Brought to you by Learning Disabilities Worldwide (LDW®) through the generosity of Saint Joseph's University.
Aggressive behavior is common place in a classroom setting as groups of children vie for scarce attention and materials. Aggressive behavior also occurs when children jostle for position in the social strata of their peer group. Although many teachers would prefer children to work differences out on their own, left to run its course, aggressive behavior can escalate into physical and verbal exchanges that can leave children hurt, victimized and unable to feel safe in their own classroom. Aggression can be defined as “antisocial behavior that damages or destroys property or that results in physical or emotional injury” (Kostelnick, Gregory, Soderman, & Whiren, 2012, pg.361). Children with Learning Disabilities (LD) can be found on both sides of aggressive behavior: engaging in the hurtful behavior as well as on the receiving end. This occurs for many of the same reasons as children who do not experience learning difficulties, however, the specific learning difficulties of students with LD often prevent them from learning the skills to handle this type of behavior vicariously. Thus, teachers need to understand the types of aggressive behavior so that they can specifically teach the strategies to manage other children’s aggressiveness. Aggressive behavior is characterized as falling into one of two types: instrumental and hostile. As a teacher, learning how to identify the type of aggression displayed will be helpful in formulating a response.
Instrumental aggression often occurs as a result of negative feelings surrounding confrontations over materials, property, space or rights – legitimate or otherwise. This is the type of aggression that is a byproduct of children trying to lay claim to what they want. The key to understanding this type of aggression is that there is no premeditation in the conflict that ensues. For example, Joe and Randy, two six year olds, are building towers out of blocks in the construction corner of the room. Sam, looking on but not knowing how to ask if he can join the pair, tries to straighten a block that was not properly in place. Instead of fixing the structure, the whole structure collapses to the floor. Immediately Joe and Randy gang up on Sam, yelling and pushing him to get him out of the block area. Sam, feeling bad yet with no intent to have wrecked the building, yells back as a way to defend his position and hits Joe after being pushed. The fight escalates until other children and the teacher rush to see what the commotion is about. Researchers (Doll & Brehm, 2010) have identified arguments, such as illustrated above, that result in conflict over objects, territory or rights as instrumental aggression.
Instrumental aggression about objects occurs when two (or more) children try to get the possession of a desired object. For example, Dana’s favorite doll in the classroom is the Gumby doll, however on this day Susan is playing with it. When Susan puts it down momentarily, Dana snatches it and runs off with Susan in pursuit. Both girls start pulling at the doll until one falls and starts crying. Each girl wanted the Gumby doll for herself and the aggression occurred because of the desire to gain access to the preferred object.
Instrumental aggression about territory at school occurs when two (or more) children lay claim to a specific area of the classroom, hallway, lunchroom or playground and don’t allow other children to invade their space. In this case, five seventh grade boys have claimed a particular lunch table as their own. As they enter the lunchroom, they see two other boys sitting at the table. The five boys surround the table and start insisting the other boys leave their table; grabbing the lunches and book bags of the two in an effort to displace them. The two boys resist and a physical scuffle results, again alerting the children and adults in the lunch room to the aggression because of the conflict.
Instrumental aggression over rights occurs when two (or more) children want to be allowed to do the same task or be given the same privilege. Consider the various roles and responsibilities teachers convey to children throughout the day or week: one person is the hall monitor, another erases the boards, another collects the money for the trip, and so on. When children each covet the same classroom role, resentment can build if there is not sufficient opportunity for the teacher to allow for many leaders. An example is Erika who always wants to be first in everything. When the teacher calls for the students to line up at the door, Erika rushes to the front even though Paul is already the first in line. Paul shoves Erika as he states that he is there first, Erika shoves back as the exchange escalates over something as simple as lining up at the door.
Hostile aggression is different from instrumental aggression due to the purposeful nature of the exchange. Research on hostile aggression has found that instances of this type are characterized by the deliberate intent to inflict harm on others, either through physical means, verbal exchanges or intimidation (Doll & Brehm, 2010). These intentional interactions have goals of retaliation for perceived slights or victimization, as well as acts of intimidation and threat to get others to do what they want. Hostile aggression falls into two categories: physical and relational.
Hostile aggression of the physical type seeks to cause harm through threats of physical injury or actual harm. This type of aggression is often characterized as the school yard bully. For example, this type of aggression may be found in children who target, beat up and terrorize other children deemed weaker than they perceive themselves to be.
Hostile aggression of the relational type seeks to damage another person’s status or reputation. Although this type of aggression is not new, it has thrived in the era of cellular phones and social networking. The aggressors in these situations often don’t see themselves as aggressors, instead viewing their activities as pranks. However, after news reports of individuals at high schools and colleges committing suicide as the result of relational aggression tactics, schools and parents have come to understand the detrimental effects of relational aggression that researchers have described.
Relational aggression is often seen as the hallmark of girl aggression. Although physical aggression appears more frequently in boys and relational aggression in girls, both males and females can exhibit aspects of both physical and relational aggression.
Managing Children’s Interactions
Although teachers may understand that children behave aggressively for various reasons, as professionals we still believe that protecting children from the harmful effects of aggressive acts is our responsibility. However, we cannot be in all places at all times. Thus the most effective strategy is to reduce opportunities for instrumental aggressive behavior and to teach children skills that allow them to stand up for themselves. In reducing opportunities for aggressive behavior, an anti – aggression policy must be in place, understood and implemented by all. Additionally, teachers should structure the classroom environment to minimize opportunities of aggression. Finally, children should be taught assertiveness skills that empower them to use words to stand up for their own rights. Assertiveness skills can be directly taught to children and practiced through classroom role play until they become second nature.
Promote assertive behavior in children. Assertiveness is the socially appropriate response to aggressive behavior. When children are taught and encouraged to be assertive, they are able to express themselves in an effort to protect their own rights as well as respect the rights of others (Kostelnick, et al., 2012). Children can be taught to use their words in support of three R’s:
- Resist unreasonable demands, I am not finished playing with that yet!
- Refuse to tolerate aggressive acts such as name calling, Stop calling me names!
- Reframe the aggressive act so that the aggressor understands the child’s position, You can be next to use the scissor when I am done; I know you want to be first in line but I was here first; or We disagree about this and that’s ok.
Although skills to resist situations of instrumental aggression can be taught to children, acts of hostile aggression often require the assistance of adults trained in such matters. School-wide policies against aggression are a start. Many schools engage anti-bullying programs as part of a Positive Behavioral Instructional Support (PBIS) policy. Yet most acts of hostile aggression occur when there is no adult present. At such times, children must be taught that telling an adult is not tattling. One way to help older children understand the difference is to define the words as follows:
Define tattling as about behaviors that are not dangerous. Describe telling as letting adults know about dangerous situations such as bullying. Tattling simply gets people into trouble. Telling keeps people safe ((Kostelnick, et. Al., 2012, pg. 389).
Aggressive acts in the classroom are not uncommon; some children vicariously acquire the necessary skills to manage these unwanted behaviors. Other children need to be taught what to do in these situations. Children with LD often become the victims or purveyors of aggressive acts because of difficulty with communication and frustration. Teaching children assertive skills is an effective way to promote the rights of self and others. However, when acts of aggression are purposeful, children need to understand that telling is not tattling. For further information on management strategies for aggression in your school, seek the advice of your administration, school psychologist and guidance counselor.
Doll, B., & Brehm, K. (2010). Resilient Playgrounds. New York: Routledge.
Kostelnik, Gregory, Soderman, & Whiren.(2012). Guiding children’s social development and learning, Seventh Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
Micheline Malow, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. She teaches courses in the Foundations of Special Education, Research in Special Education, and Child Development. In addition, Dr. Malow presents at numerous professional conferences and has published articles on friendship, students with disabilities, and effective strategies for students with disabilities. Additionally, Dr. Malow has co-authored a book about adolescent risk taking behavior from Greenwood Press, Adolescents and Risk. Contact Dr. Malow at email@example.com.