Physical Education? What to do When a Student Hits a Teacher

A new crisis is starting to take over American classrooms: over the past decade, violence against school teachers has become an increasing problem, with 9% of teachers nationwide reporting to have been threatened with violence by a student, and another 5% reporting violence that actually happened to them.

Aside from the obvious problems that victimization causes, when a student hits a teacher, it not only causes physical and psychological harm to that specific educator, it undermines the authority of teachers everywhere. Not only that, it also increases the chances of student-on-student violence, as other children become more naturalized to violence.

But before we go arming our teachers as if they’re soldiers on duty, let’s remember why us teachers are there in the first place: to educate and to care for America’s future. As learned men and women, we cannot, and we should not, respond to violence with further violence. No, our job is to consider the context of the situation, the student and his motives, their age and intent, and to engage with them not only as human beings, but as children that need nurturing.

Fighting Back

Under the threat of violence, can a teacher hit a student? In some states, yes: corporal punishment is not only allowed, but encouraged, so you can be sure that retaliating to violence with more violence would not only be legal, but assumed.

But should a teacher hit a student? I say that it’s a resounding NO. Teachers should not hit a student, not even if that student threatened violence, valid or not. There are more productive and effective ways to deal with an angry student than to resort to hitting back physically. Here are some non-violent tactics to consider when a student hits a teacher or threatens to hit them:

Respond to A Student’s Threat (Regardless if it’s Valid or Not)

Threats come from either a place of anger or a place of power. When a student threatens to hit a teacher, or worse, when a student actually hits a teacher, they’re trying to vent out their frustrations while trying to assert their dominance in the situation.

In times like these, it’s important to ensure that a threat doesn’t give way into physical violence: before a student can hit a teacher, respond to their verbal threats. Sometimes, acknowledgment is all the student needs in order to calm down. Sometimes, students make threats because they’re unaware of healthier ways to vent out their anger, or they’re unaware of the consequences of their words and actions. As a teacher, make them aware.

Inform an Authority Figure

Assess whether a student’s verbal threats can be construed as something that will escalate into physical violence. Then, assess the student themselves: what’s their background? Do they have a history of aggressive behavior? How credible is their threat? Are they a physical threat to you, your students, and the school in general?

Once you’ve established that they’re a valid threat, inform authority figures, whether it’s the school principal or the education board, and make them aware of your worries. Let them know about your personal assessment of the student so that you and your fellow educators can come up with an appropriate response to the threat.

Distraction is the Best Way to De-escalate

When a student threatens a teacher, or when a student hits a teacher, the situation can spiral out of control very suddenly and very fast. But rather than trying to figure out how to fight back physically, it’s better to invest your efforts into distracting and redirecting the student’s energy.

Obviously, try to keep distance between you and your student, and try to keep him away from your other student as well. After this, establish dialogue with the student and try to get him to talk. This is an old FBI negotiating trick: if a suspect is talking, he’s not engaging in violent behavior. Most often, these students will be willing to talk about what made them so angry in the first place.

Remember, especially for high school teachers: these are children who are going through and experience a lot of emotions during their puberty. Often, they’re confused about what they’re feeling and are just looking for a way to vent.

Use Physical Restraint, But do it Sparingly

If a student hits a teacher, then, and only then, can the teacher be physical with their student. However, rather than hitting back with your fists, it’s almost always better to try and restrain them rather than striking them. Remember that they’re already in a volatile mood; retaliation in the same language will only invite more of that behavior. Get ahead of this by learning how to physically restrain someone without inflicting too much pain.

While restraining them, try to talk to them in a soothing and calming voice. Often, this is enough to get them to calm down long enough for help to arrive, or for them to open up to you and let out their anger verbally.

Schedule a Conference with the Student, Their Parents, and the School

Once all’s been said and done, schedule a PTA with the parents, the student, and school authorities. Assure the student that, while the meeting is set to discuss their behavior, it’s not supposed to be a witch-hunt. As the adults in the room, talk to the parents to try and see where the aggressive behavior is coming from, and try to find solutions that could eliminate that behavior, or at the very least, mitigate it.

With gun violence in schools also on the rise, it’s important to address violent tendencies in students as early as possible. However, we must always remember that we’re dealing with children and young adults, people who are struggling not just with school work and social lives, but also a plethora of new emotions and experiences. As teachers, we shouldn’t be meeting aggression with aggression; rather, we should meet it with guidance, gentleness, and knowledge.

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