CYC-Online 131 JANUARY 2010
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Redirecting pathways to violence: Early identification of risk factors in children

Karen J. Carney, Sarup R. Mathur and Robert B. Rutherford Jr

The authors use snapshots of one child's path to a troubled adolescence to identify age-specific risk factors that may lead to violent behavior Once these factors are identified, youth can be redirected in more positive and resilient directions.

Because many children may show aggressive tendencies at times, educators often wonder when it is appropriate to intervene and seek help for a particular child. It has been shown that the earlier we intervene, the greater the chance for success. If those closest to the child are proactive in the early years, there is less need to be reactive in the teen years.

Given what is known about the benefits of intervening early, the question becomes this: Should teachers and other professionals risk identifying troubling behaviors in a young child in order to prevent future problems? We believe that key people in a child's life should be willing to raise the issue of early identification, despite concerns about stereotyping, labeling, or stigmatizing a young child. By responding to the risk factors for future aggression that may be present at various stages in a child's life, adults may have significant opportunities to change a child's life for the better.

Identifying pathways
Gable and Arllen (1995) point out that there is no single explanation that accounts for a child's becoming aggressive and violent, but that such behavior results from a combination of variables, such as temperament, family factors (abuse, depression, psychopathology), and environmental factors (poverty-related stress). These factors can serve as early violence indicators in children as young as 3 or 4 years of age, and additional factors may accumulate as the child grows. Sprague and Walker (2000) refer to this progression of antisocial risk factors that develops over time as a pathway.

A pathway may be either covert or overt. A covert action pathway can initially involve lying and stealing, which may then lead to more destructive behaviors like vandalism and setting fires. An overt action pathway may start with defiance or disobedience, then move to bullying and fighting, and finally lead to more serious violent behavior such as assault, rape, or murder. Intervening early can help redirect a child's pathways in more positive, resilient directions, and may help steer that child away from a pathway that might lead to violence.

Redirection is possible when we are aware of the indicators of potentially violent behavior as they might appear in a child at different ages. To illustrate these risk factors, we include five “snapshots” of Raymond. These risk factors are summarized in Table 1, which demonstrates the progressive nature and compounded effect of these factors when they are not addressed.

Table 1

Accumulating risk factors for antisocial behavior

From Age 2

Low socioeconomic status
Difficult temperament (impulsive, irritable)
Attachment disorder, lack of early bonding
Family factors (abuse, depression, harsh discipline, uninvolved parenting)

From Age 4
Explosive behavior, multiple temper tantrums
Cruelty toward other children

From Age 8
Academic failure
Minor antisocial behaviors, ineffective social skills
Cruelty to animals

From Age 12
Verbal aggression
Rebelliousness, discipline problems
Substance abuse (begins)
Identified as LD, ADHD, EBD
Feelings of rejection, few friends

From Age 16
Significant vandalism, increased risk taking
Delayed moral development
Poor academics, cutting classes, discipline problems
Joins a gang; involved in fighting, stealing, property destruction
Substance abuse (continues)

Raymond's infancy: The potential of primary prevention
In the first snapshot, Raymond is 15 months old. We see him pulling away from his mother, who is holding Raymond's baby sister, Rita. Raymond's older brother, DJ, is off to the side. Raymond's family is poor and his father is currently unemployed. Raymond is a difficult baby who has never really bonded with his mother. He is already difficult for his mother to manage. He is often left to entertain himself until he has made a mess, and then his father loses his temper and yells at him. His father is an alcoholic and periodically physically and verbally abuses his wife and occasionally his children.

This snapshot highlights the presence of several risk factors in Raymond's life that may serve as predictors of violence at a later age:

The presence of risk factors at this age calls for primary and universal approaches to prevention. The literature indicates that primary prevention practices work for 80% to 90% of children in preventing violent behavior at an early age (Dwyer, Osher, and Hoffrnan, 2000; Guetzloe, 1995). Primary prevention includes providing food, shelter, jobs for parents, childcare, medical needs, and an education that fosters prosocial behavior (e.g., talking out problems or respecting others). Intervention because of Raymond's risk factors at age 15 months might lessen his potential for future aggression. This would include offering his family the support of a comprehensive system of care (collaborative support of public agencies, such as social services, mental health, and public health agencies). Providing these services to families like Raymond's helps children build a stronger foundation in their early years, which may well diminish the possibility of future violent behavior.

Raymond in preschool: Negative behavior can be redirected
The next snapshot of Raymond shows him as a 4-year-old preschool student. In this picture, taken on the playground, he is climbing up the slide backwards. No other children are near him. Other children tend to shy away from Raymond since he is often mean to them and often explodes with anger. He is quite impulsive as well, making it hard for him to focus on class activities. He often refuses to comply with teacher requests and spends most of his time isolated from others.

In addition to the pre-existing risk factors, the indicators at this age become more serious and complex:

It is vital to address these risk indicators during preschool years in order to prevent a child like Raymond from developing more stable patterns of aggression.

By the age of 4, children benefit from early school screening and intervention (Cornell, 1999; Dwyer et al., 1998; Golly, Stiller, and Walker, 1998; Guetzloe, 1995; Montague, Bergeron, and Lago-Delello,1997). Early intervention, as early as preschool, is the best method of redirecting the emerging negative behavior of children who commit aggressive acts (Seifert, 2000). Walker, Colvin, and Ramsey (1995) state that children with antisocial behaviors can be identified accurately at age 3 or 4. At this age, violent or antisocial behavior can be changed because it is a learned behavior (American Psychological Association and National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1999). This is the time for closer supervision of such children, positive behavioral interventions [such as behavior modification, counseling, environmental interventions (Guetzloe, 1999)], fostering prosocial behavior, and family-centered interventions.

Raymond in third grade: Multiple interventions are required
Eight-year-old Raymond, shown in his next snapshot with a black eye and scraped knuckles, is riding his bike. Siblings DJ and Rita play catch in the background. Now in the third grade, Raymond is already struggling academically, mostly because he cannot stay focused on his schoolwork. His impulsive and explosive behavior also causes trouble with his classmates and his teachers, and he has few friends. He was in a fight with a younger boy, which is how he got his black eye and scraped knuckles. His brother and sister also avoid him, and his parents continue to be inconsistent with their discipline. Last summer Raymond drowned the family gerbil, saying he was trying to see if it could swim.

As indicated in this snapshot, risk factors include a number of academic and social skill difficulties. Specific indicators are as follows:

Raymond requires more intervention at this stage in his life. More than primary intervention, he is in need of secondary intervention. Included at this level of treatment are proactive strategies for behavior management, environmental interventions, and direct instruction in developing prosocial skills (Guetzloe, 1999). Raymond needs redirecting, positive behavioral supports (Office of Special Education Programs, 2000), and instruction in developing positive behaviors and social skills to prevent further escalation of aggressive behaviors (Seifert, 2000). Through direct instruction in social skills and anger management strategies, habits of aggression and violence can be changed (American Psychological Association and National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1999).

Universal schoolwide practices are also important. One type of practice includes positive behavioral interventions and supports (Sugai and Horner, 1999), which teach and reinforce appropriate behavior throughout the school day. In addition, delivering appropriate and nondiscriminatory consequences (Dwyer et al., 1998) and having high academic expectations (Kamps and Tankersley, 1996) are essential schoolwide practices. Finally, resiliency supports (Benard,1997; Bloom, 1996; Finley, 1994), which teach protective behaviors such as problem solving, impulse control, and a sense of humor, are designed to strengthen a child's resistance to stress and are effective strategies for all youth. Walker, Colvin, and Ramsey (1995) note that antisocial behavior that is not changed by the end of third grade cannot be cured. It can only be managed with appropriate supports and continuing interventions.

Raymond at 12: Antisocial behavior escalates
This snapshot shows Raymond at age 12, reading violent comics in his bedroom. His room is messy, and there is a cigarette pack on the floor. The papers thrown near the waste paper basket are his homework. Raymond was home for this picture because he was suspended from school for 3 days for swearing at his teacher and overturning a desk. He has had many discipline referrals at school. He was tested last year for learning disabilities and was placed in a resource room for 1 hour per day. He still does poorly in school. He has few friends, and claims he would rather just play alone than interact with others.

The escalation of antisocial behaviors at this age is evident from the risk factors identified in the youth aggression and violence literature:

Raymond was in a resource room at school by age 10, but the focus was on his low academic skills rather than on his antisocial behavior. Relatively minor examples of aggressive and coercive acts in the home and school may be early signs of adolescent delinquent behavior (Feil, Walker, and Severson, 1995). Two types of interventions are available to manage aggressive behaviors in school. One involves rearranging contingencies for aggression through behavior enhancement (supporting a student’s positive behavior) and behavior reduction techniques (modifying a student’s negative behavior) (Mathur, Quinn, and Rutherford,1995). The other involves teaching prosocial or replacement skills that are incompatible with antisocial acts (Rutherford, Quinn, and Mathur,1995). This could include encouraging youth to engage in problem-solving strategies when upset, rather than fighting. At this age, Raymond would benefit from teacher-mediated consequences for his aggressive and violent behavior, and from instruction in alternative behaviors such as positive social skills, anger management skills, and aggression replacement skills (Rutherford and Nelson, 1995). These would be more effective if Raymond also received an integrated treatment approach to support his family and provide him with mental health services.

Raymond at 16: What is and what might have been
In this snapshot, 16-year-old Raymond is with his friends. He is grinning at the camera and making an obscene gesture. He has recently been caught skipping school and shoplifting with other boys who have been in trouble with the law. Raymond goes to court next week to meet with the judge about his shoplifting. Although they have not been caught, he and his friends have assaulted students from other schools half a dozen times. He frequently misses classes and has no plans for the future. His parents know he drinks all weekend, either alone or with his friends.

The risk factors at this stage are all too familiar, and they clearly indicate the path Raymond was taking because the risk factors represented by his antisocial behaviors in the past had not been identified earlier:

Raymond seems to have been following an overt pathway even as a 4-year-old. His album of snapshots shows a child who became more and more isolated from the positive parts of life. He needed comprehensive and timely solutions to address the many risk factors that may have led to his increasingly aggressive behavior. He needed to have supportive relationships with others that would lead to more positive consequences in his life. He needed to develop positive interpersonal skills and intervention strategies that would have helped him feel supported and reinforced rather than criticized, punished, and separated. Many children may show aggressive tendencies, but not all of them will walk down a pathway toward aggression and violence. How do we know which children are at risk and when it is appropriate to intervene? Raymond's brother and sister did not follow the same overt pathway as Raymond. The answer is that everyone has to be aware of the risk factors for problem behavior in children. The earlier the intervention occurs, the greater the chance for success in redirecting the behavior. Although Raymond's early profile did not guarantee that he was on a one-way track to serious problem behavior, there were indications that he was headed in that direction. Sprague and Walker (2000) comment that an early pattern of antisocial behavior is like a virus that lowers the immune system, so that a child becomes vulnerable to a host of other risk factors over time. The snapshots of Raymond show this vulnerability.

Successful early interventions
Although Raymond's snapshots show a steady increase in his problem behaviors because they were not identified and treated early, there are pictures of other children who have been helped by early intervention. Manuel’s early characteristics were similar to Raymond's, but his preschool used an early screening instrument [e.g., Early Screening Project, Walker, Severson, and Feil (1995)], which identified his behavioral problems and needs, and his family received collaborative community services (Forness, Kavale, MacMillan, Asarnow, and Duncan, 1996). Manuel’s kindergarten picture shows a happy, successful child eagerly involved in a whole-group classroom activity.

Rose’s family photos took a positive turn when she was in first grade. Her school identified her as in need of help for behavioral problems, and she was supported by her teacher, who took a special interest in her. Instead of punishing Rose for fighting and other class misbehavior, the teacher taught Rose prosocial behaviors to help her deal more positively and effectively with her classmates. Rose’s counselor also helped her learn positive peer-to-peer social skills. In addition, her family received support from a local social service and mental health agency that focused on providing wraparound services (comprehensive services delivered collaboratively to address an individual’s needs) for children in her neighborhood in need of special help. Many success stories begin when one person cares deeply and bonds with a child whose behavioral problems are identified early on.

Taking the risk
There is abundant research literature on strategies to reduce and ameliorate aggressive behaviors in children (Dwyer et al., 2000; Forness et al., 1996; Sprague and Walker, 2000) and to promote resiliency (Benard,1997; Bloom, 1996; Finley,1994). The American Psychological Association and the National Association for the Education Of Young Children NAEYC have developed a program called Reason to Hope to prevent violence in early childhood by encouraging caring adults to mentor and support young children. But first the key people in a child's life must recognize the risk factors and be willing to acknowledge the importance of dealing with the behaviors that result from those risk factors. To prevent an action from occurring, one must first predict that the action could occur and then take the steps necessary to stop it. The risk factors for violent behavior are known. The place to begin, then, is early identification of children exhibiting these indicators. In light of the potential for positively redirecting young lives, early identification is a risk worth taking.


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This feature: Carney, K.J.; Mathur, S.R. and Rutherford Jr, R.B. (2000). Redirecting pathways to violence: Early identification of risk factors in children. Reaching Today’s Youth, 5, 1. pp. 7-11.

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