Hi! I'm Coach Franny, and I empower families with challenging children to come together as problem solving teams through a Mindful-Ish® approach to parenting.
Whether you’re a teacher wondering how to handle an aggressive child in the classroom, or a parent who wants to learn how to deal with an aggressive child at home, embracing a Mindful-Ish® approach to this type of behavior is a great first step.
So what do you do when you’re dealing with an aggressive child? And where do you begin?
Understanding aggression is a great place to start. We must get to the root of their behavior (rather than suppress it) and learn why the child is being aggressive. From there we can work with the child to redirect their energy. If you approach this with a proactive and preventative mindset, you’re setting yourself up to successfully de-escalate the situation and keep everyone safe.
Aggressive behavior can present in a number of ways, each with its own underlying reasons. Any behavior that results in physical or emotional injury or damage can be considered aggression – that means words can be aggressive too! The University of Nebraska identifies four central kinds of aggression: Accidental, expressive, hostile, and instrumental.
As the name suggests, accidental aggression is an accident! Bumping into a classmate while playing a game, spilling a drink by standing up too fast, or knocking over blocks by mistake are actions with unintended consequences that may or may not feel aggressive to those impacted by them.
Accidental aggression presents a learning opportunity. Emotions may be running high, but it is important to use this as remember that our actions have consequences. It is important to apologize when our actions hurt others, even if we weren’t trying to hurt them.
Much like accidental aggression, there are no bad intentions behind acts of expressive aggression. A child may enjoy building a tower and knocking it down, but their sibling or classmate is upset to see their hard work come tumbling down. In this situation, the aggressive child is in control of their actions, but because they aren’t intending to hurt the other child, they may not understand why their actions are not acceptable.
We can use our first Mindful-Ish® Tip as a starting point for dealing with expressive aggression, but we can take things one step further by redirecting the aggressive behavior. Teach the child that knocking down someone else’s blocks can be hurtful, and give them opportunities to knock down their own blocks safely so they can learn to express their energy without harming others.
Unlike the other types of aggression discussed so far, hostile aggression is behavior that is performed intentionally to hurt someone else. Children engaging in hostile aggression do so to gain power or control. This type of aggression is most common among peers, but can occasionally extend to teacher/student and parent/child aggression.
Children engaging in hostile aggression need firm boundaries, but they also need you to keep your cool when engaging in discipline. Clarity and consistency are two key themes you must keep in mind when setting boundaries and standards for children engaging in hostile aggressive behavior.
Like hostile aggression, instrumental aggression is done on purpose, but there is a more tangible reason for the aggression than power or control. Two students fighting over a toy, or siblings getting physical over who gets to watch TV are both common examples of instrumental aggression – the aggression is intentional, but it is triggered by a specific situation.
Clarity and consistency are both important when dealing with instrumental aggression, but collaboration is what makes this Mindful-Ish® tip special. Work with the individuals involved in an incident of instrumental aggression to understand their behavior, the impact, why it is not acceptable, and how they can handle conflict differently in the future. This turns a need for discipline into a learning opportunity, giving everyone a chance to move forward and grow from the experience.
When presented with an aggressive incident, the first thing to do is identify what kind of aggression we are dealing with – but you don’t have to do it alone! Talk to the children involved and ask questions to get a clear picture of the interaction and make a plan for how to proceed. Use the Mindful-Ish® tips to guide your response, and work with your children to learn from the situation, set boundaries for the future, and make amends for the aggressive behavior.
Tips 1-4 are helpful when handling any aggressive incident, but they are only as effective as you are. Aggressive incidents can cause heightened emotions for everyone involved – parents and teachers included – so when faced with an act of aggression, don’t be afraid to stop, breathe, and think before taking action.
Whether you’re noticing consistent aggressive behavior among your children, or looking for help to understand an isolated incident, just know you’re not alone. Practicing composure in difficult situations, staying Mindful-Ish®, and not being afraid to ask for help are all signs that you’re doing your best, and that’s really all anyone can ask for.
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