A student hitting a teacher is a serious incident that merits a serious response. Although the problem occurs infrequently, when it does occur, it can dramatically alter the climate of the classroom and leave its imprint on the teacher and students.
Being struck or threatened by a student can undermine a teacher's authority -- especially if the teacher loses control when reacting to the experience -- and it can frighten other students. Teachers have an opportunity through their handling of such a situation to demonstrate their authority and control, and to restore a sense of security and calm among students.
In deciding how to respond, teachers need to consider the nature of the incident, the student's age, and his intent. There is a marked difference between a six-year old child who, in the course of a tantrum, flails his arms and accidentally hits the teacher, and an 11-year old who strikes a teacher with the intent of hurting her. The latter situation clearly calls for a more serious response.
The same reasoning applies to a student who threatens a teacher. All threats deserve a response, but some threats are more serious than others. There is a substantial difference between a first grader who says, in a fit of anger, "Next time, I'm going to hit you" and a fifth grader who says, "I know where I can get a gun and next time I might get it and hurt you." Clearly the latter comment merits a more vigorous response than the former.
When responding to a child who has struck or threatened a teacher, the first and foremost goal is to ensure that he doesn't do it again. That calls for impressing upon the student the seriousness of his behavior and providing consequences that reinforce the message. It also is important to attend to the student's emotional needs. Behind his display of bravado, you likely have a child who is hurting.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Respond to a student's threats even if he is unlikely to carry them out. Students who are angry might make threatening comments to their teacher as a way of venting frustration and exercising power. Even if you are certain he will not follow through, talk with him about the inappropriateness of his comments. Help him understand that what he said could be taken as a threat (with younger students, explain what you mean by "threat") and might cause him serious problems. Tell him that it is okay to be angry with somebody and to even express that anger verbally, but he has to do it in a way that does not threaten or hurt another person. Ask him what he might have said differently in this particular case.
Inform the principal immediately if a student makes what you perceive to be a serious threat or hits you. In judging the seriousness of a student's action, consider his age, his history of aggressive behavior, and his ability to follow through with the threat. The school district might have a policy for how to handle threats towards teachers. At a minimum, that will involve contacting the parents. Depending on the nature of the threat, the principal also might opt to inform the police, which will put the student on notice that threatening a teacher is a serious issue. Consider asking the principal what security measures can be taken at school to help you feel more at ease.
Distract a volatile student. Things can quickly spiral out of control if a student hits you, so put your energy into preventing that from happening. If you fear he might strike you again, keep your distance from him, but also try to distract him from what is making him so angry. You might acknowledge his anger and then try to shift the topic: "Thomas, I know you are feeling angry with me. I want to hear why you're so upset, but first there is something I want to say to you." At that point, you might ask him about his favorite hobby or sports team or tell him a joke or funny story; the idea is to say anything that will soften him up and distract him from what was making him angry. After he has cooled down, you can have a calmer discussion with him about what was upsetting him.
Convey to the student the seriousness of his behavior. Respond firmly if a student hits you, but maintain your composure. Tell him in a stern, no-nonsense voice that violence towards anyone in your classroom is unacceptable and that he is never to do it again. Do not scream at him, do not call him names, do not belittle him. That will antagonize him further and make him more determined to find ways to upset you.
Use physical restraint sparingly. If a student is out of control and you fear he might hit anyone who comes close to him, tell other students to move away from him and you should do the same. Avoid physical contact, even of the supportive variety. A reassuring tap on his shoulder might be misinterpreted and trigger a physical response. You only want to step in and restrain him physically if he is at risk of hurting another student or himself, or if he is damaging property. Make sure you use the least force necessary to accomplish your goal.
Confer with the parents. If a student has been aggressive toward you, inform his parents. Insist on a face-to-face meeting rather than a phone call. You might want to have the principal present at the meeting. After describing the student's behavior, elicit the parents' perspective, including whether he is aggressive at home and what might be triggering his outbursts. Obtain parents' suggestions for preventing the behavior in the future and for responding if he should behave similarly again. After gaining parents' agreement to a plan for managing his behavior, bring the student in so he can hear that you and his parents are of one mind about his behavior and how it will be dealt with.
Ask other teachers to be on call. This is a useful strategy if the principal is unavailable, or if his or her office is far away from your classroom. If you have a student with a history of aggressive behavior, ask a teacher whose classroom is close to yours to be available to help if the student loses control or becomes physically unmanageable. If that happens, ask a responsible student to go tell the nearby teacher you need help. Although you might never have to call on that teacher, having a backup will help allay your anxieties and give you some peace of mind.
If concerned for your safety, request the student's removal from your class. You might have concerns for your physical well being if one of your current students has previously hit or threatened you. If so, talk with your principal and ask that the student be transferred out of your class on a permanent basis. Make the point that your ability to teach will be compromised if you feel uncomfortable and unsafe in his presence. The principal might opt to move the student to another classroom or to place him in a special-education program where he can obtain greater supervision.