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Preventing aggression

From: Chapter 4, "'Normal' Aggression," in Acting Out (© 2007)


The best way to reduce incidents of aggression among young people is to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

Preventing aggression takes some thought and care. You first need to become aware of what situations are likely to trigger aggressive behaviours, and then keep those situations from arising by using age-appropriate strategies. Success­fully discouraging aggressive behaviour in young people also involves building solid and appropriate relationships with them, and creating a structured and secure environment. Here are a number of tips for doing that:

Set out clear expectations

At the start of a new relationship with young people, set out clear ground rules for their behaviour. These might include such simple regulations as "no swearing," "keep your hands and feet to yourselves" and "follow directions." You should also make it clear that those young people who do not follow your ground rules will face consequences; then make sure you follow through when the occasion arises.

Build rapport and be understanding

Working well with young people demands more than just maintaining order and discipline. It's also important to establish a bond with them based on trust and mutual respect. To do this, you will need to talk to them to get a sense of their thoughts, feelings and life experiences. You should also show concern and be ready to listen if they bring their own issues or problems to you. Consider finding out if there is an adult they respect and like, and why, and try to model some of those positive traits. Be aware of differences between the way you view the world and the way young people might view it, especially if they come from a back­ground that is different from yours. In these ways, you might discover something about the risk and protective factors for aggression in the lives of the young people you are connected with, and come up with workable strategies for decreasing the risk factors and boosting the protective factors.

Also, be aware that family and environmental factors can play a role in how young people behave on a daily basis. For example, a child might arrive at school right after a family argument, or without a good night's sleep or a healthy breakfast.

Show cultural sensitivity

If you work in a setting in which young people come from different social, cultural and religious backgrounds, be sensitive to that fact. Keep in mind that some behaviours considered unusual or a cause for concern in one culture may be considered normal and acceptable in another. Avoid labelling and stereotyping.

Avoid negative talk

Adults often talk to each other about the children or youth with whom they work or volunteer, and unfortunately, the talk is sometimes negative. For example, a frustrated Grade 3 teacher may warn her school's Grade 4 teacher about an "impossible" child who'll be entering her class next year. Or a group home worker might tell a new staff member about the "hopeless" 13-year-old in the group.

Negative talk about young people can prejudice the views of adults, which can, in turn, prevent those young people from improving their behaviours. Having heard a discouraging report about a particular child, the Grade 4 teacher mentioned above might treat her differently from others in her class. She might, for example, be slower to praise the child—even though the Grade 3 teacher may not have given her accurate information, and the child's behaviour may have changed. In any case, children with behavioural concerns often need praise to encourage positive behaviours.

Avoid using negative words, facial expressions and tone of voice when talking directly to young people. Also, take care not to overreact emotionally to young people who present challenging behaviours. A high school teacher might be tempted to greet a student who's returning to school after being suspended with a comment such as, "So, what can we expect from you now?" But sarcastic comments will not encourage a young person to behave in socially acceptable ways.

Don't allow others to talk negatively about the children or youth you work with, either. Curb negative talk in a non-aggressive way by saying, for example, "It's not respectful to speak about young people in that way."

Don't assume or make judgments

Don't make any assumptions about young people based on what you may have heard from others. Your assumptions could spoil new relationships before they begin. Similarly, be ready to revise earlier judgments you yourself may have made. If you act on assumptions, you may discourage more positive behaviours, or not even notice when a young person's behaviour has begun to change for the better.

Be encouraging

Be positive. Offer praise and thanks for positive behaviours, rather than taking them for granted. For example, compliment young people when they do their schoolwork quietly or get along with peers. They may make light of your compliments, but don't let up. You can also offer encouragement in other ways, such as the following:

Offer age-appropriate rewards for positive behaviours, such as healthy treats, stickers, free time, or praising notes to parents. 

Ask young people to do simple tasks (for example, "Can you please shut the door?"). Then thank and praise them when the tasks are done (for example, "Thanks, it was very helpful of you to do that."). This strategy encourages young people to develop respect for and comply with your requests. 

Talk positively about the specific behaviour of young people to their parents or other adults, while the young people are present. For example, say, "He concentrated very well in art class and produced a great painting," or "She was listening well during story time." 

Never make fun of the children or youth you encounter. Accept all their ideas and thoughts. If you ridicule them, especially in front of their peers, you can cause long-lasting emotional harm.

Be flexible in your demands. If a young person is struggling in one area, reduce expectations around other schoolwork, chores or activities. Praise any accomplish­ment he or she does achieve and then gradually increase your expectations.

Avoid power struggles

All young people can be oppositional (verbally contrary or defiant) from time to time. They may argue, talk back and refuse to do what they are told. Children or youth who have been diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder show these behaviours more often than the average.

Whenever possible, avoid getting into direct power struggles with young people—struggles in which you, for example, command them to do what they're told with the reason "because I said so." Direct power struggles are likely to provoke rather than discourage incidents of aggression. In such situations, both you and any young people involved are likely to lose your tempers. And the young people will not learn why you wished them to behave in a given way, nor will they be motivated to repeat the positive behaviour in the future. Rather, they will learn ways to aggravate you or "push your buttons."

Manage problems

Manage problems as they arise. If small problems are not tackled, they may build into bigger ones. If you need to tell a young person that he or she has done something wrong, do so quickly and quietly. Address problems in a firm, fair and consistent manner, and use mild consequences, such as time outs or loss of privileges, to discourage negative behaviours. Remember especially to watch your tone of voice when discussing negative behaviours and consequences. Do not raise your voice in anger, even if the young person becomes angry with you. Stay calm.

Offer options, but have a bottom line. For example, if a child refuses to do schoolwork, you could ask if he or she would like some help from a classmate, or suggest putting the problematic task aside for a while to work on other exercises. Make it clear, however, that the work needs to be done by a certain time.

Become aware of triggers

Become aware of the situations or stresses that trigger a young person to act up and behave aggressively. Some of these triggers might be revealed during initial conversations; others might only surface after you've known the child or youth for a while. Here are some common situations that may trigger aggressive behaviours in young people: 

  • a conflict with a peer
  • a change in routine
  • facing a task or expectation that is too challenging
  • a bad mood, possibly caused by tiredness or hunger
  • too many distractions in the environment
  • being approached by an adult or authority figure in an unfavourable way, such as being shamed, ridiculed, embarrassed or put down.

Reduce the effect of, or eliminate, trigger situations

Once you identify the situations or stresses that trigger a young person to behave aggressively, try to minimize their impact. For example, you can reduce expectations when necessary, and then gradually increase them again over time; or if the trigger is a conflict between peers, try to find out what is causing the problem and help the young people to resolve it. Remember to use a non-confrontational tone of voice when making requests.

In classroom settings, there are certain well-identified times when young people are most likely to behave aggressively: during seatwork periods (quiet times when students work on their own) and during transitions between activities. Ways to reduce the likelihood of aggressive behaviour during seatwork periods include:

  • interacting often with students 
  • using rewards to promote good behaviour 
  • cutting back on the time allotted if problems begin to arise.

To prevent problems during transitions, try: 

  • warning students in advance about any change in routine 
  • communicating clear procedures for student behaviour during transitions, and remind students of these just before transitions are about to occur 
  • monitoring students closely during transitions.

Get young people involved

Help the young people you are involved with to play an active role in preventing incidents of aggression. For example, ask them questions such as: 

  • "How can I help you behave in positive ways?" 
  • "What doesn't help you behave in positive ways? What don't you like?" 
  • "When you aren't having a great day, how can I help you make it better?" 
  • "It's okay to feel angry or frustrated—but how do you usually deal with these feelings?" 
  • "What do you think are some helpful ways to deal with anger or frustration? How can we avoid unhelpful reactions?"

Develop strategies to help young people manage their emotions

Work with young people to help them develop the skills necessary to manage emotions that can lead to aggressive outbursts.

Use positive reinforcement

Whenever possible, praise and reward positive social behaviours. Praising positive behaviour when it occurs is one of the best ways to encourage children and youth to behave positively in the future.

Be prepared to manage incidents involving aggression

In Addressing aggressive behaviour

Discouraging bullying

Addressing "normal" aggression

 - Preventing aggression

 - Managing aggression

Determining if a young person has a serious problem with aggression

Working with young people who have mental health problems that may include aggressive behaviour 

 - Disruptive behaviour disorders

    - Oppositional defiant disorder

    - Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder

    - Conduct disorder

    - Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder