How to Handle Students with Special Needs with Aggressive Behaviors

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Aggression Is A Response

Addressing aggressive behaviors with special needs children and adolescents can be a frustrating and demanding process. The challenge is to address the behavior in a productive manner, rather than reactive.

When children with special needs are exhibiting aggressive behaviors, they may not be receiving adequate support in mastering their environments. Smallwood (2003), author of “Defusing Violent Behavior in Young Children: An Ounce of Prevention,” said violent behavior among young children does not necessarily reflect willfulness; often the child lacks the requisite social skills that schools can help them learn. While Smallwood’s focus was on young children; surely the young children that are not assisted early on will maintain and gain additional deficits as teenagers. In addition, the specific challenges each child is facing should be considered in order to rule out further special needs. For example, undiagnosed mental health concerns cannot be overlooked.

According to Lahey and colleagues (1999), there is strong evidence that youths with earlier ages of onset of antisocial behavior are more likely to meet diagnostic criteria for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) during childhood than youths with later ages of onset of antisocial behavior. Anxiety disorders have also been found to co-occur with antisocial behavior at higher than chance rates in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood (Lahey, 1999). Although alternative reaction approaches may benefit children or teens in need of mental wellness, they do not address the disorders that require professional consultation.

Why Children or Teens Need A Different Approach

What aggression means to and for each child is different. Where aggression stems from is not easily identifiable and assumptions otherwise reflect shallowness in consideration. What makes children act aggressively may lie in the way they process social information including what features of the social environment they pay attention to and how they interpret what they perceive (Papalia et. al., 2004). Unless a child is included in the unraveling of behavior, hypothesized reasons for aggression lack personal depth and often accuracy.

Papalia and authors (2004) said that aggressors need help in altering the way they process social information so that they do not interpret aggression as justified or useful. It is only in communicating with the child who is using aggressive behaviors that truthful and meaningful interpretations can be accessed and utilized. This communication may present a challenge for aggressive children who often lack the skill of describing their feelings. Carlson (2002), author of “Understanding Violence Among Female Adolescents: Intervention and Treatment,” said that the development of voice is an important component so that emotions can be put into words leading to assertive communication, identifying feelings, fostering cooperation, social skill development, emphasis on empathy, discussions of future hopes, wishes, and dreams and conflict resolution. If a child or teen is not behaving in a positive manner, it is irrational to always assume that they know more favorable alternatives. If you are always telling children or teens what not to do, when are you telling them what they should be doing and helping them to learn how?

Page 2 continues addressing aggressive behaviors with special needs children and adolescents

Addressing Aggressive Behaviors with Children and Adolescents

Cognitive Problem Solving

A child’s perspective is invaluable when approaches to correcting his or her aggressive behavior are considered. Cognitive Problem Solving is useful in addressing aggressive behaviors with special needs teens and children. Cognitive Problem Solving focuses on each child’s unique outlook to discover possible social skill deficits resulting in aggression. The steps in cognitive problem solving are encoding, interpretation, goal formulation, response search and formulation, response decision and enactment (Fraser, 1996). Each step requires different approaches to discovering and linking the missing skills in social situations. According to Fraser (1996), developmental deficits in cognitive processes are often associated with early aggressive behavior in young children and normative social development requires mastery of cognitive and behavioral skills for assessing social circumstances, communicating with others, and resolving conflicts without force or violence. These skills empower children to make friends, succeed academically and flourish socially.

Cognitive Problem Solving Steps 1- 4

Step 1: Encoding Attending to social cues that are often missed or misinterpreted by aggressive children

Activities Derived From Fraser:

  • Enhance sensitivity to verbal and nonverbal social cues through games and role play teaching children to identify social cues in body language and pitch of voice
  • Help children identify their own feeling states through self-report and observation
  • Project Example: Children make videos of their own cues and then explain their feelings on the basis of cues demonstrated in the tape including facial expressions, voice intonation, hand gestures, and other indicators of social intent

Step 2: Interpretation Assign meaning to social cues

This step is necessary because aggressive children commonly interpret neutral interactions as threatening and then respond defensively with aggression (Fraser, 1996). Children aren’t born knowing socially acceptable behavior and the level of their required assistance depends upon the social supports they have encountered and the ease with which they have absorbed the information.

Activities Derived From Fraser:

  • Children should learn to identify and classify social cues by friendly, neutral, and hostile categories of intent. Younger children might practice this through doll or puppet play and older children might practice by assuming the roles of other children in disputes
  • With the help of videotapes of playground activities, children should be taught to identify the sources of the problems and the feelings of participants with emphasis on correctly identifying friendly and neutral, as well as hostile, intent on part of others

Step 3: Goal Formulation Define goals that enhance social relationships with an awareness of consequence of behavior

Activities Derived From Fraser:

  • Children should be given opportunities to practice identifying and fitting pro-social goals to various situations and circumstances
  • Game Example: Children are rewarded for having ideas about goals for various situations (Goals might be rated as to whether they are likely to enhance or damage interpersonal relationships with others)

Step 4: Response Search and Formulation Children develop ideas about how to respond to each social circumstance they encounter

This step is necessary because compared with other children, aggressive children identify fewer alternatives and seem unaware of the various options that may be open to them when invited to participate in play or when confronted by a social problem (Fraser, 1996). Children need help identifying their options and possible outcomes. This is why constantly telling children or teens what they are doing wrong is not beneficial, nor is it increasing the likelihood of improved future performance.

Fraser’s Recommended Development:

  • Increase a child’s skill in identifying alternatives to the use of force to solve social problems
  • Develop skills to control children’s arousal and to generate behavioral sequences in which anger and use of force are only two of various response possibilities

More information on addressing aggressive behaviors with special needs children and adolescents on page 3.

Cognitive Problem Solving Final Steps 5 & 6

Step 5: Response Decision Assess likely outcomes of rival responses and selecting a response that can be enacted given the constraints of the situation

According to Fraser (1996), compared with non-aggressive children, aggressive children tend to assign higher value to physically and verbally coercive responses and evaluate pro-social responses less favorably. Therefore, aggressive children are not behaving a certain way to annoy or harm those surrounding them; instead they are simply making decisions based on a poor social skill foundation.

Activities Derived From Fraser:

  • Evaluation of each alternative: children should be given opportunities to discuss likely gains and losses associated with each identified alternative in specific situations
  • Like goals, gains may be described as material and social, short and long term, or affective and concrete
  • Costs (negative outcomes) of each alternative in addition to benefits

Step 6: Enactment Implement a response

This step is where a child with aggressive tendencies joins a group, offers or receives positive statements, negotiates “deals,” and bargains for the exchange of social opportunities by implementing a strategy from previous steps (Fraser 1996). Practice is intimidating and challenging. Any attempts, successful or not, should be praised and reviewed to identify areas of strength and need for improvement.

Collaborative Problem Solving

Addressing aggressive behaviors with special needs children and adolescents demands an understanding of the child’s perspective. Any approach to correcting aggressive behaviors that does not include the child who is being challenged by them, is not going to have long term outcomes or benefits. Collaborative Problem Solving includes the child as a contributor in planning and execution. Greene (2009) said behind every challenging behavior is a lagging skill and a demand for that skill. Identifying with whom, over what, where and when challenging behavior occurs will highlight specific situations so that appropriate skills can be taught.

Collaborative Problem Solving consists of three parts, which are empathy, defining the problem and invitation (Greene, 2009).

Part I: Empathy Where a child’s concern or perspective is clarified

Example: “I’ve noticed that when you are in class you become very angry when….”

Let the child follow up with additional input and/or correction

Part II: Defining the problem Where the adults contributes their own perspective

Example: “My concern is that you physically harm your classmates….”

Part III: Invitation Brainstorm as a team so that both perspectives are addressed while reaching a mutual solution

Example: “Do you think it would help if we…”

Allow for and process feedback on both sides

Greene (2009) said that this part is effective because it is something you are doing with the child, rather than to them and you are respecting their viewpoint. Including a child or teen in the plan to address their aggressive behavior is allowing them to be assertive in a positive way. It gives them a sense of control that is often craved when a child is lacking a skill and acting out aggressively.


Carlson, K.T. (2002). Understanding violence among female adolescents: Intervention and treatment. Journal of School Social Work, 13(1), 47-69.

Fraser, M. (1996). Cognitive problem solving and aggressive behavior among children. Families in Society, 77(1), 19-32.

Greene, R. W. (2009). Explosive, noncompliant, disruptive, aggressive kids: What works, what doesn’t and how to turn it around. Wisconsin: PESI, LLC.

Lahey, B.B., Waldman, I.D., & McBurnett, K. (1999). Annotation: The development of antisocial behavior: An integrative causal model. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 40, 669-682.

Papalia, D. E., Olds, S. W., & Feldman, R. D. (2004). A child’s world: Infancy through adolescence. (9th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw Hill.

Smallwood, D. (2003). Defusing violent behavior in young children: An ounce of prevention. National Association of School Psychologists.