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Aggressive behaviour

Adapted from Acting Out: Understanding and Reducing Aggressive Behaviour in Children and Youth (© 2007)

Aggression among young people is an important school issue. Young people who behave aggressively may harm not only themselves but others. Moreover, children with serious aggression problems are more likely than children without such problems to become teenagers who have problems with aggression, with other mental health issues, or with substance use. As adults, they are more likely to engage in acts of violence. Fortunately, there is mounting evidence that early intervention and treatment for children who show signs of aggression can significantly reduce these harmful outcomes.

Thousands of Canadians, including teachers and school administrators, work or volunteer in a variety of settings with children and youth who have problems with anger and aggression—all must be prepared to handle difficult behaviour at a moment's notice while ensuring the safety of everyone concerned. Your efforts are critical in addressing the emotional and behavioural problems that can impede the educational and social goals of young people.

Our understanding of the many contributing causes of aggression in children and youth has grown immensely over the past decade, and there are many evidence-based approaches available today to help those involved with young people who are showing problems.

The links in this section (most from the CAMH book Acting Out: Understanding and Reducing Aggressive Behaviour in Children and Youth) offer practical advice for teachers when managing aggressive behaviour in children and youth.

Addressing "normal" aggression 

Aggression consists of an action or a threat of an action intended to harm another person, either physically or psychologically. Young people who act aggressively—even within bounds considered normal and common for their age group—need to be made aware that their behaviours are not socially acceptable.

Preventing aggression

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

Managing aggression

In this section, you will find strategies designed to help you manage aggression: to diffuse a situation or calm a student; find out what caused the aggressive behaviour and address the cause; and build better relationships with students.

Bullying and harassment

Discouraging bullying

As an educator, you likely have already had to manage or will have to manage bullying or harassment by students. There are a number of things you can do to discourage bullying.

Challenging cyber bullying

The Internet and text messaging are communication tools students are increasingly using. These technologies provide children with a new forum for socializing—but also for bullying. The MediaSmarts organization offers tips on challenging cyber bullying.

Determining if a young person has a serious problem with aggression 

Adapted from Acting Out: Understanding and Reducing Aggressive Behaviour in Children and Youth (© 2007)

If you are trying to determine if a student has a serious problem with aggression, you can ask yourself a number of key questions to help you decide.

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

In this section, you will find information on mental health disorders that young people who have aggressive behaviour may be diagnosed with by qualified health care providers.

Young people who have been diagnosed with a disorder may find themselves facing prejudice and discrimination. Many people have negative attitudes about people who have mental health problems; they may also avoid people who have mental health problems by excluding them from regular parts of life (such as friendships, sports and other activities).

You can avoid labelling young people by carefully choosing the language you use and by not focusing on the disorder during your day-to-day interactions with the young person or during conversations with others. For example, instead of speaking about a boy's conduct disorder, you might say, "He has some problems controlling his anger and frustration, and we are working together to resolve those problems." Instead of referring to an "aggressive child," you might speak about "a child who is behaving aggressively and who is working toward changing her behaviour in future."

Disruptive behaviour disorders

The most common disruptive behaviour disorders are oppositional defiant disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and conduct disorder.

Oppositional defiant disorder

All young people are oppositional from time to time; however, some are more oppositional than average and may be diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affects young people's attention span and concentration. It can also affect how impulsive and active they are. Most young people are, at times, inattentive, distractible, impulsive or highly active. A young person may be diagnosed with ADHD when such behaviours occur more frequently and are more severe than is considered average among young people of the same age or developmental level. A diagnosis of ADHD might also result if the behaviours persist over time and negatively affect a young person's family and his or her social and school life.

  • The TeachADHD website provides teachers with information and resources for better understanding students with ADHD and offers suggestions for working with and supporting them in the classroom.

Conduct disorder

Conduct disorder (CD) may be diagnosed in a child who has repeatedly and consistently shown a number of severely aggressive and anti-social behaviours. Young people with CD find it difficult to follow rules and behave in socially acceptable ways.

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder

Alcohol can damage the brain and body of a fetus. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder is a broad term describing birth defects and conditions in people whose mothers drank alcohol when they were pregnant.