Handling Student Aggression

Categories: Data | Interventions

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 and this post on how to identify the function of behavior. 

Determining the function of behavior can be tricky! 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 or recording some notes on the antecedents? 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. Use a counter to track the behavior easily.  At the end of a behavioral issue or during your lunch breaks each day – make note of common antecedents and consequences. 


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! Review last week’s posts on attention, escape, sensory, and multiply controlled behaviors. Also review the importance of teaching a replacement behavior

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.  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.
  • 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 one 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!


  1. I am working with a student (K) recently diagnosed with AU. He has been placed in EC services for social skills and speech. He receives two ABA (Applied Behavior Analyst) Technician’s who work with him in the mornings. One technician will begin ABBLS/DTT.
    I work with him in the afternoons (getting him after P.E.) , so he needs sensory output, usually some form of movement and/or social story. He is removed from his classroom for this (30 minutes) and then we come back to the classroom and he is observed (by me) on the skills taught….no hitting, inside voice, etc.
    I have noticed that he is typically VERY aggressive with me…I have asked several other people with FAR more experience than I have, what am I doing wrong, what could I do differently, and the typical answer is “don’t talk as much”.
    Hmmmm….I need more guidance.
    So to paint a typical scene for you..my day…
    I walk him from his classroom to our “social skills room”. There is a desk and two chairs. He has a choice of sensory boxes which an OT has provided. Rice, beans, beads. The rice and beans usually end up in the floor, on the counter, etc….these are NOT good choices for him. A three pound ball has been provided. He wants to throw it AT me, as a weapon. I have modeled rolling on the floor….nope, not going to work

    When my student reaches his “aggressive state” he is very “hands on”. He hits, he “head butts” he grabs inappropriately. I am not able to turn my back or he will try to lift my shirt. I try to use “first/then language”…not good. I have tried and continue to use visuals. He hits them, and me. He grunts. I use the same language “hands are for high fives, not hitting”

    I leave crying every day bc I feel I am not the appropriate person for him, yet this student absolutely loves me and we have a “secret handshake”, he will run to me, he hugs my arm. He listens to me at other times, and I refuse to give up.
    When we walk back to his classroom (yes, after 30 minutes of this)…he tells me he is sad. I am with him for another 20 minutes in his classroom. We play, I correct him when he takes a toy, pushes a friend, or yells. I don’t use less verbage. He understands me.

    What are your suggestions?
    I am at a total loss.

  2. I have just recently discovered your posts but love them all. I am a middle school special needs teacher and have one that is really pushing the limits this year. Reading your posts have helped me realize that I am not alone or wrong in feelings that I have been having. Thank you for validating those things for me.
    I was almost dreading going back to school tomorrow but reading what you have to say is giving me a spark of “ok lets get back and see what we can do for this student and figure this out” so thank you. I look forward to reading more.

  3. It sounds to me like he just doesn’t like the choices he is given in that room. Maybe try giving him other choices (like a trampoline perhaps). I get the feeling that he loves you just not so much the room.

  4. I have just discovered this post! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I am a special ed teacher and am now the Intensive Behavior Specialist (not by choice). This has been a year of huge growth for me, I have seen some pretty aggressive behaviors and to separate myself at the end of the day is tough. It is such a comfort to know I am not along and now have this spot to use ad a support.

  5. Hang in there Lizzie! Dealing with aggression can be so challenging on so many levels! Feel free to email me anytime if you need to vent or trouble shoot!

  6. All I can say is ladies you are NOT alone and keep it up. I also have a very aggressive middle school student who has injured many staff over the years. Sadly, they let two of my staff go half way through the year and we were unable to keep up with his behavior plan when progress was being made.Don’t get me wrong his behaviors were still very challenging. They brought in an outside company to staff him and that has been a constant change of people and now he is aggressing towards my other kiddos. Nothing is more frustrating then seeing your hard work get erased because of administrative decisions. Also nothing is more frustrating then seeing another year pass for this child who is 11 and continues to have such extreme behaviors. I often wonder how we have failed this child for so many years and how long it will take for those that make the decisions to make a right one. We are the work horses and the ones who care with endless love for our students. I wish they would listen to us more often. Sasha thank you for writing posts like this.

  7. I am a paraprofessional, depending on the incident, it feels good to have a team meeting and debrief. No one at home or none of my friend’s understand what I am dealing with daily.

  8. I have a similar situation In my classroom too. It sounds like you are going above and beyond for this kiddo! I have found for my student that if I let him “wander” and acclimate after transitions before I place any demands (which could even be offering a preferred item) he is easier to work with. I have to wait for him to show me his cues that he is ready. It’s hard because some days I don’t ever get those cues that he is ready and I feel like a total failure. I have had the same thoughts as you that my class might not be the appropriate setting. As far as using less verbal commands, I have found that works for me sometimes. Asking this student to wash his hands often results in screaming, scratching, biting, kicking, or objects thrown so now I just hand him a card that says “wash hands.” He sometimes responds by walking towards the sink but other times he protests the same way as if I told him to go. Just keep doing what you know and what works for you and don’t take anything too personally!!

  9. UGH – Nicole I am frustrated just reading this! It’s beyond infuriating when administration makes decisions in these extreme cases that aren’t in the best interest of the child. He is lucky to have you working and advocating for him. Hang in there!

  10. Yes, absolutely – a team meeting and debrief is a must have! I was more referring to avoiding venting and complaining as a group which usually tends to bring down morale and isn’t constructive. But a problem solving focused review of the incident with the whole team is essential. Thanks for sharing, Leah!

  11. I so needed to read this tonight! Here is to an awesome week! ❤️

  12. You got this!!

  13. Hey ladies you are not alone at all. This is my first year working in the Special Education department. I previously was working in a daycare. We have a child that has severe aggressive behavior. Currently he is at a behavior treatment center. He might be coming back to the school district. I am needing all tips and any advice you have. I refuse to give up on this kid as I know this is all learned behavior and I just want to show him tons of love and want to change his behavior.


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