Changes in the way families are organized and function have
resulted in less, and possibly lower quality, adult-child closeness.
At the same time, children have been bombarded with increasing
amounts of violence in the media. This brief presents an overview of
effective strategies for use with children in elementary school to
improve their growth.
Teachers College, Columbia University
Young children face a
vast and increasing array of challenges as they attempt to develop
prosocial competencies and a conciliatory, nonviolent approach to
life. Over the last several decades changes in the way families are
organized and function have resulted in less, and possibly lower
quality, adult-child closeness. At the same time, children have been
bombarded with increasing amounts of ever more graphic and
titillating violence in the news and entertainment media. Also, more
children than ever before in the U.S. are experiencing violence
firsthand in their homes and communities. All these forces affect
the temperament of children, and each child expresses a unique set
of responses to potentially inflammatory
Mental health and education professionals generally agree
that it is essential to begin developing prosocial attitudes and
behaviors in children at a very young age because aggression in
young children that is not remedied nearly always leads to later
acts of delinquency (Yoshikawa,
1995). Thus, they have developed a variety of age-appropriate
strategies for teaching children how to respond thoughtfully and
nonviolently to both internal and external stimuli. This brief
presents an overview of effective strategies for use with children
in elementary school, a time in their lives when they develop
normative beliefs about aggression (Samples
& Aber, 1998). The descriptions of approaches and activities
can help educators integrate an antiviolence education into their
schools and classrooms, select a program to implement from the many
models in use around the country, or develop an original plan. As
background, the brief also summarizes some theories about the causes
of youth violence and the best ways to prevent it.
Influences on Children's
Bad conduct (the catchall term used to describe aggressive
and antisocial behavior) by children has been increasing in both
amount and severity; also, it is beginning at an earlier age than in
the past (Walker,
Colvin, & Ramsey, 1995). As expected, experts in medicine,
psychology, sociology, and education explain the causes and possible
remedies for this disturbing phenomenon differently. But, while they
may debate the power of their explanations for youth violence, their
combined contributions to the body of research and practical
experience have done much to help practitioners develop prevention
Causes of Children's Violent and Aggressive
Constitutional Factors. Some experts believe that bad
conduct is largely inherent. They designate the symptoms a "conduct
disorder" to indicate that it is an illness, and assert that
children with this disorder can never be free from the impulse to
act out, although they can learn to control their behavior if they
receive ongoing help (Walker
et al., 1995). Medical conditions that may cause a deleterious
brain chemistry include physical problems such as defects resulting
from prenatal and birth trauma, epilepsy, and mental retardation;
and mental problems, such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
and depression (Flannery,
1997). Some researchers think that external stimuli, such as
love and nurturing, can affect brain chemistry to the extent that
seemingly innate negative personality characteristics can be
& Flannery, 1999). Most experts, moreover, agree that
increasing the social connections and personal status of aggressive
children, providing rewards for their good behavior, and reducing
threats and adverse stimuli, can significantly alter the behavior
patterns of the children.
Psychodynamic Factors. Historically, most psychiatrists,
psychologists, social workers, and educators have recognized that
child-rearing experiences, particularly in the early years, also
affect the capacity of children to regulate their aggressive
impulses. Some youth are raised by parents with severe personality
problems, which hinder or distort the psychological structures that
the children develop to adapt to their environment. Most mental
health professionals believe that the resulting developmental damage
is reversible. Effective techniques include individual and family
therapy or counseling, family interventions, the provision of
alternative adults as mentors, community youth programs, and
community education for better child rearing. Schooling that
recognizes the specific problems of these youth and supports
educational and counseling programs and trains teachers to help them
is also an important mediating tool (E. Flaxman, personal
communication, June 1999).
Social factors in a
child's life can also result in the symptoms of a conduct disorder.
These factors include a violent or inadequate family life, parents
who are criminals, a deprived and violent neighborhood, a violent
and ineffective school, or substantial exposure to real or media
Hawkins, Farrington, & Catalano, 1998). Moreover, the
specific antisocial behaviors that young children engage in are
learned "through specific and alterable processes of socialization
and development" (Slaby,
Roedell, Arezzo, & Kendrix, 1995, p. 2).
minority youth, racism and lack of opportunity (as experienced
personally or suffered by relatives or friends) may provoke bad
conduct. As these youth struggle to develop a racial identity, they
may exhibit free-floating aggression, which may be a normal and
appropriate response to their circumstances but which nevertheless
must be redirected (Prothrow-Stith
& Quaday, 1996). Similarly, children living in poverty may
express their frustrations through aggression, although their
reactions, and those of children of color, may be tempered by a
strong, positive ethnic culture and social and economic change (American
Psychological Association, APA, 1993).
Early Warning Signs
Some children, but not
all, exhibit behavior that predicts violence. Early warning signs
include social withdrawal, excessive feelings of isolation and
rejection, victimization, poor school attendance or performance,
artistic expressions of violence, preoccupation with violent media,
uncontrolled anger and aggression, substance abuse, and intolerance
for people's cultural differences. Past violence, if not remediated
through an intervention, is a particularly reliable indicator (Dwyer,
Osher, & Warger, 1998).
Predictive Value of Risk
Because of the existence of this comprehensive taxonomy of
risk factors for children's aggression, some theorists believe it is
possible to identify at-risk young children and essential to isolate
them for intensive interventions (Walker
et al., 1995). Others, citing research demonstrating that the
backgrounds of some aggressive children do not include these risk
factors, think that screening is a waste of resources; they believe
that all children should have an antiviolence education. Moreover,
false stereotyping can harm emotionally healthy children and impede
the identification of children who are really at risk. For example,
it is incorrect to assume that children are necessarily vulnerable
because of their race, socioeconomic status, home life, academic
ability, or appearance (Dwyer
et al., 1998).
Resilient children may
benefit from innate characteristics that prevent them from being
aggressive, such as brain chemistry and genes for a temperate
1996). They may also live in a home environment that provides
care, support, stability, high expectations, and opportunities to
build a social network. A positive community environment, which
supports families and schools, promotes economic stability, and
provides resources for healthy youth development, is also an
important protective factor (Kadel,
Watkins, Follman, & Hammond, 1995). For children of color,
"cultural values can enhance resilience and protect individuals
against harsh and stressful life conditions" (APA,
1993, p. 41). Group harmony and family closeness not only deter
violent behavior but increase the availability of social support in
general and of a caring, personally responsive adult in particular.
Finally, a supportive, nonviolent school environment, which enables
children to achieve, develop their talents, and be rewarded, is
essential to children's resiliency (Kadel
et al., 1995).
Types of Children's Bad Conduct:
Most generally, aggressive children cannot control their
impulses; they respond to a feeling without first considering its
impact, particularly how their response might affect other people
Kusche, & Mihalic, 1998). While all young children engage in
aggressive behavior, such as tantrums, some do not learn alternative
prosocial ways of behaving, and their bad conduct intensifies as
they age (Slaby
et al., 1995).
Aggressive behaviors often characterize children diagnosed
with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) or Attention
Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): obstinacy, impulsivity,
excessive energy, fighting, negative peer relationships, and a low
tolerance for frustration (Flannery,
1997). Angry children may throw heavy objects, use sharp objects
as weapons, or spit. Some ways of lashing out harm individuals in
the aggressive child's path; the victimization may be an unintended
consequence of the action or the result of the child's desire to
harm either anyone in the way or a specific person. Generall,
because early aggressive behavior strongly predicts greater levels
of violence later in life, it is important to intervene as soon as
bad conduct is recognized (Flannery
& Huff, 1999).
Targeting a specific
child, usually one perceived to be weak, for a violent or aggressive
act is called bullying. Older siblings may bully younger brothers
and sisters within the framework of normal family squabbles, but
victimizing tactics, such as teasing, taunting, shunning, mugging,
and scapegoating a particular child, can be evidence of an
antisocial orientation. Girls often express their anger by bullying
because it can be personal and direct, seemingly less violent but
actually more effective at victimizing another person. Ganging or
mobbing, which involves bullying one child by a group of children,
is even more serious, and may lead to robberies by groups on the
street and later delinquency through gang activity. Frequently,
bullies feel powerful when they harm others, and comfortable blaming
their victims for provoking the attack. They are likely to be
victims of physical punishment at home, and to have been taught that
striking back physically is proper retaliation (Banks,
Victimizing a person of
a different (and perceived to be inferior) gender, race, ethnicity,
religion, or sexual orientation is a specific kind of bullying. It
is the result of the perpetrator's need to exercise power over the
victim and publicly claim superiority. Depending on the nature of
the attack, however, it may not meet the legal definition of a hate
crime. Further, such acts are not universally recognized or dealt
with as bias incidents because there is a history of tolerating
boys' harassment of girls (although such attitudes may change as a
result of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on this issue), and
because certain groups (such as gays and lesbians) are not
identified as a protected class in some hate crime legislation.
Regardless, a child's act of hate bullying may be a precursor of
future bias crimes (U.S.
Department of Education, 1999). Indeed, fraternity hazing often
follows childhood acts of hate (Bodinger-deUriarte
& Sancho, 1991).
Violence Prevention: Theories and
Applications: Principles and Goals
The most effective
antiviolence efforts focus on preventive measures that "eliminate
the onset of behavior problems" (Samples
& Aber, 1998, p. 228) by helping children feel cared for,
secure, and attached to supportive institutions and individuals.
Continuity in their lives, particularly through the ongoing presence
of significant adults, is essential, and, given the fact that some
communities and families cannot offer such support, it is even more
necessary for schools to provide it (Noddings,
1996, p. 186). In fact, the most critical factor in promoting
children's social development may well be bonding with positive,
nurturing adults: teachers who offer unconditional acceptance and
support, model prosocial behavior, live according to positive
values, and convey the importance of these values to an individual's
Student-school bonding also deters aggression. It results
from children's active, age-appropriate involvement in the
educational process; their development and use of behavioral,
cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal skills and competencies; and
the reinforcement of their prosocial and academic efforts through
teachers' praise and approval (Hawkins
et al., 1998).
most effective school antiviolence programs employ four strategies.
The first is teaching social competence: specific instruction to
help change students from being adversaries in a confrontation to
being partners in a search for a fair agreement (Gregg,
1998). Instruction can be consolidated in a separate
antiviolence curriculum, or introduced to children as they are
learning other curriculum topics, or both. Students are trained to
develop the following competencies (Goldstein,
et al., 1998; Slaby
et al., 1995):
- Understanding and recognizing one's own emotions and the
emotions of others.
perceptions of a situation to enable correct interpretation of
social cues and appropriate responses.
- Understanding and predicting the consequences of personal
acts, particularly those involving aggression.
- The ability
to remain calm in order to think before acting, to reduce stress
and sadness, to replace aggression with positive behavior, and to
problem-solving, cooperative behavior, understanding and use of
group processes, and the development and maintenance of peer
- Empathy with
others in general and, especially, with those perceived as
mediation and conflict resolution.
- Selection of
positive role models and supportive mentors.
Specific strategies that the schools and teachers can employ
to implement the second strategy, creating a positive calm,
environment, are discussed below. The third and fourth strategies,
not discussed in detail here, are establishment of behavior
standards and establishment of rules and regulations for responding
Formal and Informal Antiviolence
Educators differ about how to help children develop
prosocial competencies. Some advocate a curriculum that is taught
separately from other areas of instruction. A wide variety of
well-respected programs do, indeed, help elementary school children
manage their impulses, overcome their biases, problem solve, and
resolve conflicts nonviolently. For example, BrainPower teaches
African American boys to interpret social cues correctly and respond
& Aber, 1998). Second Step has curricula for each of several
grade groups; they cover topics such as impulse control, anger
management, appropriate touching, empathy development, and
acceptance of people's differences (Gregg,
1998). The Promoting Alternative THinking Strategies (PATHS)
curriculum develops emotional and social competencies and helps
reduce aggression (Greenberg
et al., 1998).
Other theorists, however, cite evidence that separate
prevention programs are not effective. They believe that the overall
school environment can promote a prosocial approach to life, and
recommend that school personnel model prosocial behaviors throughout
the day and teach these competencies across the curriculum (Noddings,
1996). One program embracing this philosophy is PeaceBuilders.
Its five principles for children are:
Some practitioners even
think that a school employing the best of the school reform
practices, one focused on educational effectiveness and providing
positive support for all aspects of students' life, has a de facto
effective antiviolence program, since evaluations of such schools do
suggest that they are less violent. The Resolving Conflicts
Creatively Program takes a hybrid approach; it trains educators to
provide students with instruction in peer mediation and bias
reduction, and parents to resolve conflicts nonviolently at home (Gregg,
- praise other
- seek wise
people as advisors and friends,
- notice and
correct hurts one causes, and
- right wrongs
school safety movement is also committed to reducing school
violence, but not through individual programs. It is based on the
belief that a focus on safety gives students a sense of security
that calms aggressiveness in at-risk children, alleviates fears that
provoke bad behavior, and promotes good behavior by all (Kadel
et al., 1995; Samples
& Aber, 1998; Stephens,
1998). Schools remain free from violence and crime by
establishing positive behavior goals and instituting codes of
conduct (with input from students and parents), monitoring the
campus for signs of infractions, developing comprehensive plans for
dealing with crime and violence (possibly in collaboration with
local law enforcement agencies), and responding fairly, swiftly, and
consistently when students misbehave.
Strategies Beyond the
Many overall approaches to school organization, teaching,
and classroom management can promote children's caring and
cooperation and minimize their behavior problems. Simply strategies
for negotiating the day's activities that enhance the prosocial
behavior of all children, they can be employed as part of a
schoolwide antiviolence program or curriculum, or be used on an ad
hoc basis when appropriate. Here is a sampling of such
Schools seeking to
eliminate students' aggression establish the "norm of nonviolence"
et al., 1998, p. 194). They have a calm and predictable
atmosphere that provides a sense of security and limits the
possibility that unforeseen events will trigger explosive behavior.
Schools also specify behavioral expectations; explain the reasons
for them; provide structured opportunities to practice good
behavior; and foresee and prevent possible bad behavior by, for
example, increasing supervision in potentially volatile situations
et al., 1995). As needed, they attempt to counter messages of
violence that can be pervasive in children's lives by providing
prosocial alternatives to fighting (Hawkins
et al., 1998).
Professional development is an important component of a
school's antiviolence program, since teachers' attitudes and
behavior can promote students' feelings of self-worth and caring for
others, and lower their aggression level. Schools ensure that
teachers are qualified, foster students' achievement and respond to
their needs, have appropriate expectations, are enthusiastic and
give frequent praise, and always model prosocial behavior (Greenberg
et al., 1998). Finally, schools with adequate facilities and a
population consonant with their size are more likely to be
& Aber, 1998).
Traditional means of "controlling" a classroom can actually
exacerbate children's aggression, provoke a teacher-child argument,
or invite bad behavior by children not originally targets of a
teacher's control efforts. Alternative ways of maintaining good
conduct can be more effective. Teachers can work with students to
develop a list of rules for acceptable behavior. They can establish
the norm of cooperation and mutual respect and enlist everyone's
support to ensure that no students are isolated or bullied either in
class or while at play (Banks,
Teachers can ignore a student who is quietly misbehaving in
class (such as not reading along with the others) and approach the
student privately later to discuss his or her reasons for refusing
to participate. They can respond to an unruly student by
recommending alternative, less disruptive behavior instead of
showing anger and/or publicly disciplining a student (i.e.,
suggesting a student raise his hand to get a need met instead of
jumping or yelling). Teachers can calm an agitated child by helping
him or her solve the precipitating problem and, if the scene is
repeated in the future, briefly remind the child how to solve the
problem instead of rewarding the bad behavior by again bestowing a
lot of attention on the child. In general, it is more effective for
teachers to deal with misbehaving children quietly, in private, and
with as little attention as possible (Walker
et al., 1995).
Providing students with rewards for prosocial behavior in
class or at play deters aggression. Teachers can give students
points for attendance, preparedness, performance, and good
sportsmanship that qualify them for an extra school trip, for
example. Parents can be kept apprised of their children's behavior
through reports on the number of points being earned over the year
et al., 1998).
foster prosocial behavior while children are at play, teachers can
organize cooperative activities instead of winner-loser games. They
can urge children to help, rather than taunt, those with less
athletic ability. Instead of responding to bad conduct on a playing
field with punishment or attention to the perpetrator, either of
which can encourage additional negative behavior, they can
immediately implement peer mediation strategies with arguing
centers, classes, and private meetings, schools can help parents
promote the prosocial development of their children and recognize
and respond to early warning signs. They can help parents understand
the effects on their children of their own behavior, and of their
nurturing and behavior management strategies. They can support
parents emotionally, help them improve their parenting skills, and
link them with community services. Educators can also sensitively
convey their own concerns about certain children based on
observation; they can assure parents that the school will work with
them to obtain appropriate interventions and will keep the family's
confidentiality (except, of course, in potentially dangerous
et al., 1998).
Home-school connections can be facilitated through regular
notes to parents that describe violence prevention efforts and
suggest how the parents can support them. Homework assignments can
help both parents and children explore their feelings about
interpersonal violence and figure out alternative strategies for
resolving conflicts. To promote role modeling, assignments can
prompt parents' discussions about their own behavior when they were
the same age as their children (Greenberg
et al., 1998).
Educators can involve parents in the school's violence
prevention policy by soliciting their input in formulating rules,
informing them of conduct policies, and alerting them to possible
problems. For example, parents can help their children who are
victimized by notifying the school and working with personnel to
mediate between the bully and the victim. Parents of bullies can be
helped to work with their children to improve their behavior (Banks,
Despite the value of school antiviolence efforts, the burden
of preventing youth violence ultimately rests with parents who are
most able to observe and evaluate their children's behavior on an
ongoing basis. Thus, a school's most important antiviolence strategy
may simply be helping parents understand that ignoring or dismissing
a child's small behavior problem nearly always results in the
child's subsequent involvement in more serious antisocial
A wide range of
strategies to help children develop prosocial attitudes and
behaviors is effective. The most successful are those implemented as
part of a comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach to nurturing
children at home, at school, and in the community. The increasing
evaluations of existing programs offer useful guides for future
program implementation. In addition, there are now organizations
providing schools with technical assistance on antiviolence
initiatives, such as the Center for the Study and Prevention of
Violence's Blueprints for Violence Prevention Program (Greenberg
et al., 1998).
Public support for school antiviolence initiatives has been
limited, however; resources continue to be concentrated on social
controls, such as juvenile prosecution and detention. But in
addition to making a greater investment in youth violence
prevention, society also needs to strengthen communities by
supporting parents' efforts to provide emotionally and economically
for their children and by reducing violence by controlling access to
& Huff, 1999). Finally, those elements in society (including
the news and entertainment media), which perpetuate the growing
culture of violence in the U.S., need to consider whether their
message is obviating the benefits of youth violence prevention
efforts in the schools.
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This brief was developed by the Choices in
Preventing Youth Violence initiative, with funding from the
Metropolitan Life Foundation. It was published by the Institute for
Urban and Minority Education, Teachers College, Columbia University.
The opinions expressed in the brief do not necessarily represent the
pinions or policies of the Metropolitan Life Foundation or Teachers
Choices in Preventing Youth Violence, Erwin
Flaxman, Director, Teachers College, Box 228, Columbia University,
525 West 120th Street, New York, NY 10027, 212/678-3158