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The Aggressive Student

Aggression can take many forms, from very subtle, passive acts to violent outbursts. It often results when a student perceives a threat, feels frustrated and/or out of control. Some aggressive people express hostility immediately without regard for their circumstances or the people around them. Others deny their anger and frustration until their hostility builds to the point of an explosive outburst. Many times, persons who are verbally or physically aggressive feel inadequate and use hostile behavior as a way to build up their self-esteem. Often these individuals feel that you will reject them so they become hostile and reject you first to protect themselves from being hurt. They may see you as attempting to control them and lash out to try to gain a sense of control.

It is important to remember that the student is generally not angry at you personally, but is angry at his/her world and you are the handy target of pent-up frustrations.

Overall, dealing with an aggressive student will be facilitated if you set up your environment to be as safe as possible (e.g., a physical barrier, etc.) and maintain firm, consistent and calm control in the situation (i.e., know what you are doing and what your goals are).

Helpful Responses—

  • Acknowledge their anger and frustration (e.g., "I hear how angry you are").
  • Rephrase what the individual is saying and identify his/her emotions.
  • Allow the student to ventilate, get the feelings out (within limits), and tell you what is upsetting them.
  • Tell the student that you are not willing to accept abusive behavior (e.g., "When you yell and scream at me, I find it difficult to listen"). If you need to, explicitly state what behaviors are acceptable.
  • Stick to the limits you set.
  • If the person begins to get too close to you, tell them to please move back.
  • Reduce stimulation. If you are comfortable doing so, invite them to your office or another quiet place. If you sense some threat, arrange for a colleague to be nearby.
  • Help the person problem-solve and deal with the real issues when he/she becomes calmer.
  • If necessary, get help (your supervisor, CAPS, University Police).

Less Helpful Responses—

  • Getting into an argument or shouting match.
  • Becoming hostile or punitive yourself (e.g., "You can't talk to me that way!").
  • Pressing for explanations about his/her behavior.
  • Looking away and not dealing with the situation.
  • Physically restraining or grabbing the individual.
  • Giving away your own rights as a person.
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