Aggression is an unprovoked attempt to hurt another person, either physically by hitting, biting, kicking, pushing, or throwing an object; or emotionally by name-calling, teasing, dominating, threatening, or arguing. It does not include children who accidentally hurt another child. Aggressive children typically are impulsive, irritable, action-oriented, have problems putting their feelings into words, and have difficulty taking criticism or frustration. Highly aggressive children tend to over attribute harmful intentions to their peers. There’s no such thing as an accidental push–it was done on purpose, and the wrongdoer must pay. The aggressive child’s hostile reaction may then trigger true aggression from the victim. “I knew that kid was out to get me,” deduces the aggressive child.

Why are children aggressive? A number of reasons:

o they don’t get what they want.

o aggression is their cultures accepted way of handling disagreement. For example, on a percentage basis, the incidence of rape, assault, robbery, and homicide is higher in the United States than any other stable democracy.

o ugly mood change–children become upset, agitated or excited and let off steam by punching another child rather than coming out and saying what’s wrong.

o competition is a good breeding ground for aggression, hockey for example.

o some kids believe that good things will follow from their attacks.

o an absent father.

o society’s glamorization of the macho image, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger are two larger-than-life examples.

o a need for attention.

o children’s way of getting back at someone.

In addition to these, several family dynamics can bring on aggression in children. Cold and rejecting parents who dole out physical punishment without rhyme or reason, and permit their children to express their aggressive impulses are more likely to raise hostile children. In one study the best predictor of aggression in adolescent boys was their mothers’ permissive attitude, or willingness to tolerate their son’s aggressive behavior earlier in childhood. The next best predictor was a measure of the boy’s own temperamental impulsivity. Highly active, impulsive boys are most aggressive. The scenario here is that active boys tend to wear their mothers out, making moms more lenient to their misbehaviours. In addition, mothers of problem children tend to zero in on what their children do wrong, rather than what they do right. Their more concerned with reprimanding bad behavior than rewarding positive.

Lack of parental monitoring is also a frequent link to adolescent aggression. These parents typically don’t know where their kids are, what kind of friends they have, or what they’re doing. Indifference is not, however, always the case. Some single parents do not have the time or energy to keep track of their kids. As well, aggressive children come from homes in which family members tend to bug each other. The one being bugged often reacts by whining, yelling, screaming, or hitting the antagonist. A common denominator in all these cases is that parents and children collaborate in creating their hostile environment. Children have problems and their parents don’t know how to manage them. One is no more to blame than the other. With different children, these parents might be perfectly okay, but then, with different parents so might the children.

Aggression is a reasonably stable trait. Childhood measures of aggression taken at age eight are solid predictors of adult aggression at age 30. This is true for boys as well as girls. Children who are moody, aggressive, and ill-tempered at age ten tend to be the same as young adults. It is also true that boys and men are physically and verbally more aggressive than girls and women. These differences may stem from hormonal and other biological causes, or social influences such as parents playing rougher with boys, and not encouraging their daughters to play tough. Also dolls and dishes don’t have the same inspiration for fighting as ray guns, tanks, and swords.

o Give children plenty of opportunity for physical exercise. Contact sports such as rugby and football are acceptable ways for children to release aggressive, competitive impulses. These help eliminate the accidental bumps, shoves, and trips which often trigger full-blown hostility.

o Have a strong social skills curriculum in your class teaching children how to solve problems, negotiate differences, and identify their feelings. Children often resort to fighting because it’s the only way they know how to resolve disagreements.

o Discuss and role-play the differences between aggressive and assertive approaches to handling confrontations. Being assertive means stating your feelings and sticking up for your rights in a reasonable way–without using your hands and feet, and without hurting anybody else’s feelings. There are also good and bad ways of being assertive. How children make requests influences whether people do what they ask them to. For instance, you would probably respond better to a child saying, “I was disappointed when you didn’t let me pick my prize before lunch, but I know you were busy. Can I pick one now?” than a child saying, “Thanks a lot! I wanted to play with my prize during lunchtime, but you wouldn’t let me pick one. The least you can do is let me pick one now.”

o Teach children how to respect the rights of others. With younger children especially, many fights are provoked because one child takes something which belongs to another child.

o A number of studies have shown that children who watch violent TV shows act more aggressively than those who don’t. Many parents have interpreted this information as, “I should not let my child watch violence on TV.” I feel, on the other hand, children can learn some valuable lessons about life from watching aggression on TV. It inspires discussion on a number of issues: (a) does the bad guy ever win?; (b) does aggression solve anything?; (c) do nice people punch, kick, or shoot other people?; (d) how do nice people solve problems?; and (e) is somebody getting shot on TV or in a comic book the same as somebody getting shot in real life? A carefully guided discussion on these topics can help children realize the self-defeating nature of violence, and the difference between acting on TV and what happens in real-life. Look at pages for some further reading on TV and aggression.

o Encourage altruistic behavior in children. Many preschool and aggressive grade-school boys do not back off when their victims show signs of pain or suffering, nor do they show concern about what they’re doing. These children have problems putting themselves in their victim’s place and imagining how he feels. The more concern children have for other people, the less inclined they will be to hurt them. Volunteer activities children can help out in are collecting food for food banks, carwashes, ticket sales, and visiting elderly people.

o Promote a cooperative rather than competitive feeling in your classroom. Competition, in no time, can whip up aggression in children.

o Set aside 10 minutes every day for children to tell the class about one other child who was friendly to them that day. Those children named can receive a happy-face sticker, as well as a clap or cheer from you and the rest of the class.

o Help children boost their self-image, so they don’t have to feel important by bossing around other children.

o Combine relaxation with imagery. Ask children to (a) visualize scenes which normally antagonize them; (b) tell themselves not to fight; (c) see themselves walking away from the fight; and (c) imagine other people telling them what great kids they are for not fighting.

o Pair aggressive children with older, more level-headed ones who can intervene when they are picking a fight.

o Keep your eyes peeled while you’re supervising children on the playground. Children are less likely to start fighting when they know an adult is watching them.

o For some children, you may need to restrict the length of time they play with other children, or the number of children they play with, until they learn how to get along better with their classmates.

o If a boy’s father does not live at home, or spends little time with him, suggest a Big Brother. An older male model can help bridge the gap of not having a dad to go to the hockey game with, talk boy’s talk with, and learn about what a father’s role is in the family.

o Recommend to parents they enroll their child in a martial art class such as judo or karate. This can help aggressive children diffuse their energies, as well as teach them the nonviolent philosophy inherent in these sports.

o Train children to split and get a drink of water whenever they have the urge to hurt another child.

o On days children stay within a certain number of aggressive acts, send a good-behavior certificate home. This lets parents know their children earned home rewards, as well as fostering home-school contact.

o Do a sociogram with your class to find out who the aggressive children like and don’t like, as well as who like and don’t like them. You can keep this information in mind the next time you’re grouping students. Start off with safe groups, and as aggressive children learn better interaction skills, try mixing them with children they don’t like.

o Ask your class to make up a story about a child who always picks fights with other children, until one day… Discuss children’s endings to the story. This lets aggressive children hear from their peers, rather than adults, the unwanted consequences of aggression.

o Videotape the aggressive child playing with a group of children so he can see how he takes over games. Also let the weaker children see how they allow themselves to be pushed around by the aggressive child, and encourage them to think of more assertive responses.

o What about a Bobo doll? It doesn’t work. In fact children who are encouraged to vent their anger against inanimate objects become no less aggressive towards peers.

o Hold a class discussion on what children like and don’t like in friends. Invariably some children will say they “don’t like friends who punch, kick, or threaten them.” Ask the class for suggestions on other ways children can communicate, besides fighting. This is a subtle way for aggressive children to learn what other children think about their behavior, and it also gives them ideas on how they can change it.

o Help the children construct a Boiling Point List, sorting out what makes them boil over, simmer, and cool off.

o If two students are fighting, ask them to sit back-to-back in the middle of your classroom. Let each one tell his side of the story. (Expect a difference of opinion). If they do not reach a compromise after a few minutes, ask the rest of the class for some ideas. Usually the pressure from other students to settle their disagreement, and the uncomfortable feeling of being stared at will help them patch things up.

o For children who spit, ask them to continue their spitting while the rest of the class watches. Children quickly realize the programmed spit is not nearly as much fun as the one they’re not supposed to do. You can also use this strategy to curb rock-throwing.