What are typical rule breaking behaviors and aggression?

It’s typical for students to break rules and even be aggressive towards their caregivers and peers at least some of the time. While younger students are pretty rule-driven, older students will occasionally break rules in school even though they know that if they are caught there will be a consequence. These types of rule-breaking behaviors are considered typical and are thought of as part of typical development.

There are even typical sides to aggressive behavior. Toddlers may hit when they are upset, but they do not mean to inflict pain or harm. They simply want to gratify an immediate need. It’s also typical for two young boys to engage in a scuffle on the playground over something that adults will likely find quite trivial. Importantly, these behaviors are situational and do not carry over into other situations.


When should I be concerned about a student’s rule breaking and aggression?

While all students may exhibit these behaviors at one point or another, concerns arise when a pattern emerges, and the behaviors occur more often and more intensely. Students with troubles in these areas may:

  • Be irritable.
  • Lose their temper easily.
  • Argue with teachers.
  • Refuse to follow rules.
  • Act in a verbally or physically aggressive manner.
  • Lack remorse after problems occur.


Aggression can be present without rule-breaking behavior as well, and should always be investigated. Students may be aggressive for some of the following reasons, all of which are concerning: 


Trouble regulating their emotions

Sometimes children and adolescents feel intensively and have a hard time managing their emotions before acting out on how they feel.

Difficulties managing their frustration

When children and adolescents have a hard time dealing with their feeling of frustration, it can lead to intense angry feelings.


Children and adolescents are usually more impulsive than adults. However, some of them may show signs of higher impulsivity levels when they frequently act out on their emotions.

Experience of some kind of stressor

When children and adolescents are going through experiences that require some level of adaptation (such as parental separation, the birth of a sibling, illness or death of loved one, moving houses or school, etc), they may have a hard time dealing with daily or challenging situations.


What can I do to help a rule-breaking and aggressive student?

It’s helpful to first understand that behavior is a form of communication. Students who break rules and are aggressive usually lash out—they may not have the skills to manage their feelings in a more appropriate way. They may lack the words, the impulse control, or the problem-solving skills to achieve what they want, so they resort to acting out in these ways. Here are a few ways that teachers may attempt to help these children:

  • Be a model for good behavior. It is important for teachers to remain calm and model appropriate behavior when a child breaks rules and/or acts aggressively.
  • Be supportive. It is important for teachers to let the student know what they have noticed and that they are there to help. Teachers can listen and validate without jumping immediately to problem solving unless the student is specifically asking for help with solving a problem.
  • Talk about it. Teachers can initiate a conversation with the student to see if there is something at school or at home that is causing distress. It is important to ask simple questions to understand the thoughts the student may be having about themself and if they are feeling distressed in any way.
  • Don’t give in on the classroom rules. Classroom rules are established to maintain safety, provide expectations for behavior, and to ensure that learning takes place in a timely manner. Permitting a student to bend or break a classroom rule sends a message that the rules do not matter and can be broken without consequence.
  • Explain consequences. Permitting rule-breaking or aggression without consequence, being inconsistent with rules or outcomes, and using disproportionate consequences can all exacerbate aggressive and rule-breaking behavior. .
  • Praise students when they behave appropriately. Some students break rules or act aggressively as a means of gaining attention–attention gained in negative ways is still attention. However, when students are praised for behaving appropriately, they realize attention can be gained for doing the right things. A little praise for adhering to rules often goes a long way.
  • Maintain safety. When a student acts in an unsafe manner, particularly when aggression is involved, it is essential for teachers to maintain their own safety, as well as the safety of the student and the other students present.
  • Bring the concerns to a caregiver’s attention. A student’s caregivers need to know of anything concerning occurring in school. Caregivers may also be able to identify if concerns are present outside of school.
  • Seek help from a school mental health professional. In general, rule breaking and aggression are tricky behaviors to extinguish in the classroom, particularly if they are occurring regularly. Support from a school mental health professional is warranted in most situations when persistent rule breaking and aggression result in concerns.
  • Seek support. With a caregiver’s permission, teachers may consult other professionals who specialize in helping children with behavioral difficulties.

Pediatricians or family physicians can help to address initial concerns and refer to specialized professionals. Also, whenever possible, a consultation with a mental health professional may be helpful.

The public system provides services through the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and Centers of Multidisciplinary Assessment, Counseling, and Support (KEDASY).

In general, rule breaking and aggression are tricky behaviors to extinguish at school. These behaviors are particularly challenging, and they may be really hard for a teacher to address on their own. They can result in a lot of tension and stress in the classroom, so teachers acting as a "team" with school staff is important.

Rule breaking behavior and aggression that are too frequent, intense, present in many different contexts, discrepant from those experienced by children the same age, and that negatively interfere with your classroom daily activities, may indicate the possibility of Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and Conduct Disorder.


Where to find more information

Specific, detailed, and clinical information on Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and Conduct Disorder can be found at [clinical short guide at the program website].

If you want to know more about the closest available services for educational and public health systems for children and adolescent assistance across the country, go to our Services Mapping webpage here.

You can also find more information by pointing your phone camera at the QR code below or by clicking here.



Was this information helpful?
Not really