Ask the Experts

How Do I Manage an Aggressive, Bullying Middle-School Student?

Do you have a student with ADHD in class who is a good student but aggressive to the point that she bullies other students and pushes them around on the playground? If so, try these five strategies to help her regulate her emotions — with positivity.

Q: I have a seventh-grade girl in my class who I like a lot. She is a good student, but her aggressiveness bothers students and me. Several of them have come up to my desk and told me that she has bullied them. She curses, they say, and pushes kids around on the playground. How do I manage this challenge without making her more aggressive or alienating her?

When kids exhibit aggressive behavior, it is off-putting to peers and adults. Some students, especially those with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), have a harder time regulating their emotions in an age-appropriate way. They may have a harder time pausing and thinking through a situation. When we view their behavior (yelling, pushing, cursing) through a lens of skill deficit, rather than focusing on the behavior itself, we can see how to help them adjust their responses to challenges and feelings.

Structure Activities

Students with ADHD often act out in social situations that lack structure. To address this, try the following…

  • Teach students playground games such as Foursquare or Freeze Tag, so that they have rules to follow.
  • Give her a specific task at times when you anticipate these aggressive behaviors, to avoid problems. For example, if you’ve noticed she has trouble with classroom transitions, have her bring notes to the office at these times.
  • Ask her to come in a few minutes early from recess to help you set up for a lesson to avoid some recess challenges.

Promote Class-Wide Kindness

There are ways to teach some of the skills she needs without singling her out. Try some activities to promote kindness. Have a month-long contest to see how many random acts of kindness students can do. Set the expectation that each student must do at least three acts. This way, you are creating a focus on treating each other the right way.

[Self-Test: Oppositional Defiant Disorder in Children]

Seek Help from a School Counselor or Psychologist

If a student is upsetting other students with her behavior, talk with your school counselor or psychologist.

  • Focus on the triggers, setting, and situation, not her behaviors, so that the counselor understands the deficits, not just the actions causing the concern.
  • Ask the counselor for guidance regarding how you can best support your student.
  • Ask the counselor to observe situations when the behavior usually occurs and see if she feels a private session would help.

Focus on Positive Qualities

It is essential to address aggressive and inappropriate behaviors, but your student needs reinforcement as well when she is successful. Notice when you see her doing or feeling something positive. Name what you have noticed and the value of what you see. By giving her positives to focus on, you will see the negative behaviors start to decrease.

Help Her Understand the Why

Tell her that you are on her side and that you are there to help her, not to judge her. She will be more likely to hear what you are saying and to understand why some inappropriate language and behavior is hurting her, others, and you as well. Let her know how one of her inappropriate comments makes you feel and work together to reflect on other ways she can communicate her concerns.

[Disruptive Behavior: Solutions for the Classroom and at Home]