When Kids Are Aggressive At School: What To Do

I get a lot of calls from parents whose kids are in trouble at school because they’re aggressive with other kids. Shoving, hitting, kicking… If your child’s teachers are complaining because your child is physically aggressive, what should you do?

1: Why is your child acting out??

Kids don’t just walk up to some random person and hit them. In most of the families I work with, kids who are physically aggressive at school are reacting to a stressor (often this is personal-space related) – or they’re responding to another child’s aggression – aggression that is either purely verbal or it may be physical, but the physical act (say, tripping or pushing) is more subtle.

So as a first step, it’s important to get clear about the context in which the aggressive behavior occurred. Did your child hit when he felt crowded – is this how he reacts when he doesn’t have enough physical space? Or did your child hit Amy because Amy was calling him Stupid, or taking his things, or intentionally bumping into him as she passed him? Quite often kids who are shoving or hitting other kids at school are reacting to a very real problem. Don’t just focus on stopping their reaction – take the time to discover what the problem is.

2. Let your child know you’re on their side

Put yourself in the role of supportive helper and let your child know that you agree: There’s a trigger – and the school’s stance may also be really unfair. The trick here is that this is NOT a teaching moment. Instead, it’s all about validation and empathy – and when you say something validating and then add “but…” – well, that’s not validating. The message you want to be giving your child is NOT, “Yeah, it sucks, but you need to have self-control.” Instead, slow down, take a step back, and let your child know you get it. Your message should be, “Yeah, it sucks, and we’re going to figure this out together.”

3. Will their teacher help?

Is the teacher open to addressing the reason(s) your child is acting out? If you’re going to get the teacher’s support you need to approach them with respect, compassion, and openness. They may have come to you with, “You need to do something about your kid,” but try not to get defensive and instead act from a position of gentle strength. “I’m sorry, and I know it makes it really difficult for you and the class, but I’m hoping you can help. I’m concerned that this is going to happen with other kids or my kid’s changes won’t be sustainable if the behavior of the other kids isn’t addressed.” Often teachers are supportive, but if they’re blaming you, be calm and be strong. It’s reasonable and appropriate for you to request that the context be addressed.

4. Does your child need “personal space”?

Kids, especially younger kids, often shove or hit because they need more space. It’s quite common for kids to need more space at circle time, or they may need to sit at a desk while the others are in Circle. And a few years ago I worked with one teacher to create space between my “aggressive” client and another child who was invading her space just in an attempt to provoke her! Sometimes a child will agree that it’s possible to place himself at a distance from challenging situations or classmates.

5. Social-skills training

Another strategy that’s often helpful is for “physical” kids to get training and practice in social skills. And this is so much more than the directive, “Use your words!” If your child isn’t using his words, he probably lacks the skills, and if he lacks the skills, he has to be taught – actually coached through the process – and he needs role-play and practice, too.

As an example, I once worked with one older boy who got in trouble at school for vandalism, but he only did the deed because a group of other kids bullied him into it. So we taught him how to stand in a physical stance that conveyed strength, and we taught him to say No in an assertive way. We taught him how to resist something he didn’t want without fighting or giving in, and we role-played with him so he could get some real practice. And once he started saying No to the other kids he was seen as a person with power, and other kids started to gravitate toward him, which reinforced his positive behavior.

6. Raise expectations at home

I often recommend parent coaching to parents whose kids are having trouble at school, partly because kids who are acting out at school may be acting out at home, too – and also because when parents raise expectations at home, this really does help to solve the problems at school. At the end of the day, kids who are aggressive at school usually need to up their self-management- and emotional-regulation skills, right? And the home environment is a great place for kids to get what they need to really develop these skills. If you do it right, solving problem behavior or emotional dysregulation at home, and raising expectations around responsibility and self-care – these not only mean less stress and more happiness for everyone in the family; they also improve your child’s confidence and sense of self-efficacy. Self-esteem plus self-management and emotional-regulation skills – your child will take these with them wherever they go!

Clearly, kids hurting other kids is not a good thing. But it’s not enough to just try to teach the child that this is not OK. There’s more needed than just, “How do I get my kid to control himself?” Especially in the all-too-common scenario where the child is responding to another child’s aggression, this really isn’t fair – and your child knows it. It can be tempting for teachers and parents to pick their battles, and prioritize the behavior that’s more clearly out of line – but kids who feel singled out can easily become more firmly entrenched in the aggressor role! On the other hand, when you take steps to address the context that contributes to kids’ challenging behavior, you not only mitigate the problem – in addition, when kids know you’re on their side, this really helps them buy in to the changes they have to make on their end!

If your child is acting out, find out why, let them know you’re on their side; ask their teacher if they will be part of the solution; and be sure to raise expectations at home!

Need help?

Did you know that at Wits’ End we can also work with your child’s teacher, to support them with strategies to solve the problems at school? I can give teachers practical suggestions that quickly change the dynamics in the classroom, and I can also help you to work with the teacher in ways that will minimize conflict and help you to get the outcomes you want. Go here to schedule a free consult with me!

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