What Do I Do About Hitting? Tips for Managing Aggressive Student Behavior

By Michelle Simmons

It was the first day of school and the first day of my teaching career as a special educator. I arrived early, anxious, and dressed for success! My classroom was set up just as I had planned in undergraduate behavior-management courses, and I was eager to teach. Unfortunately, my best-laid plans unraveled quickly. A student in my class had severe behavior challenges. Instead of spending the first day of school teaching classroom routines and getting to know students, I spent this precious time responding to hitting, spitting, running, and yelling. By the end of the day, I was wearing someone else’s lunch and had chased a student outside the building twice. I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and concerned that my teaching career might be ending as quickly as it had started.

This first-day experience with a student who exhibited severe behavior problems led me to two notable conclusions: 1) I was trading my cute heels for a pair of running shoes, and 2) I needed a practical plan for managing aggressive student behavior.

Obvious and direct links exist between academic achievement and student behavior. One seriously disruptive student can limit the potential for all students in the classroom to learn. The following approach is designed to help you manage severe student behavior —biting, hitting, screaming, kicking, running—so that you can focus your energy on instruction (Sprick, 2006).

Be Proactive

Proactive means teachers focus on preventing an aggressive behavior problem instead of reacting to it.

  • Create a therapeutic environment. Students who exhibit aggressive behavior are more vulnerable and are likely to have specific, individual needs. A classroom that is sensitive to individual needs is clean and provides students with comfortable places to sit, interesting things to look at or do, and opportunities to engage in age-appropriate, functional activities (Alberto & Troutman, 2013).
  • Communicate clear, enforceable expectations.  Students who are aggressive struggle with impulse control. They will often react before thinking through a problem. Determine two or three individualized behavior expectations for the student and give frequent visual cues or reminders of these expectations (Lehto et al., 2003).

Be Positive

Even with positivity, the aggressive student will likely still exhibit aggressive behavior. “Positive” means responding during the aggressive event with support as well as consistency to build a collaborative relationship with the student.

  • Remain objective. Do not take the student’s behavior personally. Remember that the behavior usually has nothing to do with you and is not a conscious attempt to defy or intentionally engage with you in a competition for control.
  • Manage the situation. Stay out of arms/legs reach while actively monitoring the student’s movements. If the student is kicking or throwing objects, keep objects out of the way. If necessary, remove other students from the classroom. Avoid touching the student and only use restraint (physically holding the student in any way) as a last resort. Never use restraint without certified restraint training and the support of a campus team who has also participated in restraint training.

Be Instructional

Instructional means that effective teachers treat misbehavior as an opportunity to learn and teach appropriate behavior. Directly teach expectations at the beginning of the year, throughout the year, prior to the occurrence of aggressive behavior, and afterward as well (Sprick, 2006).

  • Teach the student. Seek ways to teach the student about tantrums and how we all feel when feelings are expressed in an inappropriate way. Equip the student with strategies for self-monitoring. Help them understand warning signs when their own negative feelings arise and teach them what they are supposed to do when these feelings occur (Lehto et al., 2003).
  • Develop a plan. Under the right circumstances, students who exhibit aggressive behavior can learn to find appropriate replacement behaviors that are acceptable for relieving tension. Identify the problem behavior, observe the behavior, determine its function, teach the student a replacement behavior that serves the same function, and create a plan to reinforce the student for choosing an acceptable behavior (Alberto & Troutman, 2013).

All teachers can expect to encounter a student with severe behavior challenges. When you use proactive planning, positive support, and intentional instruction, a situation that you might have considered stressful or even scary can become predictable and easier to manage.

By the end of the school year, the same student who exhibited severe problem behaviors and I had reached a shared instructional relationship in which we both thrived. I was proactive by creating a predictable environment with expectations individualized to the student’s needs. When the student did become aggressive, I had a plan to respond to the behavior that was supportive for the student and safe for everyone in the classroom. And, finally, when the student was comfortable, we spent time engaged in shared learning that equipped us all with appropriate behavior-management strategies. The year concluded with the student’s increased desire to be at school and the beginning of my lifelong professional commitment to serve children with significant behavioral needs.

Additional Resources

Behavior-Specific Praise

Choice Making

High-Probability Requests

Proximity Control

Dr. Simmons is the Lanna Hatton Professor of Learning Disabilities, Director of the Center for Learning Disabilities, and an Assistant Professor of Special Education at West Texas A&M University. Dr. Simmons is actively involved in service to educators, families, and students with learning differences and developmental disabilities statewide, and in the Panhandle area. Dr. Simmons maintains a record of scholarly activity that includes educational assessment, university-based special educator preparation programs, and progress-based classroom management strategies.


Lehto, J. E., Kooistra, L., Juuiarvi, P., & Pulkkinen, L (2003). Dimensions of executive functioning: Evidence from children. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 21(1), 59–80.

Alberto, P. A., & Troutman, A. C. (2013). Applied behavior analysis for teachers (9th ed.). Pearson.   Sprick, R. S. (2006). Discipline in the secondary classroom (2nd ed.). John Wiley & Sons.  

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