Handling Student Aggression

Handling Student Aggression

Aggression is hands down the most critical, important, and time sensitive issue to deal with in your classroom. Because let’s be honest – it doesn’t matter how organized you are, what math curriculum you are using, how you are charting your data – if you are getting punched in the face. Right? Before you can even think of tackling (no pun intended) any other classroom issues you have GOT to decrease aggression.

If you were hoping for a magic cure all solution in this post – I’m sad to disappoint you. But you can follow the same steps with all aggressive behaviors to determine the appropriate intervention.


Determine the Function of the Behavior

Bottom line: All behaviors are done to get something. Every behavior in life. I scratch my nose to relieve the itch, I push the door shut to remove the cold breeze, I text on my phone to access attention from friends. It’s the same with aggression. Every behavior has a function (or reason for occurring). You need to figure out the function of aggression before intervening. Check out this post for more detailed info on identifying function. It basically comes down to two options, the aggressive behaviors are done to:

  1. to try to gain access to something
  2. to try to escape something 

Again – no easy solution within that. Gaining access to something can be food, toys, teacher attention, student attention, parent attention, electronics, you name it. Escaping something can be escaping work tasks, social demands, certain staff/students, changes in routine, transitions, etc.

  • Caveat: Behaviors can also result in a ‘sensory’ function – to achieve some sensory sensation. Aggression is not typically going to fall in to this category because it cannot be done alone (ie. you cannot kick yourself). Sensory behaviors will always be done alone since this internal sensory function has no social components. However – self injurious behavior (hitting yourself, biting yourself, etc.) can have a sensory function.

Now how do you figure out the function of the behavior you ask? This is the tricky part! Because I absolutely know how difficult it is to take data on aggression. Are you seriously going to bust your clipboard out mid punch to the face to make a tally? No! You are probably worrying about the safety of the students and yourself and dealing with the issue. My best advice for taking this data: your best is good enough. This data isn’t going to be published – it’s for your own use. Do it as accurate as you can and don’t stress if it’s not perfect. It won’t make that big of a deal in the long run. Make a super simple data sheet and pick a super simple behavior to target. Track single hits or minutes in meltdown. Whatever you do – keep it consistent. Check out this post for tons of data sheet suggestions and links.


Select an Intervention

You have your baseline data – now analyze it! Look at the times aggression is occurring and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do these behaviors occur usually in a specific location? Specific time of day? Particular staff or students? certain subject area or work task?
  • What tends to happen most often after the behavior occurs? What do you do as a result of the behavior? What do the students do after the behavior occurs?
  • Was there a time this behavior didn’t happen? Look at what was different at those times.

You should be able to make an educated guess about the function of the behavior. It will be a guess – we can never really know for sure until we see if the intervention works! For attention behaviors – check out this post for intervention ideas. For escape (to get out of something) behaviors – check out this post for intervention ideas. If you have some students with self injurious behaviors that could have a sensory function – read here.

Implement the Interventions

The big kahuna. Now you need to implement the intervention. KEEP TAKING DATA – it’s more important than ever now. You need to know if your intervention is working!! Again – cut yourself some slack in this area. Take data at the end of the day or every few hours if you need to. Just get some rough estimation if that’s all you could do. Suggestions:

  • Think about safety first. If you need to evacuate the room – do it. Don’t try to move the child in the meltdown (unless you have a safe time out room and staff trained to safely move a student – however still avoid this – it increases risks exponentially). You can however move the rest of the students out of harm’s way. We had to do this in my classroom a lot. Sadly – my students got in the routine of it. I assigned some of the higher functioning students a student who needs more help to be their ‘partner’ when they needed to evacuate. One aide would take the rest of the students out of the room while the other aide and I dealt with the aggression. It’s better to have your student miss out on some academics than make the most horrible phone call ever – to tell a parent their child was hurt by another student. Trust me.
  • Again – cut yourself some slack when you are dealing with extreme behaviors. Don’t plan elaborate units or lessons. Don’t get super mad at yourself if you are missing out on huge parts of your schedule. Be flexible. Like I said in this post dealing with the drama is in our job description. You can get to the rest of the schedule later. You need to first make sure everyone is safe – that is most important.
  • Let yourself vent! I completely understand how stressful and impacting these situations can be. I had such a bad situation last year that I broke out in hives each night. Easier said than done – but try not to take it personally. It’s hard when you work with a child for so long, spend sleepless nights thinking up behavior plans, put in countless hours of extra work – only to get your hair pulled and face scratched. I get it. Completely. But just keep reminding yourself not to hold it against the child. When you get home – do what you need to do to relax and rejuvenate. Cry, work out, have a glass of wine (not too many – haha), play with your kids, cook, – whatever!
  • Don’t vent to your aides! This is a tricky one. I highly recommend not spending tons of time venting with your paraprofessionals. It’s tempting. They are on the front lines of combat with you. Of anyone – they probably understand the situation the most. But keep in mind – they are dealing with this too. Your venting – or negative comments (which are okay to have!) – will only lead to a more negative environment in your classroom. You want to keep your paraprofessionals positive and empowered – not depressed, overwhelmed, and down.
  • Feel free to email me to vent :) I understand how hard it is to find someone who really understands. You closest coworker – maybe a general education second teacher – might not understand your bad day. Her rowdy students might not compare to 2 hour meltdown that left bruises and scratches. Venting is therapeutic and might provide some new outlook – so if you are ever in need of an ear to listen – I am here for you!

If you are dealing with extreme aggression – take a deep breath and make a plan. It will get better. It will not always be this bad. So keep your head up and hang in there!


Because I wanted to share my Valentine Love with you all during this week – be sure to Like The Autism Helper on facebook for FFFF {Flash Facebook Fan Freebie} – there is one today! :)


  1. Any advice for paraprofessionals who refuse to follow a behavior plan?! I’m stumped on that one.

    • I took data, on my same data sheet for the student, on the staff you dealt with the behavior. I use an ABC sheet so the consequence should be according to the behavior plan. I then emailed my aides and principal/supervisor the data on how they are responding to the behavior. It also helped me know what times the aide was following the plan to help clear up confusion. I also asked my aides to track how I dealt with the behavior. Keeps us all accountable!

    • Sasha, thank you so much for this important post. I am thankful that you treat your paraprofessionals with kindness and professionalism. Agreed positive energy from our leader/teacher is key. Have a great week and keep posting!

    • Yep, agree with Ness! Go to administration asap.

  2. I’d also say that sometimes things get worse before they get better in an intervention, so give it a few weeks to settle in, and for the student to learn. You are unteaching, and reteaching a behaviour.

    ^^^To Erin, In my setting behaviour plans are legal documents, signed by admin and parents. That’s the plan that has been decided upon for the safety of all. Go through it with them AGAIN, clearly and give them a written copy-maybe they don’t understand why, or get confused in the moment. Give them time to ask any questions. If they still don’t, you may have to speak to their line manager. You need to be supported so that the intervention works. Good luck-it’s tricky.

    • For sure! Great point!

  3. I have been there and done that. That is a work issue and affects the welfare and safety of the entire class, including other students in the building. If you are the supervising teacher and are responsible for that Para’s evaluation, you need to document the incident, have a discussion with the Para about what you have seen, and why they need to follow the behavior plan (safety, written by a team, it’s part of the IEP so now it is a legal requirement, their job is at risk for refusal, etc). Have someone with you at the meeting, and document what was said. Put them on a plan for improvement. Then document what happens afterwards (whether they follow the plan, or whether they don’t). It could be grounds for dismissal. Bottom line, no matter how great they are in other areas, they need to follow plans as outlined by the teacher and the IEP team. If you are not the supervising teacher, I would document what is going on, any discussions you have had with the Para, and forward it on to their supervisor. This is the case in my school district and an asst Principal in my building is the supervisor. When I have issue that are not resolved by talking to the Para, I bring it to the attention of the supervisor. Allowing this to continue undermines your authority as a teacher and affects the safety and welfare of everyone.

  4. Thank you so much for my calling attention my sweet parapros. I am in a classroom this year where my aide(s) are …mature… enough to be my mother. I have fallen into a habit of venting to them more often than I probably should, and then I become frustrated when they don’t understand my change in perspective from “complaining” to solution-finding (often because they don’t have enough information about how to truly track behavior, find the root, try interventions that hit at the root, etc.). I will definitely be trying to keep your advice in mind this week! (:

  5. Thanks everyone for the tips. My behavior specialist is going to give it a try. Hoping for results. I have laid out the behavior plan many times and explained the legal issues. I have to let administration deal with it now…


Keep the discussion going! What are your thoughts?