“He did what?!” 6 Tips to Heading Off an Aggressive Meltdown

By Phil Kitchel posted 04-20-2022 09:37 AM


Bobby walked into my class, a student I will never forget. He had long hair and didn’t look me in the face.  He didn’t say hello; he didn’t say good morning; he simply walked in, picked a chair in the shadows at the back of the classroom, and sat alone. At the time, he was a sixth grader, new to the middle school world. I hadn’t heard a peep from him since the beginning of class and, about 30 minutes in, we began a game of Kahoot. To my surprise, the quiet, unsocial Bobby decided that he did not like to lose. I was standing with one set of desks to my right, three rows of three, and another set to my left, again three rows of three. Suddenly I hear, “I HATE THIS [slip in your favorite profanity here] GAME!” His computer went flying, and so did his books, and I knew it was time to learn more about Bobby

Deescalating an aggressive student is challenging and tiring. However, once you learn how to deescalate these problematic behaviors, classroom management should be . . . well, a lot more manageable. From real-life experience, here’s some advice:

  1. Know your student.

At the beginning of the year, take time to understand each of your students’ likes and dislikes. Take time to get to know their favorite sports, some of their ideal rewards, and, most importantly, what causes their behaviors. Identifying the function of a behavior can lead to a successful support system!

  1. Set boundaries clearly and concisely.

I use a Behavior chart alongside a Consequence chart. The students sign the behavior chart and are aware of the consequences that will follow behaviors that are not approved. Basically, an If/Then chart: If you behave this way, then you will have this consequence. Post it on the wall as a reminder to the students!

  1. Follow through with consequences.

This is a vital tip! If the students test you and you do not follow through with the consequences, you’re going to have a very rough school year. You must enforce these consequences. If silent lunch was a consequence for the student, have them sit near you. When they try to talk to you—and they will—remind them kindly, “While I love talking to you, you’ve been given a silent lunch.” Remind them of the reason and say, “We can talk tomorrow during lunch if you want.”

  1. Talk to the parents.

Who knows their child better than their parents? Get in their graces; if the parents know you are supportive of their child and you have given the parents calls about positive behaviors and negative behaviors, they will see you are trying to support their child. You are calling to reach out for help, and most of the time, the parents will provide it.

  1. Strategies

Every student gets upset now and again. Even as an adult I get upset, but I have appropriate coping mechanisms. You may need to explicitly teach these to some children. Bobby had never learned explicit coping mechanisms. I’m sure his previous teachers made an impact, but he still had room to grow. I gave him “counting to 10” strategies. He sometimes wouldn’t make it past 3 before he blew up, but there were times he’d make it to 5 or even 7. That was progress!

He also had a cube he would walk around with; if he was angry, his cube was flipped with the top facing red. We would go outside in the hallway and walk around a bit. I found out he didn’t really like talking about his frustrations, so I learned to let him breathe while he was trying to understand the situation.

  1. Love them and show them grace!

Recognize that each student has their own set of challenges, and you are there to mold them, to educate them, and to guide them to their next steps in life, wherever that may be. Grace is something all humans need at one time or another. Showing them grace is simply leading by example, doing what you say, and saying what you do.

Additional Resources

Capturing Kids’ Hearts 1

Classroom Management Strategies for Effective Instruction

To fast-forward a couple of years, Bobby, now a not-so-little eighth grader, only says hello to one teacher every morning, and he does it without asking. He does his work, and his aggressive outbursts have decreased drastically. He struggles with regulating his emotions, so I can’t say that his outbursts have completely stopped, but they have greatly diminished. I’m proud of him and his efforts and the young man he is becoming throughout the years. Bobby is one of the many reasons I teach!

By Charlene Blair Tolley

Mrs. Tolley currently teaches middle school special education at the WSFCS school system and is working on her PhD in special education. She loves leading new teachers and showing them how best to handle their challenges in class. She encourages classroom behavior and management to begin on the first day of school. She is currently researching autism and co-occurring mental health barriers.