The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Dealing with Aggression and Self-Defense

Somewhere along the line, we have done our students and ourselves a great disservice. We have somehow managed to teach them that defending themselves means fighting back, hitting back, using aggression to deal with aggression. As a person who was bullied by others for the majority of my K-12 education, this breaks my heart. I refuse to accept the idea that violence is ever the answer to peer aggression. There is a better way and we need to start teaching that, at home, at school, on the playground, everywhere we go.

Today I witnessed a student smack another student on the back of the head. I stopped aggression immediately, separated those involved, and assured that my students were safe, which is always my first responsibility. I then sought to understand what happened. When asked why one student it another, I was told that the student I saw hitting another was responding to being hit.

I called a class meeting to address the issue and asked my students what the first expectation for being safe at our school was. They acknowledged that they knew that it was to keep hands, feet, and other objects to themselves. I then asked what students should do if someone did not meet this expectation, if someone was not keeping hands, feet, or other objects to themselves. What I heard from many disappointed me: I was told that the correct response is to hit back because the students believe they need to defend themselves.

This was not the first time I heard this phrase used in this way. It won’t be the last. But it still frustrates me, because it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what defense is. Defending oneself is not fighting others, responding to aggression with more aggression. Defending oneself is to “resist an attack made on (someone or something); protect from harm or danger.” Are there ways to do this without resorting to violence?

Absolutely! Here are some strategies (in absolutely no particular order) that I used in response to peer aggression and bullying when I was growing up. The interesting thing is that anyone who tried to bully me often gave up quickly. Unfortunately, new bullies arose each year, but I was able to use these strategies with success each time. One thing I hope you will notice in this list is that violence is not in it.

  • Tell the person to stop! It is amazing how often we forget about this step. Sometimes others think they are just playing around, doing what they do with family at home. Some just need to know that what they are doing is hurting others. The majority of students do not want to hurt others.
  • Walk away. Remove yourself from the situation and the aggressor has no target present.
  • Report the problem to a trusted adult. The adults you trust can’t help you if they don’t know what the problem is.
  • Surround yourself with true friends. Your real friends are people who value you for you, who treat you with love and respect and compassion at all times. They affirm your self-worth and remind you that you don’t derive your value from what others think.
  • Ignore them. Many students begin their aggression with verbal taunts. They want a response from their target. They derive pleasure from seeing others upset. Refuse to acknowledge them.
  • Advocate for yourself. Speak up. Speak out. Make sure that you are always the one in control of you and you take away the power from those trying to assert dominance.

As I shared with many of my students’ parents recently, I can’t control what happens to my students when I am not supervising them. But from 7:55 am to 3:10 pm, when my students are under my supervision or the supervision of another teacher in the building, there is absolutely no reason for any of them to ever use violence as a response to anything that happens at school.

There is always a better way. Until we all get around this and teach it to every student at every opportunity, we are going to see the same problems happening again and again. Let’s change the message and change the cycle. Now.

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