The following information is not meant to supplant or contradict School Board or Ministry of Education policies, rules or guidelines. The intent is strictly to complement and support such established procedures and provide concrete, practical, and evidence-based strategies to assist teachers in meeting their disciplinary responsibilities.
Why should teachers do something about anger and aggression?
Dealing with anger and aggression in the classroom is a high priority for teachers and school administrators. This type of behaviour, even at normal or "green light" levels, is disruptive to the learning of the other students in the class, affects the mood and effectiveness of the teacher, and undermines the orderly, productive climate we expect in the classroom.
From the standpoint of the student exhibiting the behaviour, action must be taken because it can be a warning sign of worse to come. Aggressive behaviour in elementary school is often a precursor to significant academic, social and behaviour problems in subsequent years. In fact, children identified as hard to manage at age 4 have a 50/50 chance of experiencing serious behaviour problems in adolescence. They are at increased risk of:
· engaging in illegal activities such as delinquency, violence and substance use
· risky sexual behaviour
· dropping out of school
· sexual harassment and dating aggression
· domestic violence
Research also shows that from a young age aggressive children tend to be rejected by their peers, which can lead to significant social challenges during the adolescent period when the peer group becomes so important.
Underlying beliefs about dealing with aggressive behaviour
Some theorists suggest that there are in fact two types of aggressive behaviour patterns, proactive and reactive. They can be distinguished as follows:
Proactive aggression is characterized by:
· goal directed aggression (i.e., designed to get or accomplish something)
· unprovoked intentions to harm or coerce others
· overestimation of the effectiveness of aggressive behaviour
· underestimation of impact on victim
· origins in home and neighbourhood environments that value and reinforce aggression
Reactive aggression is characterized by:
· overestimation of threats and dangers in the environment
· tendency to interpret intentions and behaviour of others as hostile
· inability to see a range of solutions to problems
· high level of general anger and hostility
· hot-blooded anger or fear responses
· over-reaction to minor provocations
· origins in home and neighbourhood environments that are abusive, unpredictable, and fear-inducing
Clearly, strategies for coping with aggressiveness will vary depending on which of these two patterns seems to predominate in any one youngster.
As much as everyone agrees on the need to deal with aggressive behaviour, there is considerable disagreement over the question of how teachers might best approach it. Countless books and articles have been written on this topic, and they offer a myriad of philosophies, theories and practical applications. The ideas and suggestions that follow include much of this information, but are framed according to some clear underlying beliefs.
First of all, behaviour is heavily influenced by its antecedents (what happens just before) and especially by its consequences (what happens just after). However, the emotional and cognitive states of the child are also important. For example, teachers wouldn't be expected to respond in the same way to two seemingly identical temper tantrums, if one child was merely trying to get out of a detention, while the other was acting out anger feelings due to the death of a parent. Thoughts and feelings do count.
Secondly, adults can't control the behaviour of children, teens or anyone else. We can only control our own behaviour and certain aspects of the environment. Luckily that's usually enough, because the actions of adults, especially teachers, are remarkably important to children, even teenaged children. While that's good news, it does mean that we need to be aware of our own behaviour around children and youth so that we don't unintentionally influence their behaviour in a negative way. In fact that's a common problem, and teachers often are unwittingly playing a role in maintaining the very behaviour that's bothering them.
Basic Behavioural Principles:
Focus on Prevention
· Because behaviour is significantly influenced by its antecedents, or what has come before, the general day-to-day classroom and school environment plays an important role in determining how students will behave. The guidelines below are based on practices that are known to reduce opportunities or triggers for misbehaviour.
· Create a classroom that is curriculum-focused, with ample opportunity for every student to experience academic success.
· All students come to school wanting to be successful, and a good deal of misbehaviour is a result of either boredom or discouragement. Therefore, teachers won't usually have to deal with a lot of misbehaviour if they:
o establish a structured learning environment that engages each student with the curriculum,
o maintain a brisk academic pace,
o teach each student at a level where he or she can be successful, and
o maintain optimism and high expectations for each student
Spend time at the beginning of each school year teaching behavioural expectations
· Most teachers seem to feel that this shouldn't be necessary, but students face a wide variety of teacher styles and expectations when it comes to behaviour. For example, some teachers value student interaction in the learning process, and therefore have a high tolerance for the constant buzz of discussion in the room. Other teachers demand near silence in the classroom, particularly while they are working with small groups or individuals, or while seat work is underway.
· Similarly, teachers vary in their expectations and in the rules they establish around such things as classroom discussions. Some teachers love chaotic, enthusiastic participation, while others demand orderly taking of turns. All expectations need to be taught directly just as one would teach content. It is also wise to allow students to have input and discuss and debate the procedures the teacher has established, especially with adolescents in the High School setting. Students should never have to guess or learn through trial and error when it comes to the teacher's expectations around behaviour.
Be consistent. Not perfect, since obviously that's impossible, but very consistent
· If you spend time teaching your rules and expectations, then it would be disastrously unfair to bend them, ignore them or change them unannounced.
· As well, a rule, procedure or expectation related to behaviour has to be applied equally to all the students, and teachers need to be reliably predictable from day to day, week to week, month to month. Kids, even teens, love well-established routines. They do not need to like or approve of every rule, but when the rules are enforced consistently, the students will at least respect your fairness.
Create a constant, unwavering climate of mutual respect
For the teacher, part of being respectful lies in trying to be consistent. Just as important, it means treating all students with respect, even when they are misbehaving. Teachers who rely on disciplinary measures that are overly punitive, demeaning, humiliating or disrespectful, are sure to escalate behavioural issues. When students are treated with respect and dignity, they generally return the favour.
Communicate with parents
Ideally, students should see their parents and their teachers as a united team with similar hopes for student success, and similar expectations for appropriate behaviour. Teachers should never miss an opportunity to communicate with parents, and to establish a relationship that is positive, open, supportive and child centered. Parents can be powerful allies in the task of behaviour management, since their co-operation creates a sense in the students that they are accountable for what they do beyond the limits of the school. On the other hand, if parents are not supportive, teachers can maintain high behavioural expectations without them. It's simply easier if the parents are "on the same page".
Remember that children are curious and exploratory and that's a good thing
· Teachers should not feel offended or defensive when their students test them. In fact, experienced teachers expect testing behaviour and are prepared for it, especially early in the school year. When rules are established, expect that at least one student will need to ensure that they will be enforced. This is not because that student is "bad" or disobedient, but simply because students need to know.
· These testing situations are really quite important. If students find that the rule is not enforced, that rule will cease to have any power over their behaviour. It’s vital, especially early in the school year, that you deal with rule violations promptly, calmly, respectfully, but firmly. Do this consistently, and you'll likely not have to deal with them again very often.
Pay attention to non-verbal communication
Some teachers may not believe that how you say something is more important than what you say, but research has shown that maintaining control in a classroom is really about communicating effectively and consistently. After all, teachers are powerful role models to their students. You need to pay attention to how you give directions, commands or requests. This involves learning how to control your voice and your body language so that students understand you're serious and you mean what you say.
Tips for "saying it like you mean it":
- when giving a direct instruction make sure you're telling (e.g. Put your books away now, please.), rather than asking (e.g. Can we put our books away now, please?);
- if a student needs to be confronted about misbehaviour, make direct eye contact and use a calm, strong (not loud) voice
- be aware of the message your body language conveys and stand up straight, face the student, be assertive, "own the room"
- don't accuse the student of any intent or interpret his or her behaviour as having some hidden agenda, just repeat your direction calmly and wait for compliance (noncompliance is covered below)
- always sincerely thank the student when he or she finally complies so that the issue ends on a positive note
Behaviour Follows Rules
As complex as human behaviour is, there are still basic rules that govern our actions. Student behaviour in the classroom is rule-governed and surprisingly predictable. Most teachers are aware of these rules and have even studied them during their training, but few have been trained to take full advantage of these rules to create a classroom that is productive, orderly and enjoyable. Those who have accomplished this have often done it instinctively because of their own natural abilities and personalities. Below is a brief review of the rules that govern behaviour.
The rule of reinforcement: Behaviour that is followed by a positive result (a reward or reinforcement) is likely to occur frequently.
Your grandmother stated it as follows: "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." And indeed there is a common sense feel to this rule. Professionals who train animals use this rule religiously, yet many people feel that it's far too simplistic to be relevant to human beings. On the contrary, it's the single most powerful determinant of behaviour, and it's used in sports, business and industry to good advantage. It can be a powerful yet simple approach to developing the kind of behaviour that makes not only a good student, but a good citizen.
Following the rule of reinforcement in the classroom
In the classroom, closely monitoring behaviour, catching students in the act of being successful, and following that with positive feedback, praise, encouragement, check marks, smiles, or anything else that students value can be highly effective as a means of preventing aggression and other misbehavior. It also can be used to increase on-task behaviour, working cooperatively, work completion, paying attention, and so on. Teachers often use this strategy in younger grades but it has been shown to be similarly effective with older students and even adults.
As well, children are highly imitative, and will model behaviour that they see being rewarded. This is why we often hear that misbehaviour is "contagious", but in truth, any behaviour that results in a public reward is contagious in this way.
Corollary: Any behaviour that is frequently repeated must be getting rewarded
This gives us some insight into the most common misbehaviours teachers deal with in the classroom such as talking, disrupting, and breaking rules. Somehow, something or someone must be rewarding these persistent, annoying behaviours. In a disturbingly large number of cases, the "someone" is actually the teacher, and the reward is attention.
It's very difficult to convince people that attention is such a powerful reward for children and teens, that they crave it even when it's negative. But it's true. Research has repeatedly shown that when teachers respond to misbehaviour solely by paying attention to it, even when that attention is in the form of scolding, correcting, or disapproving, the misbehaviour increases in frequency. The result is a frustrated teacher who then looks for a way to punish the misbehaviour to make it stop.
A better solution in most cases is for the teacher to change the dynamic. If a student misbehaves, make a mental note that perhaps that student is craving attention. Why that may be is an interesting question but right now let's concentrate on teaching the student a better way to elicit attention from an important adult. Let's ignore the misbehaviour and wait for the student to do something more appropriate, even if it's only sitting quietly for a moment or two. At that point, the teacher goes into action. Now the teacher can approach the student and give him or her all the attention required.
If attention is given just for inappropriate behaviour, the student is being taught to misbehave to get rewarded with attention.
When attention is given for appropriate behaviour, it's that appropriate behaviour that is reinforced and therefore is more likely to occur again.
In more severe cases of misbehaviour, especially with older students, it may not be teacher attention that is maintaining the problem. It could instead be peer attention or a need for power and control, or some other powerful reward. In such cases, more complex reinforcement systems are required, and that will be dealt with later on.
The rule of extinction: A behaviour that is occurring frequently will gradually disappear if the reward stops.
Unfortunately, this rule is frequently misunderstood. In fact, simply withdrawing reinforcement and doing nothing else differently might actually make matters worse.
Example: A student reacts angrily when challenged by difficult seat work, distracting others by slamming books shut and muttering about “stupid questions”. When told to stop, she does. But a few minutes later she's loudly expressing anger again until once more told to quiet down. This cycle typically continues for some time. Analyzing the situation, the teacher concludes that the student is getting a lot of attention for this behaviour, so he decides to ignore it. This appears to work for a while, but then the student begins to disrupt again, this time getting aggressive and loud. In fact, if all the teacher does is ignore it, the behaviour is likely to get more and more disruptive until it can't be ignored any longer and then the teacher gets angry.
The problem here is that the rule of extinction cannot be used by itself. Merely ignoring misbehaviour won't solve the root problem: namely that the student for some reason needs teacher attention.
Ignoring misbehaviour works only if combined with the reinforcement of an appropriate behaviour that's incompatible with that misbehaviour.
So in our example, ignoring the student should be the first step. The second step is to shower the student with attention, help and positive feedback as soon as she signals in any appropriate way that she’s having difficulty. This would reinforce appropriate help-seeking behaviour such as raising a hand, making eye contact with the teacher or even just looking confused. It's essential to use these two strategies together, and when you do they are amazingly powerful. Of course you need to be patient and consistent, which brings us to the next rule.
The rule of persistence: Behaviour change takes time and usually involves small steps with frequent setbacks.
Start small, and do not be discouraged if progress is slow and not so steady. For example, we all know that students who are having difficulty in math or science won't catch up overnight. If a youngster gets 5 out of 100 on a test, we know we have a lot of work to do and will need to be diligent, persistent, patient and optimistic if we're going to get the student caught up. Yet when a student is experiencing difficulties with behaviour, we tend to expect instant success just by yelling at him.
New learning involves the same process whether it's math, science or behaviour. Teaching anything new requires an organized plan and good teaching practices. We need to expect plateaus and setbacks, but persevere anyway, and praise any little bit of progress, whether it's a move from 5/100 to 10/100 on a test, or from 20 temper outbursts in a morning to eighteen. The time is well invested.
The rule of prompt delivery: When you reward positive behaviour, you need to do it right away. The longer you wait the less power the reward has to sustain the behaviour.
You have violated this rule if you have ever:
- told students they can have a reward at dismissal time for good behaviour throughout the day
- promised a student a reward at lunch time if they have "a good morning"
- noticed a student working unusually well and waited until recess to compliment him or her
The rule of partial reinforcement: Once a behaviour seems to be established, we should begin reinforcing it only occasionally, rather than every single time the behaviour occurs.
If we continue to reinforce a behaviour every time it occurs, we actually weaken it, probably because the reinforcement becomes just a part of the background noise of the classroom instead of something special. So once a behaviour has become reliably established, we gradually move to a "partial reinforcement schedule" where students get attention or a pat on the back every few times you catch them behaving well. The goal is to eventually "fade" out the reinforcer altogether and have the behaviour become self-sustaining.
That seems to contradict the Rule of Prompt Delivery, but it doesn't. The key here is that the Rule of Prompt Delivery is important when you're trying to change behaviour or establish a new behaviour. Partial reinforcement is all about maintaining good behaviour once it's established.
III. Using Punishment
The research is clear that positive reinforcement strategies are by far the most powerful way a teacher can deal with misbehaviour. However, there are times when positive approaches simply aren't practical, and the use of punishment needs to be considered. There are rules for the use of punishment as well, and if you violate those rules the situation will get worse. The misuse of punishment can also lead to significant side effects such as:
- mistrust and/or avoidance of authority figures
- self-esteem issues
- avoidance behaviours such as lying, sneakiness or blaming others
Below are the rules for using punishment strategies effectively.
The rule of planned punishment:
· Punishing strategies should only be used as part of an overall behaviour management plan, and applied to achieve certain objectives.
· Punishment should never be used when the teacher is angry, or applied as "a gut reaction" to a student’s behaviour. It needs to be carefully thought out.
· The rule of no surprises: The first step in using a punishment strategy is to explain it to the student.
If a punishment strategy is to be effective, the student needs to know:
- exactly which behaviours will be punished
- exactly what the punishment will be
Guidelines for explaining these points to the student:
- Choose a time when the student is behaving appropriately and approach him or her for a private, serious talk
- Calmly explain that you are worried about his or her behaviour, and that you fear it's creating academic and social problems for him or her, and may damage the student-teacher relationship
- Express concern for the welfare of the student and his classmates
- There should be no hint of emotions such as spite, revenge or anger
Begin with one or two specific behaviours that have been bothering you, and that you can define in a very clear, unambiguous way. One of the ways students tend to test a strategy like this is to exploit a lack of clarity (e.g. "You said not to touch the other kids; you didn't say I couldn't kick them.") Again, there should be no surprises. If a legitimate misunderstanding arises, or something occurs that you didn't consider, apologize, redefine the system, and begin again. Although it isn't easy, the ideal situation is where the student really feels it's a partnership aimed at helping him do better.
The warning rule: Whenever possible, you should issue a warning before the punishment.
Example: "This is a warning. If you poke Mike again I'll have to move your seat."
The hope is that the warning all by itself will control the behaviour so that:
- you don't have to punish the student, and
- you create an opportunity to praise him (e.g., "Thank you for stopping. I was really proud of you choosing to stay with your friend. Good job.").
The rule of "Choice": Whenever possible you should use the word "choice" in your warning.
Example: "You have a choice, stop the shouting or get a detention."
This little word has tremendous power. It clearly illustrates to the student that he has control of his own behaviour and he makes his own decisions. We want students to realize that inappropriate behaviour is a choice they make, not something that happens to them or that is someone else's fault. That's why we hold them accountable, because they have choices. As well, using that word allows you to be more sympathetic when punishment has to be meted out, e.g., "I was really sorry you made that choice because I know how much you enjoy sitting with Mike's group. Maybe next time you can avoid the problem by making a better choice."
The rule of follow-through: When you've given a warning, and given a reasonable time to respond, you must follow through if the student fails to comply.
The quickest way to make your warnings meaningless is to repeat them, or to fail to do what you said you would do. Students realize immediately that you don't really mean it, and their behaviour will soon be out of control.
The rule of persistence: Be diligent, persistent, patient and optimistic when using punishment strategies to try to change behaviour.
Change takes time and involves small steps with frequent setbacks. Start small and do not be discouraged if progress is slow and not so steady.
The rule of prompt delivery: When you punish an unacceptable behaviour, you need to do it right away.
Just as in the case of reinforcing good behaviour, the longer you wait, the less power the punishment has in curbing the inappropriate behaviour.
The rule of balance: Remember to keep rewarding the good behaviour.
Whenever a punishment strategy is set up, there is always the danger of becoming too focused on it and completely forgetting that punishment by itself is a really poor behaviour change agent. Only when pairing the use of punishment with the continued reinforcement of the behaviour you want to encourage, will you have a viable program to effect positive change.
The rule of professionalism: Remember why you're using punishment.
Professional teachers use punishment because it's a tool that can sometimes help to change a student's behaviour. And you want to change the behaviour because it's interfering with the learning of that student and/or the other students in the class.
Professionals don't punish students because
- they're angry
- or because they dislike the student
- or to pay him or her back for disrupting the class
Corollary to the rule of professionalism: Always employ punishment while you're calm.
This may not be easy since aggressive, angry, non-compliant behaviour can create complex emotions in the teacher. But as a professional it's imperative that the use of punishment never becomes personal.
Separate the behaver from the behaviour: It's never the student that we find unacceptable or unwelcome in the classroom, it's the behaviour.
The message to all the students always has to be "I respect you and I'm pleased to have you in my class. But that behaviour is unacceptable and I won't tolerate it." Anything else is simply unprofessional.
In about 70% to 80% of adolescents normal day-to-day occurrences of angry or aggressive behaviour tend to be minor, short-lived, and usually just annoying. To some extent, they are rooted in the continuing need for independence typical of this stage of development, so students will often question, challenge authority and assert themselves. There is great temptation to simply ignore the majority of these behaviours, and often that’s not a bad idea. However, constant ignoring without an overall plan for discouraging this behaviour is very likely to result in escalation. Therefore even with this “green light” level of anger or aggression, a preventative, targeted approach is recommended.
Tips for everyday training to help prevent this behaviour:
· At the beginning of the school year, review classroom rules and behavioural expectations. Discussion and input can be encouraged, but the final result should be a few clear rules that must be adhered to. The rules in your class don’t need to be the same as in any other teacher’s class, but they should be reasonable given the age and maturity level of the students. Repeat the rules often throughout the day to the entire class, especially when rule violations occur.
· Also early in the school year, review expectations regarding acceptable communication styles. Clearly and simply define expectations regarding situations where anger or aggression might be an issue. Examples might include disagreeing with the teacher or other adults, heated classroom discussions, receiving unexpectedly low marks, etc. Discuss the appropriate way to handle these situations politely rather than getting argumentative, angry or aggressive. Repeat these expectations often, especially when violations occur.
· Be mindful of the impact of your own behaviour. If you expect the students to control their anger and aggression, you must model that kind of self-control yourself.
· Focus on the rule. Don’t focus too much attention on students who violate a rule, since that might inadvertently reinforce the misbehaviour.
· Frequently note everyday instances of polite, mature communication, and subtly reward that behaviour with eye contact, smiles, and positive comments (both public and private).
· Take note of instances where a student obeys rules, promptly follows directions, or takes issue with a teacher request in an appropriate, polite manner, and subtly reward that with positive feedback.
· Remember that positive comments and praise are usually more effective with adolescents if done privately to avoid negative peer reactions, especially in the early part of this age range.
· The combination of ignoring inappropriate behaviour while rewarding appropriate behaviour should be an automatic, ongoing, second nature kind of thing. With practice it can be highly effective.
Observe, monitor and encourage
Teachers need to develop really good skills of observation and monitoring. Look for the early signs of anger or aggressive behaviour, or signs that a particular student might not be getting much in the way of positive feedback, then target that student for praise and encouragement whenever appropriate. At this point, the teacher must make a conscious decision to alter the youth’s behaviour in order to influence the behaviour of the students, by looking extra hard for any opportunities for positive contact.
If the anger or aggressiveness is escalating and can’t be ignored, the initial reaction should be a private conversation to calmly point out the problem to the student and have him or her acknowledge that more self-control is required. Indicate that further escalation of this behaviour will not be tolerated. This kind of correction strategy can be used only once or twice, then if the behaviour continues you know there must be some kind of reinforcement involved.
Determine what is reinforcing and maintaining the misbehaviour. Questions to consider:
· “Since behaviour is influenced by its antecedents, is something triggering the anger or aggression such as the onset of a particular activity or event? If so, does the student have a problem with these activities?”
· “Since behaviour that’s occurring frequently must be getting rewarded, can I figure out what is rewarding these behaviours?”
· “Are other students present, and if so is it usually the same ones?”
· “Since adolescents are extremely peer focused, are other students triggering or rewarding the anger or aggression in some way?”
· “Am I rewarding the behaviour by allowing it to alter the class schedule, the nature of some activities, or my expectations of the student?”
· “Am I paying too much attention to this student’s anger or aggression, and missing what he/she is doing well?”
· “Does the behaviour tend to occur only in my class or are other teachers having similar problems with this student?”
· “Does the behaviour seem to be goal directed? That is, is the student trying to accomplish something such as getting attention or avoiding a particular task?”
The importance of good observation skills,positive verbal and non-verbal communication, as well as strong self-awareness, cannot be overemphasized.
We’re trying to discover the antecedents (what has come before) that trigger angry or aggressive behaviour, as well as the reinforcement (what comes after) that is maintaining it, and then somehow alter them. For example, a student might have difficulty with anger and aggression mainly in math class. One possibility then is that the student is having difficulty with the academic demands in math. The misbehaviour might reliably produce a long, drawn out confrontation with the teacher, followed by a one-on-one discussion about better self-control, which in the end allows the student to spend far less time on math.
The best course of action would be to first determine the student’s ability to handle the math curriculum. If he or she is struggling to follow the math lessons, the solution would involve academic support. If the student can handle the math, but is avoiding it for other reasons, such as conflict with the other students in the math class, a dislike of the math teacher, or boredom, the approach to take would vary accordingly. It’s important to ensure that the misbehaviour does not accomplish its goal of avoiding math.
Consider negative consequences
Sometimes, manipulating whatever came before the behaviour makes no difference, or it is too difficult to eliminate whatever is reinforcing the behaviour (e.g. attention from the peer group). At this point a negative consequence (punishment) will need to be considered. With adolescents, one effective consequence usually involves “time out”, which really means time away from the reinforcement of being a part of the class with the peer group. Therefore, time out should mean exclusion from the room to avoid continuing attention from the peer group. Whenever possible this should be done in a way that is subtle and helps the student preserve dignity in the eyes of his or her peers. This is not easy, but will help to avoid a “grandstanding” reaction where the student uses the situation to impress the class with his or her attitude and rebelliousness.
Begin each day with a clean slate
This will help ensure that the student isn’t discouraged by having to overcome “yesterday’s baggage”, and can help you determine if the consequence has altered the behaviour or not. If it has, then you have the opportunity to reinforce the good behaviour and make it more likely to prevail.
Applying the strategies
The techniques described above are pretty simple, but that does not mean that they are easy to apply. Effective teachers need to:
· be fairly high energy
· move about the room constantly
· observe while they teach.
· catch and reinforce any positive efforts
· interact with the students in an ongoing and spontaneous manner, but
· also plan to ensure that all students get attention and positive feedback for the things they do well, including following directions, completing work, interacting positively with others, being helpful.
Maintaining a well-ordered classroom can be exhausting but highly important work. But some students might still show a tendency to anger easily, have tantrums, act aggressively and generally fail to control themselves. When this kind of behaviour becomes intense, frequent and long-lasting, it moves into the Yellow Light Zone and the teacher will need to consider providing more intensive behavioural support.
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A focused behaviour management plan
When adolescent students exhibit angry or aggressive behaviour that is serious and worrisome and does not respond to the general strategies described above, the next steps require a more structured approach to observing and analyzing behaviour, and to manipulating the consequences that follow targeted behaviours. Seeking support, such as that of a colleague in the school, would go a long way toward ensuring success with the following steps. In most high school settings there are Guidance Teachers available to assist with student difficulties, and this might be a source of support for a subject teacher coping with an angry or aggressive student.
1. Observe the student and collect data
List observed angry or aggressive behaviours that are frequently troublesome. Define the behaviours in a specific, observable way. A target behaviour has to be described in such a way that anyone coming into the classroom off the street could see it and recognize it.
Useful behavioural descriptors might be:
· yells in the classroom
· has angry outbursts when agitated
· has tantrums
· draws or writes with inappropriately aggressive themes
· spiteful, vindictive behaviour
· throws things when angry
· damages or destroys property
· threatens or intimidates others
· assaults others
It might take a few days to carefully compile such a list just through observation.
2. Count how often these behaviours occur
List five or six of the behaviours on a page on a small clipboard and carry it around with you, recording a check mark beside each whenever you see it occur. Another adult such as a colleague or volunteer might be better able to carry out this step from a seat at the back of the room, but that’s not essential.
This counting phase should continue for about two weeks to ensure that you get a good continuous sample of behaviour over time. It’s not necessary to count every minute of every class. In fact, 2 to 4 observation periods per day, each no more than 10 minutes long, should do. Make sure you sample as many different points in the timetable as possible, especially those where anger or aggression seems to be frequent.
3. Pick target behaviours to work on
Guidelines for this selection process:
· start small - pick only one or two behaviours to work on initially
· choose behaviours that are troublesome enough to be worth working on, but not so serious that they demand significant consequences beyond the classroom, such as suspension
· pick behaviours that are clearly defined and very easily observed even by anyone who walked in off the street
· choose behaviours that are discrete, with a clear beginning and end, so that they can be easily counted
· choose behaviours that occur often, at least several times per day, since infrequent misbehaviours tend to take longer to overcome
4. Determine how appropriate behaviour might be rewarded
In the green light area, rewards were informal and social, such as eye contact, smiles, positive comments, praise. But in the yellow light zone, we are likely dealing with students who haven’t responded to these. This does not mean that we should stop using these informal social reinforcers. It simply means we may have to increase their power by pairing them with something more concrete.
Another common approach is to use points or checkmarks which act as a reinforcer because they can be “cashed in” at the end of a predetermined period for prizes such as those listed above. However, some experts suggest that the best prizes can be determined by either asking the student, or observing what he or she tends to do when given free time.
5. Think about negative consequences or punishments
This is something that we hope will be used rarely, if ever, but it’s absolutely essential that the teacher is prepared beforehand with an array of negative consequences and a thoughtful plan for when and how they will be used.
The most common punishments include:
· being moved to seat closer to the teacher and/or isolated from peers
· exclusion (sending the student back to his/her seat, into the hall or down to the office)
· loss of privileges such as participation in an activity or field trip
· loss of points or tokens being accumulated toward a reward
· negative notes to parents.
6. Formulate the plan.
This is a written description of how you intend to observe the targeted behaviours, count them, deliver rewards and/or punishments (and what those will be), chart results and share the outcomes. It is important to discuss the plan with the school principal, the Guidance Teacher (if involved) and the parents* as well as the student, and this should be done at a stage where the plan is in draft form so that these key people can have input.
*Important to Note: In some jurisdictions students in this age range, particularly those over 16, have legal rights to privacy that preclude school staff from sharing information with parents unless the student agrees. This issue should be thoroughly discussed with the school administrator early on in this process to avoid inadvertently violating these rights.At the same time, other legislation may require the reporting of certain inappropriate or dangerous behaviour to school or community authorities, and students need to be informed of this in conjunction with discussions of their rights to privacy.
Involve the student
The contribution of the student in this age range is essential. It’s very important that the student understands that this program is being implemented because the anger and aggression are interfering with his or her progress, and/or the progress of the other students. Obviously, the focus should be on helping the student, and he or she should feel a valued partner in the process, rather than the person this is being “done to”.
The student must have a full understanding of the program including the specific behaviours that will be rewarded or punished, and how these consequences will work, whether it’s removal from the class or accumulating checkmarks to earn ten minutes of free time.
Accentuate the positive
In formulating the plan, it’s important to build in as much positive reinforcement as possible. Even when the targeted behaviours are inappropriate or unacceptable, the plan should specifically include the reinforcement of desired behaviour that is opposite to or incompatible with the targets. In practice this might mean that the teacher, in full view but in a very subtle way, puts check marks on a page each time the student demonstrates self-control in situations that often trigger anger. Assuming the check marks are important to the student, watching these accumulate should be motivating and eventually result in more of this desired behaviour. But equally important, while recording checkmarks the teacher is smiling and quietly making positive comments following compliant behaviours, and simply ignoring non-targeted behaviours for now.
· Reward academic achievement
Doing academic work is incompatible with virtually all unacceptable behaviours. Offering a complete, structured menu of reinforcers for various degrees of completed work is always a good program component to consider. With these older adolescents, the reinforcers for completed work might include marks, though this should never be the main tool for controlling behaviour, and the teacher should be completely confident that the student is capable of doing the work.
· Keep it flexible
The plan should be a dynamic document that changes as the student’s behaviour improves. Keep in mind that when first training a new behaviour, you need to try to provide reinforcement each and every time an appropriate behaviour is observed. As the behaviour becomes more frequent and ingrained however, it’s more powerful to reward appropriate behaviour intermittently. This sounds complex, but in fact is quite a natural flow over time.
· Be discrete
With these adolescent students, public praise or attention might often be counter-productive due to the negative peer attention it can attract. Teacher praise and attention are still powerful reinforcements for these students, but perhaps mainly when delivered in a low-key manner or in private.
7. Implement the plan
Be consistent, persistent and vigilant
If you can have some help in the classroom in the first few days, all the better, since it’s so important that very little is missed and the student gets rewarded a lot and punished only rarely. Expect a range of reactions from the student, including testing and bargaining, but before long the program should be working fairly smoothly. Also expect that progress will not be steady or continuous. Behaviour tends to improve in a “choppy” fashion, with two steps forward and one back, so again, it’s important to persist with the program even when there appear to be setbacks.
It is vitally important that you continue to count the behaviours that have been targeted, as well as opposite or incompatible appropriate behaviours, and if these can be charted or graphed by you or the student it increases the power of the program.
Important to Note: Document everything.
Documentation is important:
· it demonstrates that you are aware there is a problem and tried to do something about it
· it provides a clear, concrete description of the problem
· it records your observations as a professional teacher
· it provides a vehicle for sharing your observations with administrators, parents and consultants
· it can be a framework for planning appropriate interventions
· it prevents needless and unhelpful repetition of strategies that were unsuccessful
· it provides a record of the supports that have been provided for the student.
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When an adolescent student exhibits anger or aggression that is so severe as to be clearly in the Red Light Zone, professional counseling is definitely required. Also, Board and Ministry "safe schools" policies, codes of behaviour, disciplinary procedures and risk assessment protocols will need to be consulted to ensure that the student himself or herself, as well as the teachers, staff and other students, are not at risk of violence.
Teachers will likely require assistance in the classroom to manage the situation until the student can get professional help. Acquiring such assistance can be a long, drawn-out process. In the meantime, it will be necessary for the teacher to control the behaviour to whatever degree possible, and a written management plan will be essential.
The plan should include documentation of:
· your observations
· the exact nature of the student’s angry or aggressive behaviour, particularly any instances of violence
· when and where such behaviour occurred
· who else was present
· any behaviour management strategies which have been applied (successfully and unsuccessfully).
To attempt to control red light behaviour, a structured approach to manipulating the consequences (both positive and negative) that follow targeted behaviours will need to be rigorously applied. Significant support from a colleague such as a Guidance Teacher, or administrator will be essential. Typical steps in this process include:
1. Collect data
The teacher should begin by listing observed behaviours that are seriously aggressive and/or anger-driven. It is important to define the behaviours in a specific, observable way in clear, concrete language. Examples of descriptors of seriously angry or aggressive behaviour include:
· has violent temper outbursts that stop class activity
· writes or draws violent scenarios, (especially if identifies characters in these scenarios as real people)
· swears excessively and ignores directions to stop
· directly refuses to comply with teacher requests/directives
· throws, damages destroys or property
· tries to intimidate teacher
· threatens teacher
· assaults others, especially if this includes adults
· initiates fights
· sets fires
· exhibits cruelty to smaller children or animals
Sometimes it’s helpful to cluster observed behaviours into categories such as:
· interaction with peers
· interaction with teachers
· academic work
· behaviour in the halls
· free time behaviour.
2. Count how often these behaviours occur
Put five or six behaviours on a page on a small clipboard and carry it around with you, recording a check mark beside each whenever you see it occur. Another adult such as a Guidance Teacher, other colleague or volunteer will be better able to carry out this step from a seat at the back of the room, since these behaviours will usually require immediate intervention by the teacher.
The process of counting behaviours is important, since without this data initial improvements (which are likely to be slight), might be missed. As well, this period of intense observation of a student may reveal that there are patterns involving the point within the timetable, social context or academic context, that weren’t otherwise apparent. This information can be useful later.
3. Pick target behaviours to work on
Guidelines for this selection process:
· choose behaviours that serious, but not so serious that they demand significant consequences beyond the classroom, such as suspension
· pick behaviours that are clearly defined and very easily observed even by anyone who walked in off the street
· choose behaviours that are discrete, with a clear beginning and end, so that
they can be easily counted
· unlike yellow light behaviours, red light behaviours are usually not all that frequent during any one class. As a result, rather than selecting one or two behaviours to work on, the teacher can in fact work on several behaviours that can be classified as seriously aggressive.
4. Determine how appropriate behaviour might be rewarded
Preferred rewards in the green and yellow light areas were informal and social, such as eye contact, smiles, positive comments, praise. But in the red light zone, we are dealing with students who haven’t responded to these, and whose misbehaviour is far more serious. This does not mean that we should stop using these informal social reinforcers. It simply means we may have to increase their power by pairing them with something more concrete.
Common examples that teachers use all the time with this age range of students include:
· school supplies (pens, pencils, markers)
· permission to listen to music while working
· positive notes to parents
· nutritious treats
· restaurant coupons
· free time or time on the computer
· permission to change work groups
· permission to move seat.
Important note: With the latter two in the list above, care must be taken that any other students affected are comfortable with the aggressive student joining their group or moving to a nearby seat. Close monitoring will be necessary.
Another common approach is to use points or checkmarks which act as a reinforcer because they can be “cashed in” at the end of a predetermined period for prizes such as those listed above. This type of “token economy” may well prove necessary, at least initially, for a program to be effective with these serious misbehaviours.
5. Think about negative consequences or punishments
With red light behavior, punishments will likely have to be used frequently in the initial stages, so it is essential that the teacher is prepared beforehand with an array of negative consequences and a thoughtful plan for when and how they will be used.
6. Formulate the plan
The plan is a written description of how you intend to document the targeted behaviours and deliver rewards and/or punishments. It is absolutely essential to discuss and develop the plan in partnership with the school administrators and any Guidance Teacher involved, and that the parents* and the student are fully informed and have a chance for input.
*Important to Note: In some jurisdictions students in this age range, particularly those over 16, have legal rights to privacy that preclude school staff from sharing information with parents unless the student agrees. This issue should be thoroughly discussed with the school administrator early on in this process to avoid inadvertently violating these rights. At the same time, other legislation may require the reporting of certain aggressive, violent or dangerous behaviour to school or community authorities, and students need to be informed of this in conjunction with discussions of their rights to privacy.
Involve the student
The involvement of the student at this age level is very important. It is crucial that the student understands that the program is being implemented because the misbehaviour is interfering with his or her progress, and the progress of the other students. Obviously, the focus should be on helping the student, and he or she should feel like a valued partner in the process, rather than the person this is being “done to”. With these adolescent students their participation in the planning phase is essential.
The student must have a full understanding of the program including the specific behaviours that will be consequenced, and how the consequences will work, whether it’s removal from the class or accumulating checkmarks to get ten minutes of free time. Simple programs are preferable, since complex strategies are more difficult to implement and can become discouraging.
Accentuate the positive
In formulating the plan, it is important to build in as much positive reinforcement as possible. Even when the targeted behaviours are negative, the plan should specifically include the reinforcement of desired behaviour that is the opposite of, or incompatible with the targets. In practice this might mean that the teacher, in a subtle way obvious to the student, puts check marks on a page each time the child responds to direction appropriately. Assuming the check marks are important to the student, watching these accumulate should be motivating and eventually result in more of this desired behaviour. But equally important, while recording checkmarks the teacher is smiling and quietly making positive comments following compliant behaviours.
Important to Note:
· Reward academic achievement: Doing academic work is incompatible with virtually all unacceptable behaviours.
Offering a complete, structured menu of reinforcers for various degrees of completed work is always a good program component to consider. With these older adolescents, the reinforcers for completed work might include marks, though this should never be the main tool for controlling behaviour, and the teacher should be completely confident that the student is capable of doing the work.
· Overlook the small stuff
Given the seriously aggressive and disruptive nature of the targeted behaviours, it will likely be necessary to simply ignore less serious or nontargeted misbehaviour during the initial stages of the program. Otherwise you risk being in a constant disciplinary mode that would quickly discourage the student and the teacher.
· Be discrete
With adolescent students the importance of the peer group must always be kept in mind. Some programs can harness that peer influence in a positive way, but very often the influence is negative and needs to be minimized as much as possible. This will be difficult of course, given the often public nature of angry or aggressive behaviour, but it still should be a guiding principal whenever possible.
7. Implement the plan
Be consistent, persistent and vigilant
You will require help in the classroom in the first few days, since it’s so important that the student gets rewarded a lot and punished infrequently. Expect a range of reactions from the child, including testing, bargaining, temper outbursts and so on, which might well persist for some time. It is vitally important that you continue to count the behaviours that have been targeted, as well as incompatible appropriate behaviours, and if these can be charted or graphed by the student on a daily basis it increases the power of the program.
Use outside resources where possible
Students exhibiting red light behaviour are unlikely to be “cured” by the use of programs such as described above, without some form of outside counseling or therapy being provided as well. The likelihood of that happening varies with location, resource availability, home situation, and many other factors. Nonetheless, the teacher must attempt to provide programs that will improve behaviour and maintain the student’s chances for success.
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