Youth Aggression and Violence: Risk, Resilience,
and Prevention. ERIC Digest.
by Christle, Christine A. - Jolivette, Kristine - Nelson, C. Michael
Contrary to what might be concluded from media reports, statistics show
that youth aggression and violence is decreasing, particularly in schools
(U.S. Department of Education, 2000). Although multiple victim homicides
in schools have increased, schools are the safest places for children to
be (Leone, Meyer, Malgren, & Misel, 2000). In fact, rates of aggressive
and violent behaviors are about the same for students with disabilities
and those without (e.g., Cooley, 1995). The issue of youth aggression and
violence has been pushed to the forefront with the recognition that prevention
is the most effective strategy for reducing youth aggression and violence.
RISK FACTORS FOR AGGRESSION AND VIOLENCE
No single factor can predict who is likely to engage in aggressive and
violent behavior, but longitudinal studies have established developmental
pathways that lead to antisocial and delinquent behavior, which includes
patterns of aggression and violence.
Hyperactivity, limited attention span, restlessness, risk-taking, poor
social skills and certain beliefs and attitudes (e.g., the necessity of
retaliation), appear to favor the development of delinquent behavior. In
addition, students with certain disabilities (e.g., emotional disturbance,
attention deficit-hyperactivity disorders, specific learning disabilities)
are more likely to display antisocial behavior, suggesting that these conditions
may be risk factors for later aggressive and violent actions (Leone et
Conditions in the home--harsh and ineffective parental discipline, lack
of parental involvement, family conflict, parental criminality, child abuse
and/or neglect, and rejection--also predict early onset and chronic patterns
of antisocial behavior (McEvoy & Welker, 2000). When these conditions
are present, children may be "literally trained to be aggressive during
episodes of conflict with family members" (Forgatch & Patterson, 1998,
Influences in the school and community also help establish enduring
patterns of aggressive and violent behavior. School factors include low
school involvement, academic and social failure, lack of clarity and follow-through
in rules and policies, poor and/or inconsistent administrative support,
and few allowances for individual differences. In addition, disciplinary
practices in many schools are inconsistent and inequitable (Skiba &
Peterson, 2000). In spite of IDEA requirements, a disproportionate number
of students with disabilities and students from diverse backgrounds are
subjected to such punitive consequences as suspension.
Some communities lack features that help to prevent antisocial lifestyles,
such as before- and after-school programs, recreational opportunities,
and adult mentors. In addition, the absence of emotional or financial support
(e.g., friends, employment) may lead to efforts to gain such support through
Despite evidence that it is environmental characteristics interacting
with intra-personal characteristics, rather than internal characteristics
of children alone, that shape patterns of aggressive behavior, some people
advocate "profiling," the practice of identifying potentially violent children
through their psychological characteristics. A recent Federal Bureau of
Investigation report cautioned, "trying to draw up a catalogue or 'checklist'
of warning signs to detect a potential school shooter can be shortsighted,
even dangerous. Such lists, publicized by the media, can end up unfairly
labeling many nonviolent students as potentially dangerous or even lethal"
(O'Toole, 2000, p.2). A more effective approach is to identify factors
that contribute to resiliency in the presence of risk factors, and use
these in creating strategies for prevention.
Many youth who are exposed to risk factors do not display aggressive
and violent behaviors. Certain protective factors appear to account for
this phenomenon. Often, these factors are described in terms of resiliency--the
ability to recover strength and spirit under adversity on both internal
(self) and external (family, school, community) factors for a positive
outcome. Like risk factors, protective factors may be strengthened through
interaction with other factors. Individual protective factors include having
a more positive view of one's life circumstances and ability to affect
those around them, as well as stress-reducing strategies. Family protective
factors include having an attachment to at least one family member who
engages in proactive, healthy behaviors with the youth (e.g., high expectations
for academic and social performance in and out of school, shared values
and morals). This individual provides the youth with a sense of belonging
and purpose for attachment to the family as well as sending the message
that the youth is valued for his/her abilities.
In the schools, both teachers and administrators can play an integral
part in the development of resiliency in youth exposed to multiple risks.
Schools help students develop resiliency by providing positive and safe
learning environments, setting high, yet achievable, academic and social
expectations, and facilitating their academic and social success. Also,
youth who belong to a socially appropriate group sponsored and supported
by the school (e.g., academic club or social organization) are less likely
to demonstrate aggression and/or violence (Catalano, Loeber, & McKinney,
The community, representing a network of social structures and organizations,
can be an important deterrent to engaging in antisocial and violent behavior.
Like an influential family member, a community mentor can be instrumental
in teaching a child strategies for avoiding trouble and interacting positively
with others (Van Acker & Wehby, 2000) and can link the school and family
for supporting and encouraging the strengths and abilities of the youth.
Other community support factors include after school employment, recreational
opportunities, and volunteer activities.
Traditionally, schools and communities have responded to aggressive
and violent behaviors with reactive strategies that are punitive (e.g.,
corporal punishment, suspension, expulsion, incarceration). These approaches
have not had good results. Widespread advocacy for such social politics
as zero tolerance and "adult time for adult crime" actually may exacerbate
youth aggression and violence and influence popular opinions that such
policies are effective when, in fact, they are not (Leone et al., 2000).
The lack of accountability and inattention to research and results has
led policy makers to advocate practices that are fashionable. Juvenile
boot camps continue to operate in several states although studies have
shown that their graduates' recidivism rates are as high or higher than
other correctional programs. In addition, transferring youth to adult jails
to protect the public may sound tough and righteous, yet studies have shown
that youth who spend time in adult jails are more likely to be re-arrested
for increasingly serious crimes compared to youth in juvenile facilities
(Mendel, 2000). In contrast, evidence is accumulating that more integrative,
proactive approaches are effective in preventing youth aggression and violence.
Skiba and Peterson (2000) suggest a number of themes that should be
included in a school's plan for preventing and responding to youth aggression
* Conflict resolution/social instruction
* Classroom strategies for preventing and responding to disruptive behavior
* Parent involvement
* Screening to identify students who are at-risk for school failure
* School- and district-wide data systems
* Crisis and security planning
* School-wide discipline and behavioral planning
* Functional assessment and individualized behavior plans.
A common thread runs through effective prevention models: instead of
waiting for undesired behaviors to occur and then reacting with harsh punishment,
educators should proactively teach the academic and social skills necessary
for success in school and life. Some of the characteristics of proactive,
instructional models for preventing youth aggression and violence are:
* Including all youth in school and community programs,
* Providing a full continuum of educational opportunities,
* Reinforcing appropriate behaviors across environments, people, and
* Promoting academic and social success, and
* Establishing partnerships that include shared responsibilities.
Through these activities and through teaching, modeling, guiding, and
reinforcing appropriate skills, schools can provide a context for youth
to learn and use appropriate behaviors instead of aggressive and violent
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students in Kansas: A report to the Kansas State Board of Education. Topeka,
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Disorders, 8, 130-140.
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what works--and what doesn't. American Youth Policy Forum, Washington,
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Quantico, VA: Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Skiba, R.J., & Peterson, R.L. (2000). School discipline at a crossroads:
From zero tolerance to early response. Exceptional Children, 66, 335-347.
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