive and proactive" (Rutherford & Nelson, 1995, p. 110).
    Through careful collection of data, teachers can gain insights into the specific antecedents and functions associated with a student's aggressive behavior. This will allow teachers to more effectively modify the environment so that antecedents to aggression are eliminated, and students can be taught alternative behaviors that can replace aggression as a functional behavior.


    Modifying teacher behavior and the classroom environment will help reduce frustration and stress in the classroom; but unless students are actively taught prosocial, alternative behaviors, the benefits of such changes will be limited in their duration and lack generalization. Johns et al. (1996) stated that students with emotional and behavioral disorders need a preventive curriculum that includes stress management, self-control training, and social skill development.
    Affective education and social skills programs address many of the deficits of students with emotional and behavioral disorders, as follows:

  • Cartledge and Milburn (1995) have reviewed a number of social skills programs for preschoolers, elementary schoolchildren, and adolescents.
  • Goldstein has written several books on teaching social skills, through the "Prepare" curriculum (1988), whose 10 curriculum areas address interpersonal skills, stress management, situational perception training, and empathy training; and a curriculum for aggression replacement training (1994).
  • Feindler and Ecton (1986) described a 12-session group anger-control program.
  • Books on teaching conflict resolution (Johnson & Johnson, 1995) and coping skills (Forman, 1993) are also relevant and useful.
  • Affective education programs that encourage student awareness of feelings, and how their feelings affect their behavior include life-space intervention (Wood & Long, 1991) and values clarification (Abrams, 1992).

    One final suggestion for teachers seeking to prevent aggressive behavior is to remember the importance of differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviors (DRI). To effectively modify student aggression and teach prosocial behaviors, teachers must reinforce, or reward, students when they exhibit behaviors incompatible with aggression (coping with frustration, resolving conflicts without aggression, managing anger appropriately) (Alberto & Troutman, 1995; Webber & Scheuermann, 1991). Teachers should recognize student improvement and reinforce it; too often we fall into the trap of responding to negative behavior, and forget to recognize positive behavior.

    The ideas presented here will not eliminate all student aggression. Teachers do not have total control over classroom environments, but by modifying those variables that they can control, teachers can greatly reduce student aggression. Attempts to reduce stress, frustration, and failure in the classroom are not easy, but are well worth the effort in terms of student growth and teacher satisfaction.

As a School Psychologist, Amiel Segal is educated on student aggression and works with patients from his office located in Seaford. He also treats patients in surrounding towns such as Amityville, Massapequa, Massapequa Park, Wantagh, Bellmore, Merrick, Uniondale, Hempstead, Lindenhurst, Levittown, Farmingdale and East Meadow.


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