Classroom Management and aggressive behaviour

Dr Kumaree Padayichie (PhD in Education)

Understanding aggressive behaviour to better manage our classrooms.

Aggressive behaviour and classroom management

Aggression can be characterised as damaging, deleterious, antagonistic, and often caused by frustration (Azimi, ShB & Kashani, 2012:1280 in Padayichie, 2019:55). Aggression can exhibit in several different forms. It can be physical, verbal or passive. Physical aggression is discernible by insolent opposition towards authority, being belligerent, abusing others and damaging of property. Verbal aggression and passive aggression are recognised as communication designed to cause hurt to another person. It may be name calling and nasty remarks, slamming a door or silence and sulking (Azimi et al., 2012:1280 in Padayichie, 2019:55).

"Meeting a child’s aggression with adult aggression only adds fuel to the fire. To extinguish aggressive behavior meet it with calmness and compassion. Being calm isn’t passive—it’s mature. Be it to teach it." ~Rebecca Eanes (Deschene, 2022).

The above quote could not have been stated more eloquently as it is words that parents/guardians/teachers can live by when dealing with school students who exhibit aggressive behaviours. Having a dyed-in-the-wool approach when addressing behavioural issues is not conducive to supporting a long term plan to provide support to students since there would be a need to attain intentional objectives through the establishment of tangible methods and programs.


Factors of Aggression

There is a constellation of factors that lead to the aggressive behaviour of students. The use of empirical data advocate factors belonging to two main spectrums, namely the biological which comprise of genetics and neurological aspects and the environment factors include family, divorce, attachment, parenting styles, modelling and media. Combined with these factors are frustration and verbal delay, social skills, and academics. There are numerous factors contributing to the nature of aggression which points to the complexity of dealing with aggression and disruptive behaviour (Padayichie, 2019:77).


Early childhood and aggression

The question of, ‘Why do we need to look at early childhood and aggression?’ must be explored. The motivation for this is that in recent years, childhood aggression has been considered an important health problem all over the world (Amin, Behalik, & El Soreety, 2011 Türkoğlu, 2019:169). Correspondingly, Sandstrom & Huerta (2013:5), illuminate that children’s early experiences shape who they are and affect lifelong health and learning. According to Parlakian et al (2014:1 in Padayichie, 2019:1), aggression does not only begin from school going age but there are obvious signs from early childhood pertaining to incidents and behaviour that lend themselves to a pattern being formed. Nevertheless, aggression does not always present itself in a specific age group at a certain time.

Tierney & Nelson (2009), articulate those experiences in the early years of childhood affect the development of brain construction in a way that later experiences do not. Consequently, this is indicative of why there is a need to examine early childhood and aggression so that support structures and necessary programmes are available for parents/guardians during this critical/sensitive period.

Early childhood is the formative years and if interventions are carried out early, their influence might be greater than in the later years. Also known as the sensitive period, the critical period is a time during early postnatal life when the development and maturation of functional properties of the brain, its ‘plasticity’, is strongly dependent on experience or environmental influences. The concept of a critical period therefore plays an important role in the age-old adage of nature versus nurture debate — to what extent are our abilities determined by intrinsic factors, such as our genes, or by extrinsic factors, such as childhood experiences? (Sengpiel 2007).

Another key point according to Pingley (2017:6), is that the impact of domestic violence on children is far reaching; there are numerous psychological effects for the children who witness this abuse. Children are experiencing delays in cognitive and emotional development, extreme withdrawal or aggressiveness, anxiety disorders, as well as internalising and externalising behaviour problems (Antle et al 2010 in Pingley 2017:7).

The following quote by Fred Jones speaks volumes, ‘Classroom Management must be built from the ground up so that most problems do not occur’. The latter succinctly describes what classroom management entails and leads to the point that teachers as classroom managers must use the bottom-up approach when disciplining to ensure effective classroom management practice. By the same token, a “bottom-up” approach is more conducive to understanding the complexities of aggression. By using a tree as an analogy, a top-down approach to social competence would involve starting at the leaves of the tree (i.e., the manifestations of social competence) and attempting to accumulate them all together to find the common branch. On the contrary, a bottom-up approach is one in which researchers focus on underlying root causes of behaviour, thereby allowing several pathways to lead to competence. In contrast to top-down approaches, bottom-up approaches to social competence first considers how the nature of the organism intermingles in its environment. In essence, social competence refers to the capability of an individual to flourish in his or her social environment. Hence, this approach would be deemed viable in curbing student aggression (Stump et al. 2007:28 in Padayichie, 2019:7).

Behaviour and classroom management
Behaviour and classroom management

Furthermore, the analogy of the iceberg is significant in terms of the ‘bottom-up approach’ when we delve into the perspective of ‘A child’s behaviour is not always what it seems’ (Pruess, n.d.). The minimal tip of the iceberg that is visible above the water level represents the various types of behaviour that individual students exhibit, depending on the emotion that is being experienced deeper within them. This correlates to the maximum part of the iceberg that remains concealed beneath the surface. According to Bartlett (2014), what is identified below the surface is what gives rise to the part that is visible – the student's outward display of behaviour, which if not managed correctly adversely affects classroom management. Consequently, as teachers hold the role of classroom managers they must be proactive where the attention is on helping children to flourish in the long-term. Rather than responding to behaviour problems in a very predictable way, without thinking or short-term reactions, the focus must be on understanding the roots of learning and classroom behaviour difficulties and having strategies in place that will help to address issues in the long-term (Positive Discipline and Classroom Management, 2012:4). Equally important is that a teacher should be a person of acute perspicacity and acumen by looking at deeper levels below the exterior within the student that are not instantly discernible.

Understanding children’s behaviour

Students behave in a particular manner for a reason, and even if it is incomprehensible, it is imperative to attempt and see the world through their lens, and to be cognisant of the issues that may be affecting how they behave in the classroom environment. The question needs to be asked as to whether the student is having difficulty with the classroom/school situation or whether it is from factors outside the child’s control that may be causing the problem. Only when the teacher is able to comprehend what the reason is, then only can the teacher begin to respond to behaviour self-assuredly, efficaciously, and astutely (Positive Discipline and Classroom Management, 2012:15), thereby creating a positive learning environment for students

The core features of emotional development include the ability to identify and understand one’s own feelings, to accurately read and comprehend emotional states in others, to manage strong emotions and their expression in a constructive manner, to regulate one’s own behaviour, to develop empathy for others, and to establish and maintain relationships (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004:2 in Social-Emotional Development Domain, 2021).

As teachers are reflective practitioners who take an inquiry position in that they actively search for understanding, and are always open to further study, the latter holds the teacher in good stead when tapping the iceberg. Adjacent to this, a reflective teacher continually reflects on, and improves, the way they do things (Reflective practice 2021). As Biggs (2003 in Reflective practice 2021), eloquently states ‘Learning new techniques for teaching is like the fish that provides a meal for today; reflective practice is the net that provides the meal for the rest of one's life’. Using this analogy, the strategies that teachers have in place for managing behavioural issues that has a ripple effect on classroom management, will either equip students with the necessary skills required to regulate their emotions or have an adverse effect. As stated by Dewey (1938 in Reflective practice 2021) where the attitude of responsibility refers to the careful consideration of the consequences of one’s actions, especially as they affect students. It is the willingness to acknowledge that whatever one chooses to do (for example organisation, management) will impact on the lives of students in both foreseen and unforeseen ways.

Thus, teachers can use the following questions as a chisel to investigate what lies beneath the iceberg.

  1. Is there a problem with the subject material or approach?
  2. Is the child emotionally motivated?
  3. Does the behaviour reflect personal problems or problems at home?
  4. Does the behaviour reflect socio-economic issues?
  5. Could it reflect medical or biological issues?

(Positive Discipline and Classroom Management, 2012:16).

Attachment Theory and aggression

Attachment is a concept that has been studied since the 1960s (Bowlby, 1969/1982; LaMont, 2010:6 in Padayichie, 2019:84). Attachment is defined as the close emotional relationship between two persons, symbolised by shared affection and a desire to sustain propinquity (Bowlby, 1973; LaMont, 2010:6 in Padayichie, 2019:84). The primary attachment relationship between a mother and her infant, Bowlby, (1973; LaMont, 2010:6 in Padayichie, 2019:84), postulated, is formed in the first years of life, and stays relatively stable throughout childhood, adolescence, and adulthood (LaMont, 2010:6 in Padayichie, 2019:84). As an illustration and as postulated by De Lannoy et al. (2015:84), students without secure attachment are more prone to behavioural problems such as aggression, learning difficulties, poor language development and weak decision-making abilities, and are less resilient to poverty. These, in turn, affect projections for social mobility later on.

Bandura’s Social Learning Theory: Modelling of Behaviour

The main proponent of Social Learning Theory (SLT) was Albert Bandura (Nabavi, 2012:4 in Padayichie, 2019: 27). Bandura’s SLT has been very instrumental in the study in respect of how aggressive behaviour is learned by observing others. This theory was relevant as it has motivated research on the effects of observing violence in the mass media, and also the effect of physical punishment by parents for the child’s aggressive behaviour (Tedeschi & Felson, 1994:93 in Padayichie, 2019: 27). SLT can be defined as a theory that focuses on students who observe the consequences of the behaviour of significant others and learn which behaviours to use, even socially inapt ones, to attain desired results without drawing a negative sanction. Adults can provide positive role models of emotion regulation through their behaviour and through the verbal and emotional support they offer children in managing their emotions (Social-Emotional Development Domain:2021). As much as the expectation is for parents, older siblings, caregivers, community, and society in general to model the correct behaviour, it is extremely important that teachers, phase heads and principals’ model appropriate behaviour as well. They must lead by example (Padayichie, 2019:133).

What is the role of parents in discipline?

The following quote by Fred Rogers is most felicitous when associating it with the parent’s responsibility in terms of discipline, “I think of discipline as the continual everyday process of helping a child learn self-discipline.” (QUOTES ABOUT DISCIPLINE A CHILD, 2022)

As parents are the primary teachers, sound discipline at home contributes directly towards discipline at school. Parents should therefore be encouraged to deal with aspects of discipline at home. In this regard schools should consider establishing programmes where parents are encouraged and workshopped regarding discipline at home. These could be facilitated by school managers (Dzivhani, 2000:66). Therefore, discipline as a result of education can lead to increased wellbeing and resilience (Blandford, 2003).

Parenting is the task of raising children and providing them with the necessary material and emotional care to further their physical, emotional, cognitive, and social development. The goal of effective discipline is to foster acceptable and appropriate behaviour in the child and to raise emotionally mature adults. Parental disagreements about child-rearing techniques, as well as cultural differences between parents, often result in inconsistent disciplining methods (Effective discipline for children, 2004). Teachers must be mindful of the latter as it has a domino-effect in the classroom and hence it is vital that parents and teachers work together to ensure consistency between home and school. It is key that as classroom managers, teachers remain steadfast to the established classroom management procedures and apply them consistently.

Effective classroom management and student behaviour

The statement by Doyle (1986 in Postholm 2013:389), states that the aims of classroom management:

  1. are to establish a quiet and calm classroom environment so that the students can take part in meaningful learning in a subject, (which leads to classroom engagement)
  2. is that classroom management contributes to the students’ social and moral development, which means that it aims to develop the students academically and socially. It could be inferred in this aspect that the student’s holistic development is taken into account.


Thus, both Doyle (1986 in Postholm 2013:389), and Stump et al. (2007:28 Padayichie, 2019:7), make reference to the ‘social’ aspect of the student. Chandra (2015:13), further expounds that classroom management aims at establishing student self-control through a process of promoting positive student achievement and classroom behaviour. Thus, academic achievement, teacher efficacy, and teacher and student behaviour are directly linked with the concept of classroom management. Parents and teachers need to maintain a symbiotic relationship by ensuring that the boundaries, consistency, and discipline that are prevalent in the classroom are implemented at home (Padayichie, 2019: 133). Correspondingly, Dzivhani, (2000:63), espouses that effective teaching and learning cannot take place where there is no discipline. Hence, having a classroom management strategy in place or multiple strategies is indicative of the classroom managers skill. What is of significance is that teachers communicate their behaviour expectations to students.


The concept of Behaviourism

Behaviourism, also known as behavioural psychology, is a theory of learning based on the idea that all behaviours are acquired through conditioning. Conditioning occurs through interaction with the environment. Behaviourists believe that our responses to environmental stimuli shape our actions. An example of behaviourism is when teachers reward their students with stars or certificates for good behaviour throughout the week. The same concept is used with punishments. The teacher can take away certain privileges if the student misbehaves (Baulo & Nabua, 2019:1). Consequently, teachers are able to condition the behaviour of students for the desired outcome.

Teachers who support and encourage all of the students in their classroom effectively, and who identify and target appropriate and desired behaviours with positive reinforcement, increase the prospect being effective classroom managers. Strategies that are implemented in the classroom to reduce the occurrence of challenging behaviours involve pre-planned, intentional use of classroom behaviour management procedures that reduce the likelihood of problematic behaviours occurring. Their application is intended to anticipate, and thus limit, classroom disruption, non-compliance, and task avoidance by students (Parsonson, 2012:21).

Positive discipline to improve classroom behaviour

Discipline and punishment are not two sides of the same coin one as discipline refers to the practice of teaching or training a person to obey rules or a code of behaviour in the short- and long-term, while punishment is meant to control children’s behaviour, discipline is meant to develop their behaviour. The ultimate goal of discipline is for children to understand their own behaviour, take initiative, be responsible for their choices, and respect themselves and others (Positive Discipline and Classroom Management, 2012:4). James Dobson sums up the concept of positive discipline, “Loving discipline encourages a child to respect other people and live as a responsible, constructive citizen.” (QUOTES ABOUT DISCIPLINE A CHILD, 2022). There are many practices that can help teachers to implement positive discipline effectively in the classroom and develop effective classroom management skills:

  • Be consistent.
  • Focus on the positives.
  • Set a good example.
  • Listen before judging
  • Separate the behaviour from the child.
  • Cultivate mutual respect for rights (Positive Discipline and Classroom Management, 2012:25).


Effective classroom management and setting boundaries

Learning to set age-appropriate boundaries is an integral element of positive youth development. Both parents and children need guidance in rule-setting and negotiating boundaries. The future of any society rests upon the strength of its youth, who represent the next generation, and the development of their capacities and potential (Levine, 2007 in Hoffman et al, 2021:229). According to Harry Wong, “The number one problem in the classroom is not discipline; it is the lack of procedures and routines.” This quote encapsulates how the lack of structure, classroom rules, routines, and boundaries can adversely affect classroom management. Children raised without reasonable limits will have difficulty adjusting socially. The following are some ways that teachers as classroom managers can use rules and limits to promote effective discipline (Adapted from Effective discipline for children, 2004).

  • Apply classroom rules consistently.
  • Reinforce desirable behaviour.
  • Ignore unimportant and irrelevant behaviour
  • Set reasonable and consistent limits. Consequences need to be realistic.
  • Prioritise classroom rules.
  • Know and accept age-appropriate behaviour



Classroom management and student support
Classroom management and student support



(Adapted from Padayichie, 2019:120).

If we visualise a tree, it comprises of the roots, trunk, and branches. In the context of risk such as aggression and aggressive behaviour in children the tree will be used to represent growth and development. Correspondingly, as each tree is given an opportunity to grow, is nurtured, it is supplemented with fertile soil, water, sunshine, ensuring that it has enough space to grow to its full potential; the same analogy can be applied to parents who support their children. The foundations have to be strong - hence the reference to the roots which metaphorically and symbolically refer to parenting styles. Parents are responsible for ‘providing fertile soil, water, sunshine’ and ensuring that they have ‘enough space to growin their understanding of how to help themselves and their children to thrive optimally (Padayichie, 2019:125).

Likewise, nurturance in the early years requires all different role players to work in partnership for a holistic approach. Without question, teams are necessary for different types of responses to risky behaviour. For a school-based intervention model, this team can comprise of participants such as the principals, phase heads, teachers, and support staff together with the parents and the student.

The trunk would refer to the school-based team as a support network is essential in engaging with parents. The support network would include the participants (multi-professional team approach) constituting of principals, phase heads, teachers, and support staff for intervention with the parents (Padayichie, 2019:126).

The branches pertain to the students’ individuality, uniqueness, and multiple ways to approach intervention with them and their parents. Students are unique in stature, emotional composition, resilience, and their overall being. In view of the latter, the students’ individuality, and the multiple ways to approach intervention strategies with them and their parents need to be taken into consideration. In terms of the tree their uniqueness is captured in the metaphor of the branches (Padayichie, 2019:126). Without the roots (parenting) and the trunk (support structure from teachers, phase heads, principals, and support staff) the students will not reach their full potential. As the branches are of different lengths and this signifies each student’s individuality (Padayichie, 2019:127).


Managing students with aggressive behaviour

To assist teachers with management problems it is sometimes necessary to implement specific intervention strategies or methods (Parsonson, 2012:18). Various methods can be employed in the classroom to assist students to combat aggressive tendencies. In terms of verbal aggression, the method that bares fruit is the modelling of correct behaviour using puppets, role-play, through dramatical representation and the teacher’s behaviour. Students need to be actively involved in the making of the puppets. The puppets are then used as examples for appropriate behaviour. Different scenarios can be portrayed hence giving students ideas on how to deal with various situations should they be confronted with them (Padayichie, 2019:135), thereby encouraging students to behave positively.

Another method that can be utilised when students feel the need to react physically is to give them an area in the classroom that is their ‘cooling off’ place. An example would be the Reading Area, Science or Interest Table or playing with puppets. They can also use a ‘stress ball’ at their desk to calm themselves. Students with aggressive behaviour can be seated next to a peer who can model good behaviour, encouraging them to work together, and the peer can also learn from the other student’s strengths (Padayichie, 2019:135).

Reading is crucial as the teacher can use story time as an expressive route and select reading books on appropriate behaviour. The selection of the reading material is especially important as through reading teachers can help students empathise with the predicament of others and hence focus on what makes us human. Stories about emotions (feelings) should be read. The type of questions asked during the reading sessions is imperative as they need to be open-ended questions where students must use their meta-cognition skills (thinking about their own thinking) and critical thinking (thinking and reasoning regarding their behaviour and their own strategies to problem solve). Communication at this time allows students to express themselves and ask reciprocal questions. Instead of only allowing one student at a time to answer a question, place students in pairs and allow for discussion time between them and then they can provide feedback. This collaborative work will enhance partnerships within the classroom and also on the playground (Padayichie, 2019:135).

Friendships built in the classroom normally transfer to free and structured play allowing for more interaction between students and hence increased communication. Teachers can implement the Buddy System for those students having difficulty making friends. The Buddy System is a method whereby the teacher teams up students who complement each other and can learn from each other (reciprocal relationship). Further to this, suggestions can be made by teachers to encourage play dates as this could solidify friendships made at school and then transfer this bond back into the classroom and playground. The Buddy (Padayichie, 2019:135) system works when the student ‘feeds off’ the correct behaviour and hence peer modelling of behaviour becomes a positive. This method supports students who experience obstacles when building friendships. For students who display aggressive behaviour, having a friend could make all the difference as they ‘copy’ positive behaviour and in so doing their self-esteem improves (Padayichie, 2019:136).

In terms of communication a universal vocabulary needs to be used throughout the school and this language will stimulate students’ problem solving and critical thinking skills and as they will need to think critically. Students must be given an opportunity to express their feelings and these feelings need to be validated by the adult (Padayichie, 2019:136).

Using a visual such as a problem-solving wheel can help remind students of appropriate actions they can take when agitated, feel wounded or distressed and help develop self-regulation and problem-solving skills. The “Problem Solving Wheel” has many options the student can select such as, walk away and let it go, apologise, tell them to stop, ignore it, talk it out, wait and cool off. Having this tool in the classroom helps minimise the fighting and arguing in the younger grades. It aids with giving different options that the students can choose from to handle their challenging situations themselves thereby empowering students. This tool is both student-directed/collaborative because it is the students taking control on how to correct their own behaviour (Nagamatsu 2018). This could have an effect on classroom culture as it builds an environment where students feel secure, protected and have the freedom to participate.


Classroom management and problem-solving
Classroom management and problem-solving


Incorporating social and emotional skills in the curriculum

A decade of worldwide academic research shows that high-quality social and emotional programs dramatically reduce aggression and increase social and emotional understanding among children who receive it. Children who have participated in such school programs are kinder, more cooperative, inclusive of others, less aggressive and less likely to bully others compared to children who do not participate in such programs. The early development of social and emotional strengths has clear value for a meaningful future and productive society. Schools and parents are in a partnership of developing young children into well-adjusted adults who will contribute to a world with greater well-being (Rey 2022). It is for these reasons that the teaching of social skills must be incorporated into the curriculum as they can teach students survival skills such as listening, following directions, ignoring distractions, talking respectfully to others. Secondly, interpersonal skills which focuses on sharing, asking for permission, joining an activity, waiting your turn. Thirdly, problem-solving skills such as asking for assistance, apologising, accepting consequences, decision making skills. Lastly, conflict resolution skills which deals with teasing, losing, accusations, being left out and peer pressure (Positive Discipline and Classroom Management, 2012:12).

In closure, as teachers we teach with our hearts and the love that we have for our students reaches great depths where ‘we don't get to decide whether we have challenging students in our classes, but we can certainly decide how we respond to them’ (Tomlinson, 2012) and eloquently stated by Danny Steele, ‘classroom management is not about having the right rules. It is about having the right relationships’ (Swiggy Quotes. n.d).