Sue Whitelaw has many years experience working as a psychologist in schools in Victoria. She has worked as a stream leader and a professional practice leader for psychologists in the Department of Education. She was a professional practice advisor for psychologists in schools for the Australian Psychological Society. She is currently the psychologist at Emerson School in Melbourne.

Can you talk about the role of a psychologist in supporting children to manage aggressive behaviours?

Psychologists have an important role to play in supporting children to manage aggressive behaviours. Psychologists work with children to help them recognise the triggers that may upset them, and help them to find alternative strategies to manage their feelings without resorting to aggression. These may include things such as learning to verbalise their feelings, or finding stress-reducing activities such as going for a run or using a punching bag, or breathing, relaxation or meditation. It can also be helpful to teach a child to recognise the feelings of other people, so they can understand the effect their behaviour is having on others. In a school setting, psychologists work with school staff to build a supportive network around the child.

In your experience, what has been the relationship between disorders such as oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder, and aggressive behaviours in children? And how does that affect the intervention?

Many children who engage in aggressive behaviours have a diagnosis such as oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, attention deficit disorder or an autism spectrum disorder. It can be helpful to explain to children, their parents and teachers, that this may be one reason why a child may have difficulty managing their feelings, but it is important that this does not become an 'excuse' for either the child or the adults who work with them. The emphasis needs to be on the behaviour and helping the child to manage their behaviour in a way that does not impact negatively on themselves or on others.

What interventions and resources have you found helpful for managing aggressive behaviours in children?

Young children often find visual clues helpful. They may learn to recognise their feelings better by locating symptoms in their body, and then drawing these on a picture, e.g.,drawing drawn fists and clenched teeth. Sometimes children find the idea of an ‘anger thermometer’ helpful. They can learn to rate their feelings from a calm, ‘cool’ state and to recognise their feelings as they move towards a ‘boiling point’ when they will lose control of their behaviour. This can help children to learn to use some of their stress reduction strategies early before they start to engage in aggressive behaviour.

There are a number of excellent DVDs and apps that teach relaxation and mindfulness to young children. One of the most readily and freely available is Smiling Mind, an evidence-based program that teaches mindfulness mediation tailored to different age groups. Students report that they like this app and find it helpful as they can access it at any time through a phone or tablet. 

How can psychologists work collaboratively with school staff and other health and community professionals to support children in managing aggressive behaviours?

Psychologists working in a school can provide critical support for children and young people by working with teachers and other school staff to ensure that appropriate support is available for students. With the permission of the child and the family, psychologists can educate school staff about the behaviour issues a child is experiencing, and assist in developing positive behaviour supports within the school environment.

The psychologist has a role in guiding staff and other professionals to reinforce a child’s appropriate communication skills, self-regulation and coping strategies.  The psychologist can support teachers to develop a positive school climate. They can devise management strategies for such things as disrespect, inappropriate or out-of-seat behaviour and noncompliance.  Psychologists have specialist skills in analysing the function of behaviour and designing the least restrictive interventions to help a child and others to manage problem behaviour, for example by implementing prevention and de-escalation strategies.

The psychologist can help parents and teachers develop individual behaviour plans. These may include strategies for the child such as a private signal that a student can give their teacher when they are starting to feel angry and recognise that they need some ‘time out’, and allowing a student to go to a safe area in the school where they can use their calming or relaxation strategies.  Psychologists design the behaviour plans to include appropriate consequences for aggressive or violent behaviour and incentives for when the child demonstrates prosocial behaviour.

Psychologists can work with individual students, or provide group or whole-class teaching to increase students’ abilities to recognise their feelings, and to work towards appropriate management of aggressive or violent behaviour.