Recognizing and Managing Student Aggression

Consider the following scenario: A student, clearly upset about receiving a failing grade on the midterm, comes up to you after class and says he wants to retake it. You reply that, as stated in the syllabus, there are no make-up exams. You also remind him of his spotty attendance record. He becomes angry, knocks your papers off the front table, and yells “You’re a terrible professor! The whole class hates you!”

How would you handle it?

In the recent online seminar Identifying and Managing Classroom Aggression and Violence, Brian Van Brunt, Ed.D., director of Counseling and Testing at Western Kentucky University and Perry C. Francis, Ed.D., associate professor in Eastern Michigan University’s Department of Leadership and Counseling, discussed the three phases of the aggression continuum – trigger, escalation, and crisis – as well as strategies for recognizing and diffusing potentially violent situations. They also outlined the differences between cognitive aggressors and primal aggressors.

“The Unmagnificent Seven”
As any faculty member knows, aggressive students don’t have to get physical to be a disruptive force in the classroom. In the second portion of the seminar, Van Brunt and Francis outlined the different profile types often seen in a classroom and elsewhere on campus. They call these personality types “The Unmagnificent Seven.” How many do you recognize?

The Sherman Tank – Enjoys confrontation and always needs to be right. This is the student who will argue with you about your syllabus or other class rules, and seeks to dominate the class while pushing around weaker personalities.

The Sniper – Criticizes you behind your back and looks to create chaos. This student will blend in when threatened or challenged but is good at instigating others.

The Exploder – Makes insulting and cutting remarks, and has wide mood swings. This student is happiest when others are passive.

The Complainer – Constantly whines and complains about their situation or rules in the syllabus. This student often wears on others in the class, but can sometimes get fellow students to join him/her in the complaints.

The Negativist – Is never happy and desires others to be just as gloomy. This student is a drain on the entire class and will likely elicit eye-rolls when they talk about the latest “injustice.”

The Bulldozer – Values only their own opinion and has little regard for the knowledge or viewpoints of others. This is the student who tries to overwhelm others with facts and figures, and is often difficult to get along with.

The Clam – Disengaged, silent, and unresponsive. Non-verbal cues tell you this student is upset or frustrated but they will not communicate what’s troubling them.

“All seven of these types of students can damage the sense of community in a classroom, but keep ‘the Clam’ on top of your list,” says Francis, noting that quiet, growing frustration can be a precursor to violence. “It’s important to engage that student, help him to express his frustrations, and become connected to the community.”