Whenever the term aggressive is used to describe a student's behavior, images of physical injury to another automatically come to mind. Aggression is the most serious of inappropriate behaviors and has the most serious consequences for both the student and those in his or her environment. Wood, Cowan, and Baker (2002, p. 72) found that "approximately half of the variance in sociometric and teacher ratings of peer rejection was accounted for by aggression and social withdrawal for boys and girls."

Violent and bullying behavior are specific types of aggressive behavior that result in similar outcomes or functions of aggressive behavior. These functions include power and control, affiliation, escape, gaining attention, and self-gratification. There is no one globally accepted definition of aggressive behavior (e.g., Bandura, 1973; Kerr & Nelson, 1998; Lancelotta & Vaughn, 1989). Some consensus seems to exist, however, that aggressive behavior is meant either to injure another, to gain something for the aggressor, or to result in both injury and extraneous gains.

Bandura (1973, p. 8) distinguishes instrumental and hostile aggression. He describes instrumental aggression as those actions "aimed at securing extraneous rewards other than the victim's suffering." A student who steals a pair of tennis shoes out of another student's locker is an example of someone who engages in instrumental aggression. Hostile aggression is defined as actions that are "used to produce injurious outcomes rather than to gain status, power, resources, or some other types of results" (p. 8). Long and Brendtro (1993) define aggression as

a spontaneous, impulsive act of anger. Aggression is observable behavior which can depreciate, threaten, or hurt a person or destroy an object. It is unplanned and usually occurs during times of stress. Aggression is viewed as a loss of self-control or an impulse break-through. (p. 3)

In this text, aggressive behaviors refer to those behaviors—verbal, nonverbal, or physical—that injure another indirectly or directly and/or result in extraneous gains for the aggressor. These behaviors are typically described in terms such as those that appear frequently in the literature (Hunt, 1993; Kerr & Nelson, 1998; Lancelotta & Vaughn, 1989; Long & Brendtro, 1993; Sasso, Melloy, & Kavale, 1990). The student's body language for all of these aggressive behaviors is a stance that clearly communicates anger, rage, frustration, humiliation, and/or other feelings that motivate aggressive behavior.

In instances where verbal aggression is manifested, students will not always demonstrate the body language described (e.g., tattling), but the intent of the behavior is still clearly to hurt another person or to gain something for the aggressor. It is also important to keep in mind that even playful hits, kicks, and punches and sarcastic statements are forms of aggressive behavior. Educators and others should encourage students and reinforce them for using alternative behaviors to express affection and liking for others.

Hunt (1993, pp. 16-18) describes five patterns of aggressive behavior: overaroused aggression, impulsive aggression, affective aggression, predatory aggression, and instrumental aggression.

  • Overaroused aggression: Students engage in behavior that is characterized by high levels of activity that result in frequent accidents and aggressive incidents. Students who push and shove their peers often provoke or initiate an aggressive response from their peers. Unlike motivation for other types of aggressive behavior, students who demonstrate overaroused aggression rarely select their victims.
  • Impulsive aggression: Students are generally quiet and passive in their demeanor but seemingly have a low tolerance for frustration. When frustrated, the student may burst into a flurry of activity and violence that can be uncharacteristically destructive.
  • Affective aggression: Students demonstrate rageful aggression. Their behavior is described as appearing to be chronically angry, resentful, and hostile.
  • Predatory aggression: Students seem to be seeking revenge. Individuals who demonstrate predatory aggression are described as persons who wait for a chance to get back at another person in a hurtful, harmful manner.
  • Instrumental aggression: Students act as the intimidating bully. Students who engage in instrumental aggression demonstrate behaviors that allow them to get their own way through intimidation of others.

Common Causes and Antecedents of Aggressive Behavior


Research indicates that antisocial behavior, including aggression, "appears to be a developmental trait that begins early in life and often continues into adolescence and adulthood" (Patterson, DeBaryshe, & Ramsey, 1989, p. 329). According to a number of researchers, antisocial behavior develops as a result of the student's behavior and interaction with the social environment (Finkelhor, 1995; Landy & Peters, 1992; Patterson, 1992) and the student's parents (Hollenstein, Granic, Stoolmiller, & Snyder, 2004). Patterson and colleagues maintain that these behaviors occur in stages and that behaviors of one stage will result in certain predictable reactions from the student's social environment, leading to further actions from the student.

During the first stage of aggressive behavior development, family variables, such as harsh parental discipline and poor adult supervision, result in the student being "trained" to engage in aggressive behavior such as hitting. These behaviors become functional in the sense that the student may be allowed to escape from tasks when he or she acts aggressively. For example, a student may be sent to her room after hitting her brother while they do dishes. Also, aggressive behaviors may be positively reinforced through laughter, attention, and approval, which results in maintenance of the behaviors. Students in these situations do not learn socially skillful responses to others, but they learn aggressive behavior that results in meeting their needs.

Following this stage, students who are aggressive often find themselves rejected by their peer group and experiencing academic failure (Patterson et al., 1989). Having learned aggressive behaviors in early childhood, these students become rejected because they do not demonstrate the social skills that allow them to be socially competent with peers. This idea is in contrast to that of others who believe that students become aggressive after they are rejected by their peers and/ or fail academically.

Patterson et al. (1989) and Wood et al. (2002) report that students who engage in aggressive behaviors spend less time on academic tasks and have more difficulty with classroom survival skills (e.g., staying in seat, answering questions). These behaviors result in a higher incidence of academic failure. Once students have learned aggressive behavior and experienced peer rejection and academic failure, they are at a higher risk for developing delinquent behavior (Lancelotta & Vaughn, 1989; Patterson et al., 1989; Wahler & Dumas, 1986). These students have a tendency to become involved with deviant peer groups who also engage in aggressive behaviors (e.g., fighting, property damage). The members of the groups positively reinforce these actions, thus increasing the probability of their repeated occurrence. Unfortunately, long-term outcomes for students who seemingly follow this developmental sequence of aggressive behavior are not generally desirable. Students who engage in antisocial behavior throughout childhood and adolescence are at an extremely high risk for becoming school dropouts, having difficulty maintaining employment, committing crimes, and having marital difficulties.

Modeled Aggressive Behavior

On any given day, students are faced with many instances that result in feelings of anger, frustration, and/or humiliation. These feelings often result in students reacting aggressively. The most commonly accepted cause for aggressive behavior is that these behaviors are learned through modeling (e.g., Bandura, 1973; Kronenberger et al., 2005; Wicks-Nelson & Israel, 1991; Widom, 1989). For example, students observe aggressive behavior models when adults engage in verbally abusive or physical punishment of students. Hyman and Perone (1998) studied victimization of students in school settings and found that teachers, administrators, and other school personnel consistently used aggressive behavior toward students in the name of discipline, and students learn that it is acceptable to hit others when one is upset or angry.

Students cannot be expected to expand their repertoire of responses to anger if they see only a limited number of inappropriate responses modeled. Teachers can model appropriate alternatives to aggressive behavior by remaining calm in anger-inducing situations, talking out the problem, or walking away from the problem until they feel calm enough to discuss the situation. This alternative to aggression can be modeled and practiced in a formal social skills training.

Rudo, Powell, and Dunlap (1998) report on a review of the literature related to the effects of modeled aggressive behavior and students' social, emotional, and behavioral functioning. They reviewed 27 studies and offer compelling evidence that students exposed to violence in their homes are at greater risk for developing behavior problems themselves.

Media Influence

The media also offer plenty of aggressive models for students through TV programs geared to the interest of young persons (Hughes, 1996; Lieberman, cited in Walker, Colvin, & Ramsey, 1995). Lieberman suggests that students who are exposed to media violence become desensitized to aggressive and violent behavior. This factor has led to increased levels of violent and aggressive behavior among youth (Walker et al., 1995). Widom (1989) reviewed the literature on the relationship of TV violence to aggressive behavior in students and concluded that television violence was clearly related to aggressive behavior. One has to watch only a few minutes of professional wrestling on TV, a popular show for young boys, to understand the problem. Unfortunately, many parents, especially fathers, don't realize the negative influence these shows have on their sons' behavior at home and school. But teachers see the effects every day.

Many studies have focused on the relationship between television and video game violence and subsequent manifestation of aggressive behavior in students (Friedrich-Cofer & Huston, 1986; Kronenberger et al., 2005). A review of longitudinal studies revealed that viewing TV violence at one age correlated with aggressive behaviors demonstrated at a later age. "Of a large number of parent, family, and socioeconomic variables measured at age 8, television was the single best predictor of aggression in 18-year-olds" (Friedrich-Cofer & Huston, 1986, p. 367). Students who are exposed to high levels of media violence become desensitized to aggression and violence. Interestingly, Wied, Goudena, and Matthys (2005) found that 8- to 12-year-old boys referred for disruptive behaviors were found to show less empathy to sad situations than an age-matched control group. These findings present serious implications for our society in the face of the expanding and increasingly violent movies and games available to students through cable television and DVD /videotape rentals.

Violence and aggression are also apparent in many video and computer games, which are easily accessed by students and teenagers. Producers of these games say that blaming schoolyard killings such as those experienced in Jonesboro, Arkansas, on video games is society's way of taking the focus off of other causes of aggression such as poverty and access to guns. However, Grossman (cited in Cummins, 1999) suggests that video and computer games may condition youngsters and others to kill without thinking as they become increasingly insensitive to the effects of violence.

Social Skills Deficits

Some have proposed that students act aggressively because they lack alternative skills that would allow them to choose a socially acceptable behavior to deal with a provocative situation in an assertive rather than aggressive manner (Dubow, Huesmann, & Eron, 1987; Hollinger, 1987; Strain, Guralnick, & Walker, 1986). Dubow and others (1987) report the need for students to develop social competence before they experience a history of reinforcement for solving problems with aggressive behavior. Strain and his colleagues (1986) outline a number of reasons for aggressive behavior in students that focus on development of social behavior. They maintain that students often have a limited repertoire of social problem-solving behaviors. Often, due to environmental interactions and opportunities for modeling, aggressive behaviors are manifested as the only choice for situations that require problem-solving skills.

Neel, Jenkins, and Meadows (1990) found results that conflict with those of researchers who report that aggressive behavior was caused by deficits in social skills. In their study of 19 preschoolers, ages 3 to 4, Neel and his colleagues found that students who were aggressive demonstrated similar usage of social skills compared with their nonaggressive peers. They conclude that students who were aggressive used a number of social problem-solving strategies just as their nonaggressive counterparts did. The difference was that students who were aggressive used more intrusive types of strategies (e.g., barging into a game) compared with the more socially acceptable strategies used by their nonaggressive peers (e.g., asking for information and questioning before joining the group). A number of authors have suggested this in previous research (e.g., Melloy, 1990; Strain et al., 1986). The findings of Neel and others suggest that the development of social competence in students who are aggressive should concentrate on strategy content rather than on the number of strategies within the student's repertoire.

Melloy (1990) describes several types of peer acceptance of students who demonstrate aggressive behavior. Some students who are aggressive are accepted as leaders by their peers because their peers are afraid to reject them. Other students who are aggressive are often rejected by their peers. A common scene on a playground is for a group of students to terminate their play and move to another area when an aggressive peer tries to join the group.

In the long run, a history of rejection by one's peers can lead to a dependence on less desirable peers and membership in deviant subcultures, which often leads to social maladjustment (Center, 1990; Weinberg & Weinberg, 1990). Students in these subcultures are frequently reinforced for engaging in aggressive behaviors.

Interventions for Aggression

Functional Assessment

Sasso and his colleagues (1990) have demonstrated that social skills training could assist elementary and junior high students in acquiring, maintaining, and generalizing social skills as alternatives to aggression.

The authors report on a study that took place over an entire school year with three aggressive students, ages 8, 10, and 13, receiving special education services. The subjects were part of a larger class of eight students in a large, midwestern elementary and junior high school. The students were all integrated into regular classes for at least one class period per day. Students were taught social skills using the structured learning approach and the curriculum from Skillstreaming the Elementary School Student (McGinnis & Goldstein, 1984). Pertinent to the Sasso et al. study was the training of replacement behaviors for aggression that serve the same function of the inappropriate behavior. These alternative behaviors included accepting consequences, dealing with accusations, negotiating, responding to teasing, asking permission, and staying out of fights.

Following intervention, all of the students in the study reduced levels of aggressive behavior in comparison to baseline levels and generalized these more appropriate behaviors to their regular classroom and other school settings. Use of social skills training along with positive reinforcement for appropriate behaviors are among the current promising practices in teaching students alternative behaviors to aggression.

Using cognitive behavior management (CBM) strategies, students are taught to use techniques such as self-talk and self-instruction to deal with stressful situations. Etscheidt (1991) used CBM with 30 adolescents, ages 13 to 18, who demonstrated aggressive behavior. The purpose of the study was (a) to determine the effectiveness of cognitive behavior management on the reduction of aggressive behavior and increases in prosocial behavior, and (b) to determine whether the addition of positive consequences would increase the effectiveness of cognitive training.

One group of students was exposed to cognitive training from the Anger Control Program Model (Lochman, Nelson, & Sims, cited in Etscheidt, 1991). The intent of the program was to assist students "in modifying their aggressive behaviors by altering their cognitive processing of events and response alternatives" (Etscheidt, 1991, p. 110). During training, students in group 1 participated in 12 lessons with these goals:

  • Self-awareness
  • Exploration of reactions to peer influences
  • Identification of problem situations
  • Generation of alternative solutions to problems
  • Evaluation of solutions
  • Recognition of physiological awareness of anger arousal
  • Integration of physiological awareness
  • Self-talk and social problem-solving techniques to reduce aggressive behavior

The students were also taught to use the following five strategies in problem situations:

  1. Motor Cue/Impulse Delay: Stop and think before you act; cue yourself.
  2. Problem Definition: Say how you feel and exactly what the problem is.
  3. Generation of Alternatives: Think of as many solutions as you can.
  4. Consideration of Consequences: Think ahead to what might happen next.
  5. Implementation: When you have a really good solution, try it! (Etscheidt, 1991, p. 111)

The students in group 2 received cognitive training and were positively reinforced for use of the skills taught. A control group received no cognitive training or positive consequences for use of the training strategy.

The results of the study indicate a significant decrease in aggressive behavior and a significant increase in self-control behavior in group 1 and group 2 students compared with the control group. No significant differences between groups 1 and 2 were noted. The author attributes this to the fact that, prior to cognitive training, a behavior management program existed in the students' classroom. Adding additional positive consequences may not have been as effective because of this factor.

Students were found to be more responsive to behavior change when they were reinforced for acceptable behavior than when they were merely punished upon engaging in unacceptable behavior (Meadows, Melloy, & Yell, 1996). Building relationships with students and providing meaningful curriculum in a positive classroom climate were also effective in reducing aggressive behavior and increasing acceptable school behavior (Abrams & Segal, 1998). Goal setting, behavioral contracts, and token economies were other behaviorally based interventions that teachers used effectively in promoting and supporting acceptable replacement behavior for aggression (Ruth, 1996). Behavior reduction strategies including suspension and exclusionary time-out were not effective in assisting students (especially older students) to change aggressive behavior to prosocial behavior (Costenbader & Markson, 1998; Maag, 1996).

Schoolwide and Classroom Rules

Principals and teachers must make it clear that there is a zero-tolerance rule for aggression on school grounds. All aggression exhibited on school grounds must be consistently followed with a specific consequence such as participation in a school service project, contacting parents, and so on. This agreement should be shared with all students and their families and, again, to be effective, it must be dealt with consistently and openly so that all students receive the message that aggression will not be tolerated.