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.  

A Framework for School Safety and Risk Management

This year’s holiday season marked the fifth anniversary of the deadly Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

Since 2013, there have been at least 272 school shootings in the United States—about one per week, according to Everytown USA, a nonprofit organization that researches and reports on public gun violence. In 2017 alone, there were 64 shootings at schools and universities, with 31 of those resulting in injury or death.

As Everytown USA asks, how many more students will have to die before legislators pass common-sense laws to prevent gun violence and save lives?

Until that question is settled, teachers and administrators are on the front lines of protecting their schools from targeted shootings. In a new article published this month in The Educational Forum, school violence expert Ann Marie C. Lenhardt, professor of counseling and human services at Canisius College, reports on “A Framework for School Safety and Risk Management: Results from a Study of 18 Targeted School Shooters.”  With coauthors Lemuel W. Graham and Melissa L. Farrell, Lenhardt expands on the long-term study they first reported in the Forum in 2010.

According to the authors, although awareness of targeted school violence has increased in the last decade, school-based mental health services and resources with a framework for threat assessment and prevention are still largely absent. The authors’ current paper builds on their previous study of 15 cases of targeted school shooters between 1996 and 2005, which focused exclusively on school culture, peer/social dynamics, and disclosure of intentions. The new paper focuses on 18 premeditated cases (16 incidents) of targeted secondary school shooters between 1996 and 2012, using publicly available resources to look at the contextual root variables.

In their new paper, Lenhardt and her coauthors examined 22 indicators in three areas—individual factors and behaviors, family dynamics, and triggering events—and found that the higher the number of risk factors present, the greater the potential for violent acts.

According to the authors’ data, environmental factors within the family may play a key role in how an adolescent responds to stress. Results showed that 94% percent of the shooters had demonstrated a lack of resiliency or an inability to rebound from an unsatisfactory experience, hindrance, or insult. This lack of inner resolve or self-confidence, coupled with poor coping skills in 83% of the shooters, was the deadliest combination of indicators measured. In addition, 67% of the shooters felt alienated, had been bullied, or had issued a violent threat. Five indicators were present in 61% of cases: signs of depression, lack of empathy, poor anger management, intent to carry out threats, and a history of previous threats or attempted suicide. Most of the shooters (83%) had access to weapons in their homes.

The authors recommend that teachers and principals use the study’s indicators to identify students at risk of violent behavior, and then take these steps to preclude school shootings: enhance mental health services in schools, include threat-assessment services, and promote family engagement in services. Everytown USA points out that in addition to the heartbreaking losses from targeted homicides, affected schools experience a drop in student enrollment and a nearly 5% decline in surviving students’ standardized test scores.

Lenhardt and her coauthors note that all students who receive counseling support services can become more resilient and, as a result, will be more likely to achieve academic and life goals.

KDP is proud to partner with Routledge to share Lenhardt, Graham, and Farrell’s research with the education community. Access their article at Taylor and Francis Online, free through January 31, 2018.

Becoming a Food Allergy–Aware School Community

Food allergies in schools have become an increasingly serious concern for students, teachers, and school personnel.

As an educator, you likely didn’t plan on providing medical care for students, but the reality is that almost half of severe allergic reactions, called anaphylaxis, that happen at school occur in the classroom on your watch (Hogue, 2017).

It isn’t enough to just have a plan for students in your class that are known to have an allergy because one out of every four food allergy reactions that happen at school happen to students with no known history of a food allergy (McIntyre et al., 2005; Sicherer et al., 2001). While rare, students have died from the effects of suffering an allergic reaction and not receiving the life-saving medication called epinephrine soon enough (Schoessler & White, 2013; Robinson & Ficca, 2011; Sicherer & Simons, 2007).

What can you do to prepare for the possibility of a food allergy reaction happening in your class? You can become allergy-aware by learning the signs and symptoms of a reaction, responding to a potential allergic reaction, and preventing allergic reactions from happening.

Signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction

The early symptoms may be mild but can quickly become life threatening. The following chart from the Epinephrine Policies and Protocols Workgroup of the National Association of School Nurses (2014) provides guidance for educators.

Are any of these signs and symptoms present and severe? Or is there a COMBINATION of symptoms from different body areas?
LUNG: Short of breath, wheeze, repetitive cough SKIN: Hives, itchy rashes, swelling (eyes, lips)
HEART: Pale, blue, faint, weak pulse, dizzy, confused GUT: Vomiting, cramping pain, diarrhea
THROAT: Tight, hoarse, trouble breathing/swallowing HEENT*: Runny nose, sneezing, swollen eyes, phlegmy throat
MOUTH:  Obstructive swelling (tongue and/or lips) OTHER: Confusion, agitation, feeling of imp

ending doom

SKIN: Hives all over body [OR Hives visible on body] If YES, quickly follow the student’s emergency action plan or your school’s policies and procedures.

*Head, eyes, ears, nose, and throat.

How to respond to an allergic reaction

Once it is clear that an allergic reaction may be occurring (or even if you think, “I wonder if this might be an allergic reaction.”), take action quickly.

For a student with a known allergy, refer to the student’s emergency action plan. For a student with no known allergy, contact the school nurse if your school has one and take action according to your school’s policies and procedures.

Students experiencing anaphylaxis need emergency epinephrine. Every state and every school district has different rules and regulations about which school personnel can administer this life-saving medication. If you are not allowed to use an epinephrine auto-injector, get someone who can quickly.

If you are allowed to use an epinephrine auto-injector, take heart because epinephrine auto-injectors are very easy to use. Demonstration videos are available online:

If an epinephrine auto-injection is required, immediately dial 911 or call your emergency services. Contact your school nurse if he or she is not already on the scene, as well as a parent or guardian.

Preventing food allergy reactions

No plan is fool-proof. Even the most meticulous person cannot avoid all potential exposures to allergens, especially food allergens. However, some simple steps can decrease the likelihood of a student’s exposure to his or her allergen.

: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/6292635169625597441

About the Author
Andrea Tanner, MSN, RN, NCSN, is a National Association of School Nurses (NASN) Epinephrine Resource School Nurse, Anaphylaxis Community Expert, National Certified School Nurse, selected as one of the 2015 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Breakthrough Leaders in Nursing, and Coordinator of Health Services in southern Indiana. Mrs. Tanner served on a committee with the American Academy of Pediatrics to develop national guidance for school allergy policies and procedures. She has presented on food allergy policies, procedures, and staff training at state and national conferences, and has published articles on the topic in Principal Leadership and NASN School Nurse.


Epinephrine Policies and Protocols Workgroup of the National Association of School Nurses. (2014). Sample protocol for treatment of symptoms of anaphylaxis – Epinephrine autoinjector administration by school health professionals and trained personnel. Retrieved from https://www.nasn.org/portals/0/resources/Sample_Anaphylaxis_Epinephrine_Administration_Protocol.pdf

Hogue, S, et al. Abstract 696. Presented at: American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Annual Meeting; March 3-6, 2017; Atlanta.

McIntyre, C., Sheetz, A., Carroll, C., & Young, M. (2005). Administration of epinephrine for life-threatening allergic reactions in school settings. Pediatrics, 116(5), 1134-1140.

Robinson, J. & Ficca, M. (2011).  Managing the student with severe food allergies.  Journal of School Nursing, 28(3), 187-194.  doi: 10.1177/1059840511429686.

Schoessler, S. & White, M.  (2013) Recognition and treatment of anaphylaxis in the school setting:  The essential role of the school nurse.  NASN School Nurse, 29: 407-415.  doi:  10.1177/1059840513506014

Sicherer, S., Furlong, T., DeSimone, J., & Sampson, H. (2001). The US Peanut and Tree Nut Allergy Registry: Characteristics of reactions in schools and day care. Journal of Pediatrics, 138(4), 560-565.

Sicherer, S. & Simons, F.E. (2007).  Self-injectable epinephrine for first aid management of anaphylaxis.  Pediatrics, 119(3), 638-646.  doi: 10.1542/peds.2006-3689.