Verbal Interventions with Aggressive Children and Youth

by Rick Van Acker

Given the diversity in the student population and the nature of the educational task, teachers will undoubtedly confront situations in which children become resistant to the requests being made of them. Moreover, teachers are likely to observe student behavior and/or interactions between students that require active intervention that may result in a verbal confrontation between the student and the teacher. Unfortunately, most teachers have obtained very little instruction in dealing effectively with resistive and conflictual behavior. Student resistance is often met with increased teacher resistance. The ensuing conflict cycle is one that may be difficult for either the teacher or the student to resolve.

Much of the behavior displayed by students as they enter into social problems is directed at solving the problem. Many of these behaviors, however, may not serve the students well. For example students may engage in verbal aggression to mask their needs (e.g., attention, the need to avoid embarrassment). When a teacher can discover the student's needs and assist them in meeting these needs, the teacher becomes an ally to that student.

In the section that follows we will examine a series of phases students may exhibit as they enter a crisis situation and some skills that may prove helpful in the teacher's attempt to identify student needs and verbally de-escalate the crisis situation. When dealing with at-risk students, there is always the possibility that various situations in the school setting can lead to frustration, confusion, and/or anger that triggers an aggressive or violent episode. Thus, the teacher must remain alert to identify those behaviors that indicate the start of a potentially critical situation. The teacher must then match their response to the needs of the child.

Each phase of the crisis situation calls for a somewhat different response for effective intervention. One need remember, however, that not all children react the same way to any given intervention. Moreover, the nature of your relationship with the child will have a significant impact on the effectiveness of these and any other approach. The real test of a teacher's skill in the verbal de-escalation of crisis situations is his/her ability to match the appropriate intervention strategy with the specific situation and the specific child. There are, however, some general guidelines that may prove helpful when selecting intervention strategies in the different phases of the crisis.

Anxiety Phase

Student Behavior

Prior to crisis situations, many students often will demonstrate an observable increase in their level of anxiety. The student may demonstrate increased motor or verbal behavior or they may become unusually quiet and withdrawn. They may initiate mildly disruptive behavior to draw increased attention to themselves. The affective tone of the student's interaction pattern may change (more angry, sarcastic, funny).

Teacher Behavior=Support

The teacher should be supportive when intervening during this phase. Attempt to focus on assisting the student explore information that will help them see the problem is solvable. While the teacher must be sensitive to the student's emotions, this is not the time to necessarily discuss them (this typically increases denial and anxiety). Do not deliver ultimatums. Provide "hurdle help" to move through problem situations.

Questioning/Ignoring Phase

Student Behavior

Students may quickly escalate to questioning the teacher's request or directive. The student (or the teacher) may respond with a "Monty Hall: Let's Make a Deal" approach to the request or directive. Whoever controls the questioning controls the direction of the conversation. Often both the teacher and the child have a significant stake in being in control of the conversation. Thus, teachers often interpret this type of behavior as defiant.

Teacher Behavior=Clear Expectations

The teacher should remain calm and interact in a businesslike fashion. The goal is to communicate clear expectations and the logical consequences of both desired and undesired behavior (stress the consequences of desired behavior). The student must feel that the teacher cares, but it is equally important that the student know the teacher can protect them from themselves (loss of control). Non-verbal behavior is critical. A self-confident, secure, yet caring demeanor must be displayed to the child. Minimize discussion and do not enter into a power struggle.

Refusal Phase

Student Behavior

As the student begins to feel that they are losing ground in a previous phase they may simply refuse to comply to a given request or directive. This overt resistance is an attempt to regain power and control. Teachers frequently enter into power struggles with students during this phase.

Teacher Behavior=Provide solution that protects student's dignity

Both the difficulty and the importance of remaining calm increase dramatically during this phase. The student overtly challenges the teacher for control in the situation. It is important for the teacher to remain calm. The urge to engage in a power struggle may be quite strong. This type of interaction is almost always a lose-lose proposition for both the teacher and the student.

The teacher must have a clear understanding of the ultimate goal of the confrontation. Be aware of alternative methods you and the student might have available to meet these objectives. Provide clear directives. Offer realistic choices. Provide the student with a method of "solving the problem" that protects his/her dignity. Deliver reasonable consequences without an emotional exchange.

Emotion Release Phase

Student Behavior

At this point the student loses control. While this may take the form of an emotional catharsis (e.g., crying), often, the student engages in verbal or physical intimidation or actual assaults. Typically, the student has little ability to listen or to reason with the teacher during this phase. The teacher, unless remarkably self-confident and well trained, will enter into an involuntary "fight or flight" physiological response.

Teacher Behavior=Support and safety

The nature of the emotional release will dictate the type of intervention needed. At times, the student will begin to cry and intensified support and additive empathy may be effective. Should the student begin to intimidate others or become engaged in loud and disruptive verbal aggression, efforts to address the problem should focus on minimizing disruption of others (this may require removing the other students from this location) and verbally de-escalating the aggression. If the student engages in physical aggression or violent acts that can lead to injury of self or others, non-violent manual restraint techniques may become necessary.

Tension Reduction Phase

Student Behavior

Following the emotional release or acting out episode, the student will generally withdraw. The student may become sullen, non-communicative, apologetic or fearful. The student needs time to regain self-control. At times, students may react as if nothing has happened. The teacher, on the other hand, may still be prepared for "fight or flight". The teacher (as well as classmates) may remain fearful and angry.

Teacher Behavior=Acceptance and support

Following the emotional release phase, students will need time to regain control and become emotionally prepared to address the natural consequences of the crisis situation. Students may feel ashamed, guilty, or fearful. Others may need to project a sense that the event had little effect upon them and demonstrate the need to "save face" in the eyes of their peers. Yet, others may not recall the specifics of the events that have just taken place.

Teachers need to be supportive, open, and honest with the student. They need to assist the student as they re-enter the classroom activities. We need to help the student feel that he belongs in the classroom group and that he can feel comfortable to risk in this environment.

To be effective, teachers of students with serious behavior problems and those at-risk of becoming aggressive and violent need a repertoire of skills (both verbal and non-verbal) to assist students identify solutions to their escalating problem(s).

Rick Van Acker, Ed. D. is an Associate Professor of Education and Special Education Chairperson at the University of Illinois at Chicago. This material is part of his handouts from the T/TAC-EV Conference, Challenging Behaviors: Making Our Schools Safe Again, May 1, 1997.