Monday / April 22

Engage The Rage: 5 Essential Components to Engaging Aggressive Students

Most of you reading this have never met me in person or seen my picture. I have an enormous forehead. Once, while teaching a small group of at-risk teens, a clever student actually informed me that I possess a fivehead. Like I said, clever.

Apparently, this forehead of mine is also a target. On another day, many years later, I was working with an adorable group of 6th graders. That day, my giant forehead was struck by a red Swingline Stapler. The Stapler was hurled across the room by a student experiencing a flash of anger and frustration.

On days where students are cleverly making fun of my forehead or throwing blunt objects in its direction, topics like “Engaged Learning For All” can seem too cute, too silly to contemplate because, well, I’m being teased and/or assaulted. In all honesty, if you’ve ever worked with students exhibiting aggressive and dangerous behavior, “engaged learning” is not exactly one of your top priorities.

Typically, our priorities in that moment quickly boil down to personal and student safety, as it should.

Yet, when the dust settles (or in my case, the bump shrinks), I have found that targeting meaningful engagement for students exhibiting aggressive behavior really is the key and should be our top priority. In my book, Happy Kids Don’t Punch You in the Face, I cover what I consider to be the essential components of engaging students exhibiting aggressive student behavior.

What are these essential components?

  • We need to better understand the phenomenon of coercion as defined by Gerald Patterson. Patterson’s conceptualization of coercion explains the whole reason kids (see also: human beings) resort to atomic tantrums and nuclear rages to get their way. Why do kids resort to these measures? Because atomic tantrums work. Not only is aggression effective, we tend to reward aggression by not being prepared and accidentally giving in. Patterson’s work advises all of us to ramp-up our consistency and stick to a plan.
  • We don’t have enough time in the school calendar to waste it on strategies that simply do not work. Let’s do everybody a favor by jettisoning the following “disciplinary” practices: Suspension, catharsis, reprimands, corporal punishment, detention. Good riddance.
  • Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) are actually the real deal. We need to quit talking about universal instructional and behavioral supports and get busy implementing them. Honestly, enlisting a few evidence-based classroom management strategies like group contingencies and posted classroom expectations will go a long way. Create a regular feedback loop on how things are going for both teachers and students and witness the magic.
  • We need to start applying principles of Positive Psychology to every aspect of our student interactions. What is positive psychology? It is not some new gimmick or pendulum swing in education. It is not something to add to our plates—it is the plate. It is identifying what works for kids and teams and learning more about what works instead of focusing on what is broken. For too long we have applied principles of behaviorism and discipline targeting student behaviors that are “broken” or maladaptive. We have to work with our challenging students on discovering what is working.
  • We need to commit to the power of optimism. This is not some cliché or unicorns and rainbows approach. Optimism is now evidence-based practice. The work of Mark Durand is worth chewing on, not just because we can start to enjoy our jobs again, but because it actually increases the effectiveness of positive behavior supports.

For the sake of my forehead and yours, consider these essential components of engaging all learners—even the ones teasing you or throwing blunt objects at your head. Stay safe out there, keep it real, and don’t give up on our most challenging students. Engage the Rage.

Written by

Ben Springer is an award-winning and Nationally Certified School Psychologist. Ben received his Masters and Doctoral Degrees in Educational Psychology from the University of Utah. Ben studied neuropsychological assessment, counseling, school-wide positive behavior supports, bullying prevention programs, parental involvement, evidence-based practice, autism, and social skills instruction. Ben works as the director of special education in Wasatch County School District located in Heber City, Utah.

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