CYC-Online 128 OCTOBER 2009
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Do schools teach aggression? Recognizing and retooling the interactions that lead students to aggression

Sharon H. Grant and Richard Van Acker

Youths may resort to acts of aggression to address developmental needs that have not been met. To curb this aggression, the authors suggest, educators should examine the school social context, attune the curriculum to developmental issues, and retool disciplinary policies.

Mrs. Jones faced her third-grade classroom and sighed. She was sure that once again her students would not have completed their homework. She was beginning to feel powerless to make much impact on the lives of the children in her class and was frustrated with what she perceived as a lack of cooperation from parents and administration. She glanced around the room, her gaze falling upon Cynthia.

Somewhat overweight and quiet, Cynthia had yet to find friends in the class. Clearing her throat, Mrs. Jones asked the students to get out their homework from the night before. Noticing that Cynthia did not take out a paper, Mrs. Jones immediately called upon the girl to give the answer to the first problem. In a quiet and embarrassed voice, Cynthia whispered that she had not done the assignment. Mrs. Jones walked quickly to Cynthia’s desk amid snickers from the other children. In a raised voice, Mrs. Jones said, “It’s no wonder you are failing, since you seem to be too lazy to put forth any effort!” Then Mrs. Jones demanded, “Now, who has the answer to question number one?” Not a single student raised a hand.

* * *

For many children, the public schools of this nation provide numerous opportunities to demonstrate academic prowess and become involved in successful social interaction. For these students, school heightens their sense of success and self-confidence. For another group of students, like Cynthia, the public school is a setting for academic failure and social rejection. These students are often ill prepared to meet the academic and social demands placed upon them at school. While many students will suffer in relative silence, a small but significant portion will react to their distress by developing challenging behaviors, such as aggression, to signal their distress and mask their limited abilities to succeed.

Children will often turn to aggression if they are not provided with desirable and effective means to meet their goals in socially acceptable ways. Aggression, children know, can make them feel safe from harm, whether it is real or imagined. Aggression may be an obvious means to gain status and identity within a group, to be taken seriously, and to feel important. For some children, the ability to intimidate, harass, and belittle others represents a significant, and perhaps necessary, area of competence. Aggression can provide students with a means to defy authority which they perceive as unjust or overly rigid. Thus children often use aggression to address their legitimate developmental needs.

Unintentionally, schools place a significant number of children in situations which exacerbate the development and display of aggressive and otherwise antisocial behavior. Teachers and school administrators may sometimes lack the training, support, and monitoring skills necessary to effectively address the needs of the students. If we intend to reduce the levels of aggression and violence in our schools, then we must be prepared to explore openly and honestly the school context itself (especially the nature of the social interactions between teachers and students and between students and their peers) and to implement interventions that promote peaceful and respectful interactions at school.

By recognizing children's developmental needs and the ways that schools sometimes fail to fulfill them, we can take the right steps to teach a significant number of children in our schools that there are more effective and meaningful self-help skills than aggression.

Recognizing developmental needs
Children and youth need to feel safe and secure within their environment. This means that school must represent a setting that is free from physical and psychological harm for all students. Beyond ensuring safety, the school should play an important role in helping students develop a positive identity. Students must gain a conception of who they are in relation to others (Spielman and Staub, 2000). Students must feel connected to others and feel that those with whom they wish to interact value them. They must believe that they are capable of achieving relevant goals set before them. And, finally, students must feel a sense of personal effectiveness or control. That is, they must feel that they can affect, for better or worse, events in which they participate. How these needs are satisfied depends to a large extent on the pathways made available to children and youth.

Efforts have been made to increase the physical safety of children within the school setting. Many schools have implemented increased security measures, such as limiting access to buildings and posting security personnel. Unfortunately, school personnel pay little heed to the far more common and much more insidious types of violence that take place on a daily basis. Behaviors such as name-calling, shoving, fighting, harassment, bullying, teasing, and taunting affect a significant number of youth (Epp and Watkinson, 1997). Teachers and school administrators often seem to turn a blind eye when presented with such behaviors, allowing some children to be repeatedly victimized (Furlong and Morrison, 2000). Moreover, teachers themselves may engage in behaviors that potentially cause psychological harm to their students, such as public humiliation and disciplinary policies based on exclusion and punishment (Epp and Watkinson,1997; Furlong and Morrison, 2000). Cynthia represents a student who is purposely victimized in front of her peers. The trauma of such school experiences remains with some people throughout their lives.

One of the functions that aggression can serve is to heighten a student’s sense of safety and security. When confronted by an angry or threatening peer or teacher, a young person with no more legitimate means of protection or escape may engage in aggressive behavior. In other situations, aggression may allow a student to develop a sense of toughness that will deter victimization. A child who responds violently to verbal or physical assaults may minimize the future probability of such assaults. Aggression may also serve as a means to defy authority that the student views as unjust or unfair. In this case, the child may perceive his or her aggressive behavior as a moral act aimed at providing protection or achieving some form of retribution (Fagan and Wilkinson, 1998). Thus aggressive behavior may represent for these students a reasonable response to a legitimate need for safety.

Love and belonging
Another critical need involves developing a sense of belonging and connectedness to others. For most children, the family will play a primary role in establishing a foundation for meeting this need. Upon entering the school setting, however, children must expand their social networks to include teachers and peers. For most children, this does not present a significant problem. Some children, however, feel isolated or are actively rejected by those around them. Not surprisingly, this problem often affects children from cultural backgrounds that are unfamiliar to their teachers and peers.

Adults can also play a role in the process of ostracizing students. One very common practice involves separating or isolating children from the group in response to their displays of undesired behavior. Procedures such as time out, removal to a hallway, referral to the office, and suspension from the school can be harmful to a child's sense of belonging. This is especially true when a child is left out of the group frequently, incurring the loss of considerable instructional and social interaction time. Further, it is not unusual for children who exhibit challenging behaviors to have their desks situated far apart from their classmates or to be excluded from peer-directed activities (such as cooperative learning). Obviously, teachers must ensure appropriate behavior within instructional groupings, and removal of a child for brief periods of time may be necessary. However, when the same child is given consistent messages that he or she does not belong, the teacher must begin to question both the efficacy and the ethics of this practice.

Punitive and exclusionary measures do little to increase a child's skills and ability to meet the demands of the classroom (Skiba and Peterson, 1999). School personnel who use punishment assume that children know what is expected of them and have the ability to carry out the expected behavior, and that somehow they will perform the preferred behavior in order to avoid the punishment. All three of these assumptions may be inaccurate. Children may need to be taught both the expectations and the preferred behaviors over and over in multiple contexts. Exclusionary discipline practices may eliminate or drastically reduce the child's opportunity to learn the very skills that we assume they know.

After experiencing repeated exclusionary responses from both peers and teachers, students may soon learn to reject those groups and activities from which they have been excluded. Often, these students form social networks whose members devalue many of the normal channels which traditionally lead to success in school and which they believe to be unavailable to them (such as academic excellence and school-based extracurricular activities). Many of these students turn to violence and aggression. While much of the literature suggests that violence and aggression lead to peer rejection (e.g., Coie and Dodge, 1997), there is growing support for the view that for many children aggressive behavior results in increased popularity (Cairns, Cairns, Neckerman, Gest and Gariepy, 1988; Rodkin, Farmer, Pearl and VanAcker, 2000). Children and youth who repeatedly associate with peers who value and display aggression will have a strengthened belief in the legitimacy of aggression as a social problem-solving strategy.

All children must feel that they can successfully meet the demands placed upon them. Children need the important people in their lives to give them supportive feedback for both the process and the product of their efforts. Only when they get this feedback will they demonstrate a willingness to take risks and to persevere when faced with demands that challenge their abilities. Unfortunately, for some students school is a place fraught with failure and impossible challenges at the hands of both their peers and school personnel.

The school setting brings together many young people and places them in situations in which they must compete publicly. Students must demonstrate academic and social competence against a complex and often conflicting background of different social situations. This occurs during a time in which many children and youth are developmentally ill-prepared to meet the nature of the demands placed upon them. When a group of children is placed in a situation in which they must choose academic or social teammates, they receive feedback about their competence and popularity with their peers. Given the competitive nature of our society, it is only natural that a child's ability level will affect his or her desirability as a teammate. It is not the occasional episode of being selected last, but rather the repeated pattern that leads to feelings of inadequacy or incompetence.

Students who are most vulnerable to failure are often disparaged not only by their peers, but also by their teachers. Children like Cynthia are sometimes subjected to embarrassment and humiliation by those who should promote their success. By means of repeated social feedback, behavioral reprimands, and academic corrections, these students get the message from both their peers and their teachers that “whatever we do in school, you do not do it well:” Repeated experiences of this message will leave the student feeling inept, vulnerable, and angry.

Is it any wonder, then, that some students would rather engage in inappropriate behavior than appear incompetent to others? When confronted with situations in which they feel ill prepared, children may choose to engage in behavior, such as verbal or physical aggression, that allows them to save face with their peers (Walker, Colvin and Ramsey, 1995).

Power, control, and efficacy
A person's basic need for power, control, and efficacy is the “need to feel that one can accomplish things, can stop bad things from happening, and can make good things happen” (Spielman and Staub, 2000, p. 166). This would suggest that children have the need to exercise some level of self-determination. As teachers we often assume that “it is our job to teach, and the students' job to learn.” We must remember that students do not take a job in coming to school. With little or no choice regarding their selection of schools, teachers, or subject matter, students are forced to participate publicly in school-based activities regardless of their level of interest or ability. If school represents a setting in which the child does not feel safe, is rejected by others, and is provided with little opportunity to demonstrate academic or social success, then the child's inability to influence or change the situation may prove intolerable. These students are likely to fulfill their needs for power, control, and efficacy through aggression.

Violence may be perceived as a legitimate or moral behavior by children placed in a situation in which they feel trapped or threatened either physically or psychologically. In such cases, violence is seen as a way to right a wrong. Preemptive violence, aimed at removing a peer’s or teacher’s capacity to harm or belittle a child, may be seen as a form of self-help. In their attempt to feel powerful and influential, students may choose aggression as a means to dominate or humiliate others. In many cases, children who feel powerless in one situation will choose to intimidate or harm others who may or may not have had any direct bearing on the source of their own feelings of inadequacy.

It is during the critical years of childhood that individuals form most of their beliefs about safety, love, and belonging; competence; and power, control, and efficacy. We, as school personnel, play a critical role in the development of these belief systems. Because these needs are important barometers of children's personal growth, it is critical that teachers understand the basic needs that children bring with them to the classroom.

Recommendations for monitoring and intervention
The school context predetermines numerous types of interactions that can promote or exacerbate the development and display of aggressive behavior. Teachers and school administrators do not intentionally establish a school context that supports challenging behavior. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that many of the problem situations occur frequently. Honest exploration of the school social environment is the first step in taking effective action. Once educators recognize some of the variables that can trigger, exacerbate, or sustain aggression, they need to implement interventions that address these issues. In most cases, such interventions will involve a two-pronged approach. Curricular and instruction programs must be aimed at teaching strategies and skills necessary for students to meet their legitimate developmental needs. At the same time, disciplinary actions must be aimed at reducing the display of aggression.

Completing a self-study of the social context
The first step schools should take in their efforts to prevent or curb school violence and aggression is a careful self-study of their community and school context to identify the aspects that might be promoting aggression (e.g., Hawkins et a1.,1992). This self-study should include an exploration of common classroom practices and a program of frequent random observations of teacher-student interactions. Together, teachers and school administrators should review disciplinary referrals to identify their most common causes (such as insubordination), the location of frequent problem behaviors (such as stairways), and the names of students who frequently face disciplinary action of this kind. Teachers should be asked to provide information about students in their classrooms who appear to need special help to avoid academic or social failure (Drummond, 1993; Walker, Severson and Feil, 1994). Peer nomination strategies exist that would allow teachers to quickly assess their students' social status within the classroom and identify children who are often rejected or perceived as problems by their peers (e.g., Cairns, Leung, Gest and Cairns, 1995).

After school personnel identify the specific needs of the students who require special help, the nature and frequency of typical problems that arise, and the location of problem spots within their schools, they can begin to identify the programs and services that already exist to address the identified needs, and to formulate additional measures in areas that need more attention.

Monitoring and molding patterns of interaction
The interactions between a student and his or her teachers and peers constitute one of the most salient aspects of the social context of the school. Unfortunately, in many schools, the nature of these interactions is essentially ignored. This is especially true of the interactions between students and their teachers. School administrators often assume these interactions will be conducted in a professional and caring fashion. Yet too many of us can identify at least one teacher who frequently screams at students or otherwise engages in behaviors that belittle or humiliate them.

In most cases, teachers do not set out to harm children. Confronted with overcrowded classrooms, a more and more diverse student body, and the absence of meaningful support, teachers increasingly run the risk of engaging in unprofessional behavior. Schools must routinely monitor teacher-student interaction and provide the feedback and support necessary to promote success for all students. Some of the key areas which should be explored include the ratio of praise to reprimand, the equitable distribution of opportunities to respond, teacher affect, and the nature of disciplinary consequences and the manner in which they are delivered. There are a number of models for providing feedback and support which involve administrators, specialized related services personnel, and peers (e.g., Friend and Cook, 1992).

The nature and quality of peer interaction must also be monitored. Clear and consistent rules and policies should be enacted that promote desired interactions and social problem-solving strategies. Teasing, taunting, put-downs, and other behaviors that bully or ridicule others should be openly addressed. At the same time, teachers must model a respectful and caring interaction style for their students. They must call attention to prosocial behaviors that occur in the classroom and curriculum, and demonstrate in direct and tangible ways their support for adherence to prosocial standards.

Efforts should be made to identify subgroups or cliques of students who appear to support or promote antisocial behavior. Whenever possible, teachers should attempt to assign these students into peer groupings (such as cooperative learning and peer tutoring groups) with students who support and display prosocial problem-solving skills. Educators should avoid practices in which students who share antisocial beliefs and behaviors are grouped together for instruction or services, such as in classrooms for children with behavior disorders and social skills training. Grouping targeted students who display aggressive behaviors generally leads to increased aggression (Dishion, McCord and Poulin, 1999; Vitaro, Brendgen, Pagani, Tremblay and McDuff, 1999).

Attuning the curriculum to social competence issues
Many of the problems involving the display of student aggression evolve directly from the lack of high-quality instruction in the classroom. Teachers can minimize the occurrences of aggressive behavior by creating engaging learning opportunities at a level of difficulty that is appropriate for students. In order to ensure that expectations are reasonable, the students” basic skills, abilities, and interests must be accurately assessed and their learning and progress must be continuously monitored. Accurate assessment of student abilities, rather than arbitrary external expectations such as state testing, should guide the level of instruction and selection of materials. Support in the form of afterschool homework clubs, one-on-one instruction, and peer tutoring can be provided for children lacking skills necessary to succeed. Educators can uphold learning standards and fulfill requirements for grade-level content while still giving students choices regarding specific assignments and increasing opportunities for students to feel ownership and pride in their school-related activities. It is also essential to provide clear and specific directions and criteria for mastery.

Planning and delivery of instruction is the one area in which teachers have the greatest authority to enact change. While home life and community circumstance are outside our realm of direct influence, the learning opportunities provided at school are within our control. Teachers can monitor themselves by audio- and videotaping their own teaching, reflecting on their practice, and seeking feedback from peers and administrators. Continuing education, in-service training, and familiarity with the most recent research regarding best practices can all support continuing professional development.

Strategies for minimizing the incidence of aggression can be brought explicitly into the teaching plan. Some children need direct instruction in strategies to address the social problems that arise throughout the day, and some will need practice and meaningful feedback as they attempt to use these new strategies. Many classroom teachers use circle time or class meetings as a forum for exploring behavior. Specific social skills curricula are available for the primary through secondary level (Quinn, Mathur and Rutherford, 1995).

Teachers can and should utilize the regular curriculum as an occasion to discuss prosocial behavior, personal responsibility, and issues of citizenship within the broader community. Children's literature, social studies, and community service projects provide a good background for such discussions. The use of cooperative learning and other peer-directed group activities allows students to engage in active learning while at the same time honing necessary interaction and social competence skills. These activities also provide opportunities for students to form new friendship groups and mutual understandings based on shared experiences and goals.

Retooling disciplinary policies
In recent years, significant attention has been paid to schoolwide discipline policies and practices. School districts have been quick to adopt zero-tolerance policies. Schools also often employ a uniform code of conduct delineating specific responses to various offenses. Some researchers question the effectiveness of such policies (e.g., Skiba and Peterson, 1999) and suggest that their value is more as a symbol of a get-tough mentality. “Despite the currently popular rhetoric about “getting tough” with troubling students and bringing the role of schools “back to basics”, schools are part of an increasingly complex and diverse society, and must respond to the varied needs students inevitably bring with them” (Braaten, 1997, p. 48).

Because behaviors such as aggression serve multiple functions for children, the very same surface behavior, such as threatening the teacher, could help one student escape a specific assignment while helping another student gain affiliation with a peer group. If the standardized consequence were to send the child to the office, then one child might be effectively disciplined (by being denied access to the desired peer group), while the other’s behavior would be reinforced (the assigned task is avoided).

The 1997 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) support the use of a functional assessment of any behavior by a child that interferes with the child's learning or that of his or her peers. Working from the assumption that the need underlying even a problematic behavior is legitimate, a functional assessment of behavior employs a series of techniques to identify the purpose of the behavior for the given student. Consequences and interventions are then developed to promote more desirable means for the child to meet those specific needs. Functional assessment should be used for all students to ensure that discipline strategies take into account student characteristics as well as the particular context of targeted behaviors. Typically, the resulting intervention plans would employ positive behavioral supports to promote the student’s use of the desired behavior and would remove support for undesired behavior. These interventions often would require school personnel to learn strategies for supporting alternative responses and would require changes in the social context in order to support the desired change in student behavior. This could include changes to the teacher’s behavior.

In an effort to develop alternatives to punishment, some schools have begun to adopt the concept of instructional consequences. In response to undesired behaviors, students are given an opportunity to engage in direct instruction or practice of a desired alternative behavior. For example, some high schools have chosen to engage students in a 3-day intensive anger-management program in lieu of a 3-day suspension for fighting. Students learn new ways to deal with conflict and gain the opportunity to practice these new skills within a structured environment. Schools often call upon the local police department, mental health services, or other community resources to help deliver these types of programs. In this way, schools and communities learn to work together and to share the responsibility for addressing aggression and violence in children and youth.

Achieving safe schools
Many schools have expended considerable funds and effort on implementing programs designed to improve school safety and reduce the risk of violence and aggression. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these efforts (such as social skills training and increased security measures) are aimed at serious, but relatively rare, forms of these behaviors. Many common forms of aggression, which go unchecked within the school context, greatly affect the quality of some children's educational experience. Moreover, the presence of these frequently overlooked types of aggressive behaviors undermines the effectiveness of the programs that are designed to reduce violence and aggression.

Educators must be willing to adopt overt procedures to identify those students for whom current programming is not adequate, as well as those aspects of the social context that may serve to exacerbate this inadequacy. Schools will need to adopt procedures that promote an open examination of the social interactions (teacher-student and peer relationships) that take place within this setting. Effective instruction promoting academic success is an important ingredient in programming to reduce aggression in children. Educators must realize that aggressive acts often effectively serve to meet legitimate needs of the child. School discipline policies, therefore, must be designed not only to reduce undesired behavior, but to promote the display of socially appropriate alternative responses. The adoption of such policies could serve as a major impetus for true school reform and for the promotion of both academic and social success for all students. They might have made Cynthia’s experience in Mrs. Jones' class quite different, as the following scenario illustrates:

Mrs. Jones smiled as she welcomed each of her students to class. As they entered the room, she made a mental note of how she would make today a positive experience for each child. When Cynthia entered, Mrs. Jones knew that today would be a special day for the student. Cynthia was of particular concern because she was having trouble making friends. She had stayed after school the afternoon before to participate in “homework club”, a new program that provides a quiet, welcoming place for students to work with adult support and assistance. Recently, Mrs. Jones observed Cynthia’s growing confidence in her creative writing. Mrs. Jones intended to give Cynthia an opportunity to shine in front of her peers by having her read one of her stories in class. At homework club, Mrs. Jones asked Cynthia to practice reading the story. She knew that it would be a challenge for her quiet student, but she also felt that the experience would help build her confidence. After Cynthia successfully read her story, Mrs. Jones led the class in a round of applause and facilitated a group discussion. When the students began work on their own writing, Mrs. Jones made a point of privately telling Cynthia how proud she was of her. During the cooperative editing time, Mrs. Jones noticed Natasha, one of the more popular students, approach Cynthia and ask if Cynthia would read Natasha’s own story.


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This feature: Grant, S.H. and Van Acker, R. (2000). Do schools teach aggression? Recognising and retooling the interactions that lead students to aggression. Reaching Today’s Youth, 5, 1. pp. 27-32.

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