When Kids Are Aggressive At School: What Not To Do

I get a lot of calls from parents whose kids are in trouble at school. This trouble tends to fall into two main categories: Either the child is not listening to the teacher, not following the school routine – or the child is acting out physically. Hitting, kicking, biting… This blog will focus on the second problem – more specifically, I focus on kids’ acting out toward other kids (vs. teachers), and I talk about what’s wrong with the response grownups typically give.

Clearly, kids hurting other kids is not a good thing. But it’s not enough to just try to teach the kid that this is not OK. There’s more needed than just, “How do I get my kid to control himself?”

Because there’s always a reason. Kids don’t just walk up to some random person and hit them. In most of the families I work with, aggressive kids 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 the change efforts are directed primarily at the responding child.

And all too often the response we give these “reactive” kids is, “I know that was hard but you can’t hit.” Or the kid receives some kind of punishment, from the teacher or the parent.

And the kid knows this isn’t fair. He knows he did wrong, so there’s often some shame there, but he also feels frustrated and really stuck, because he knows it isn’t fair that the change efforts are focused entirely (or almost entirely) on his reactions. I do see a real tendency for grownups, busy or overwhelmed as they are, to just pick their battles: They know the kids aren’t playing nice, but they place the main priority on the behavior that’s more obviously out of line. (And often these singled-out kids become even more firmly entrenched in either the victim or aggressor role.)

Of course, blaming the teacher or the other child is also not enough. We do need to teach the responding child to make other choices. There is a fine line between discovering and addressing the reasons for the problem behavior and making excuses for it. And in my experience, it’s pretty difficult for parents and teachers to address these two directions at once: Grownups need to create cultures where all kids respect each other and verbal aggression is as unacceptable as physical aggression – and we also need to live in a world where each child is taught self-control. But in the all-too-often scenario where a child is responding to another child’s more subtle aggression in a physical way, it’s shortsighted and even harmful to hold only the responding child accountable to control himself.

Below are some steps I take families through when their kids are acting out in response to a problem situation:

–Understand the context.

Get clear about the context in which the aggressive behavior occurred. Does your child hit others when she feels crowded – is this how she reacts when she doesn’t have enough physical space? Did your child hit David because David was calling her Stupid, or taking her things, or intentionally bumping into her as he passed her? Again, there’s much more to aggression than the aggression itself. Quite often the child is reacting to a very real problem. Don’t just focus on stopping her reaction – take the time to really understand the problem.

–Understand what it takes to show that you understand.

Have an honest communication with your child that you agree, there’s a trigger, and/or it’s really unfair. The trick here is that this is NOT a teaching moment. This is all about validation and empathy – and when you say something validating and then add “but,” guess what? 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.” You want to take the time and have the intention to really let your child know you get it, and the message should be, “Yeah, it sucks, and we’re going to figure this out together.”

–Will the teacher help with this?

Is the teacher open to working with the context and the other kids involved in these interactions? 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, and I wonder if 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.

And please know that I am available to help in these situations. I can give teachers practical suggestions that would change the dynamics in the classroom, and I can also help them to teach everyone in the class how to communicate with respect, kindness, and strength. So if the teacher is open and you think it would help, feel free to connect the two of us.

–Troubleshoot the challenging situations with your child.

Here it’s really important, again, to have an open, honest conversation that’s not a lesson in disguise. Instead, your intention is genuine brainstorming with an eye toward concrete solutions and strategies. Get your child’s ideas about what they could do to mitigate the problem. And when you suggest an idea, be genuinely interested in whether they think that could work, and how.

One strategy I often suggest to the families I work with centers on physical space. Sometimes younger kids need more space at circle time, or they need to sit at a desk while the others are in circle. As another example, I worked with one family where we got the teacher to create space between my “aggressive” client and another child who was intentionally provoking her. And sometimes a child will agree that it’s possible to place himself at a distance from challenging situations or classmates.

Another strategy that’s often helpful is for “physical” kids to get training and practice in verbal assertiveness. And this is so much more than just, “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 led through the process – and he needs rehearsals and concrete practice, too.

For example, I worked with one older boy who got in trouble for things like 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 some other kids started to gravitate toward him, which reinforced his positive behavior.

Helping kids develop verbal skills and brainstorming practical steps to address problem situations are really important, and of course another key strategy with any kid is to teach them self-control. And again, this goes way beyond just telling them they need to have it. It’s beyond the scope of this blog to detail a process for teaching self-control to kids, so I’ll write more about that soon.

In the meantime – when you take steps to address the context that contributes to kids’ challenging behavior, you might 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!