Behaviour Management, Class Management, Discipline

Dealing with Aggression in the Classroom

Stemming the Tide of Aggression: Strategies that Work

By Carmen Berg

Contain if necessary, resolve if possible, best of all prevent – William Ury

A parent is charged with assaulting a Calgary principal after throwing the woman down and hitting her in the face several times.

A high school student from Ulukhaktok, N.W.T., pleaded guilty to mischief after urinating in his teacher’s water bottle.

Four junior high students were expelled and 20 others suspended for creating imposter profiles about two teachers on Edmonton-based social site, Nexopia.

These incidents coupled with the unregulated and unsubstantiated claims made on sites like ratemyteacher.com suggest that the nature of harassment of teachers has changed. “Comments made on the playground to a friend or community member are now being posted on the Internet resulting in increased exposure,” says Robert Bisson, coordinator of Member Services for the Alberta Teachers Association. “This exposure has much more meaning for the recipient. The effects are far more devastating.”

Several provincial and territorial teachers associations indicate that their members are increasingly reporting incidents of inappropriate behaviour from students, parents, and other adults. A survey by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Federation of Ontario and the Ontario Secondary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, found that over half of elementary and secondary teachers have been personally bullied during their professional careers. A College of Teachers members’ survey reports that 84% of teachers have been cyberbullied.

This increased harassment and bullying behaviour may reflect a Canadian cultural tolerance of aggression—that aggression is an effective solution to social problems. Consider the 2007 Junior Achievement/Deloitte Teen Ethics Survey. In it, nearly one-quarter of all teens surveyed think violence towards another person is acceptable on some level. Media Awareness’ Young Canadians in a Wired World – Phase II reports that 17% of young people, who have assumed a different identity on the Internet, pretend to be someone else so they “can act mean to people and not get into trouble.”

While school districts are charged with the responsibility to ensure that proper supports, training and procedures have been put in place to enable teachers to work without threat to their own safety, they do not have the funding for aggressive and complete security programs. They cannot afford well-trained, full-time security personnel and issues of privacy, potential human rights violations, and resulting lawsuits may prohibit or complicate the use of some of the available security technologies.

“Schools are highly charged environments where the dynamic between parents and teachers over students’ academics can easily escalate to a power struggle. Worst case scenario, violence erupts,” University of Calgary professor, Jim Field says in an article for the Calgary Herald. It seems that when education becomes a less positive experience, school climate suffers, students become angrier and more confrontational.

The challenge for educators then, is not to suppress conflict but to minimize its destructiveness. Individual schools as well as classroom teachers must be proactive in their approach to conflict management and resolution. This can be achieved by establishing and maintaining a positive school climate, providing and participating in appropriate professional development opportunities and training, and by integrating and modeling conflict resolution skills for all stakeholders. According to the National Strategy on Community Safety and Crime Prevention, harassment and bullying behaviours are less prevalent where there are supportive relations among school staff, warm relations between staff and students, shared decision making, and modelling of appropriate social behaviour.

Positive School Climate

A positive school or learning climate is best achieved when there is respect and recognition of individual strengths, not merely academic proficiency or performance. Characterized by effective relationships with all stakeholders, good communication is imperative. Started early in the school year, contact should be maintained throughout the duration of the instructional period. While face-to-face communication is best, especially when delivering sensitive information, other forms such as telephone, email, snail mail, websites, notices home, and school agendas can also be used. A positive educational environment means cultivating liasions with a wide variety of community members including, but not limited to, community health, local law enforcement, and other mental health professionals. Furthermore, efforts should be made to initiate and participate in workshops and events that engage discussion between parents, students, and teachers about appropriate behaviour in and out of school. Prompt acknowledgement of concerns with a swift remedy helps set the tone. If nothing is done, then that lack of accountability emboldens others to go ahead with their bad behaviour. When there is avoidance and denial, bullying emerges.

Professional Development

Within all school professional development activities, workshops, seminars, or conferences, training should cover topics like verbal deescalation skills, management of aggressive students, conflict and bully recognition, as well as the law and individual rights. Verbal deescalation skills focuses on different non-verbal and verbal techniques that, when practiced, enable an educator to appear calm, self-controlled and confident while still maintaining the ability to give clear, assertive instructions in highly emotional or animated situations. Topics covered should include tips and techniques on posture, placement of limbs, eye contact, tone, volume and pitch of voice, use of appropriate language, speech delivery and concepts like personal space, confrontation, arguments, and audiences.

Management of aggressive students outlines particular guidelines regarding the type of classroom environment, expectations and rules, as well as best practices for learning strategies and supervision requirements.

Conflict and bully recognition increases an individual’s awareness of and ability to distinguish bullying from other forms of conflict. Topics include the sources of conflict, the signs of pending conflict, steps to take to solve conflict that include acknowledgement, definition, information, goal setting, strategy, timeline and expectations as well as the steps to take if conflict continues.

The Law and Individual Rights

Many different pieces of legislation, including the Criminal Code, the Human Rights Act and various provincial education or school acts, define inappropriate behaviour inside and outside of the school. While it is the individual educator’s responsibility to know their rights, each harassment situation is unique and should be dealt with in consultation with the appropriate authorities. This may include local administration, school board representatives, member services from the teachers’ association or union, as well as personal legal counsel and local law enforcement. Regardless, teachers should ensure that they are always part of the remediation process.

Proactive, site-based programming

Site-based programming can also weave conflict resolution curriculum into existing frameworks or be modelled within behaviour codes identified in the student code of conduct. Curriculum-based models include conflict resolution, peacemaking circles, peer mediation, restorative approaches, and student threat assessment teams (STAT). These are easily integrated within language arts, social studies programs, and life skill classes. Conflict resolution education can also be used within other classrooms settings for solving normal conflicts since most students are prepared to work through their problems in a collaborative manner.

Conflict resolution is a problem-solving approach to conflict. A mediator guides the complainants through a discussion of the conflict to help them solve their differences. Peace-making circles are structured group dialogues led by a trained, impartial circle facilitator. Utilizing a holistic approach, the facilitator assists group members in discussing difficult issues.

Peer mediation is a voluntary process which helps solve conflicts between two or more people. Disputants decide on their own solutions. Peer mediators are expected to show respect, fairness, and maintain the confidentiality of the people involved. It is most effective when it is a part of a school-wide, proactive approach to dealing with conflict.

Restorative approaches bring together the victim, the offender, and other community members in a face-to-face meeting to discuss the harm done by the offender and what steps the offender can take to repair the harm.

STAT are used to gauge the seriousness of threats and help determine an appropriate course of action. STAT should be accompanied by additional preventative and enforcement policies. Unlike suspensions, the aim of a STAT is to keep kids in school, where their behaviour can be monitored and their problems addressed.

In addition to modelling desired behaviours, schools should have updated acceptable use policies for emerging technologies. These policies should be regularly reviewed and updated and possess language against violence that includes violence against teachers. Codes of conduct must address wireless technology, online harassment, and use of home computers. In establishing more stringent penalties against offenders, schools should work together with community partners including police and mental health professionals, promoting attitudes that support empathy for the victim while condemning the aggression of the bully.

Experts, focused research, and topic-specific literature agree that when conflict occurs, avoidance only aggravates the situation. Instead, acknowledgement of the conflict is essential. To facilitate this, teachers should engage in appropriate professional development that properly equips them with a variety of techniques and strategies to either minimize or constructively cope with conflict. These techniques are most effective when implemented within a positive learning environment that includes good communication, the modelling of desired behaviours, and incorporates effective conflict resolution curriculum where appropriate. When these steps prove ineffective, teachers should seek out the appropriate assistance and in severe cases, those involving threats or assaults, contact the police or RCMP.

Carmen Berg is a contributing author for Physics published by Pearson Education Canada and a regular contributor for Calgary’s Child. She can be reached at ccrberg@hotmail.com

Conflict Resolution Courses

Fraser Region Community Justice Initiatives Association

Safe Schools Manitoba

Web Awareness Workshops for Teachers from Media Awareness Network

The Canadian Safe School Network

Peace and Conflict Studies Certificate Program from Langara College

University of New Brunswick’s The Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society

Justice Institute of British Columbia’s Centre for Conflict Resolution

Mount Royal University’s Conflict Resolution Programs

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