Influential Prose

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Strategies Used for Disruptive Aggressive Behavior in Children

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]

Benjamin Franklin famously said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Strategies for dealing with aggressive behavior fall into two categories. Prevention is using techniques to minimize or eliminate continuing aggression. Intervention is dealing with aggression as it happens.

Preventive strategies are time-consuming and require patience. But they work, and they are superior to dealing with chronic aggression, whether it is physical, verbal or relational (spreading gossip, rumors, exclusion, etc.).

Prevention Before Aggression
The first preventive strategy for dealing with aggressive behavior is to minimize risk. Think about the environment where aggressive behaviors occur. Aggression can target property, other people, or the self. Self-aggression can concern either the aggessor’s self (suicide threats, for example) or you. Survey the home, classroom and play areas, and clear away or block access to obvious hazards.

In situations where aggression is chronic, it’s important to pay attention and think ahead. When you are familiar with the child’s behavior patterns, it’s often possible to see the storm approaching long before the rain starts falling. Intervene early when you see the elements for an aggressive episode coming together.

Preventive Intervention
When you see a conflict between children heating up, separate them. When you see one child provoking another, step in and call out the behavior. When you see attention-seeking behavior that typically leads to aggression, redirect the child’s attention to another activity.

Redirection is a very effective technique; with practice and skill it can prevent many episodes. Keep a written or mental list of alternative activities so you have something ready to suggest when you need it. Also remember that each child is unique. Compare notes on what works and what doesn’t with your co-workers, the child’s parents and others familiar with the child; they may have helpful tips or knowledge. The more you know, the easier it is to head off trouble.

Communication
There are many reasons for aggression. Part of prevention is determining an aggressive child’s motivations. It’s not always clear, even to the child. They may be angry about something they wanted and didn’t get. They may be suffering abuse, seeking attention or responding to provocation. Motivations matter; knowing them can help you address their concerns and devise specific strategies.

Discerning motivation requires communication, and there are three things to do: listen, acknowledge and empathize. This doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with the child. The child may lie, bluff and exaggerate. Stay with it. Gently confront obvious contradictions and dishonesty. Your purpose is to understand motivation, then build respect, trust and rapport to the point where the child’s mind is open to positive suggestions. Ask questions when the child is calm: How did this start? Why did it happen? How can we prevent this from happening again? What can you do differently to prevent this? Most importantly, listen.

Situational Intervention
When a physical fight erupts in a workplace, such as a school or day care center, your intervention strategy is determined by your workplace policy. If your workplace doesn’t have one, it needs one. Know the policy and be clear on it so you’re prepared when the time comes. If there are specific interventions required, get training for them.

In other places, such as at home or on a playground, you have decisions to make. Do you intervene physically? This may be a practical solution with small children, but you have to take into account the reaction of other parents and risk of injury to children. What about athletic teenagers? Physical intervention in that context could lead to severe injury or death. When you are concerned about attacks on yourself, prearrange defensive help in place or nearby.

Very often, your authority as an adult is enough to stop a fight. Simply stepping forward and saying, “Alright, that’s enough, break it up NOW.” is sufficient. If not, you may add that the police will be called if they don’t cool it. The key is to remain calm and firm — be the adult. Adult authority can also be applied to verbal and relational altercations, but with lower intensity. Talk. Invoke the golden rule – are you treating others the way you would want to be treated? Why not?

Prevent aggression when you can. Get help when you need it. Review incidents afterward for lessons learned, then apply them to future situations. Finally, praise positive behavior. Aggressive children are accustomed to being disciplined. They need feedback when they do good, too.

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Written by Influential Prose

June 22, 2015 at 9:39 pm

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