What they may not realize is that they can play an important role in changing
aggressive behaviour in a lasting way. Researchers at the prestigious Canadian Institute
for Advanced Research say that the adolescent gangs we fear in high school are born when
toddlers dont learn not to hit.
Childrens aggressive behaviour doesnt disappear if its left
unattended. At 15, Jason may pull a knife to get a jacket or Adam may be part of a gang
that beats and injures its victim. And in the 90s, it may be a Jennifer or a Brittany
holding the knife.
Adolescent violence is making some high schools into dangerous places for both students
and teachers. In the United States, schools have reported increased violence in the past
10 years, according to the U.S. National School Boards Association (NSBA). In 1994, 36 per
cent of schools surveyed by the NSBA reported that they had security personnel roaming the
halls and 15 per cent said they greet students at the door with weapons detectors.
Here in Canada, levels of violence are much lower, but extreme cases of adolescent
violence grab the media spotlight. The most dramatic recent example is the case of Reena
Virk, the 14-year-old B.C. girl who was beaten to death by teenaged acquaintances. Many
were particularly shocked that most of those involved were girls.
Social scientists say there is no clear evidence that the frequency of these kinds of
incidents is increasing, but the intensity of the violence may be on the rise.
However, some researchers stress that this kind of extreme case masks the real problem.
By focusing on teen violence, society is looking through the telescope backwards.
"If we want adolescents to show less of these behaviours, killing is just the tip
of the iceberg. Its whats under there thats much more important,"
says Richard Tremblay. "Violent teenagers were once much more violent toddlers who
did not learn to control their aggressive impulses. Most studies show that violent adults
were once violent children."
Tremblay is a professor of psychology and psychiatry and director of the Research Unit
on Childrens Psychosocial Maladjustment at the University of Montréal. He is
currently the Molson Fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.
His work is supported in part by the CIARs Human Development Program, which is
aimed at focussing attention on the importance of supports for young children and their
families. Dan Keating, director of the Institutes Human Development program says
that as a society "we are under-investing" in this area.
There is a significant social cost associated with adolescent depression and
anti-social behaviour, says Keating. It is important to understand that it is the
interventions in the early childhood years that will have the best chance of effecting
Keating says we are missing an opportunity by not paying enough attention to this area.
He points to the debate about Junior Kindergarten as an example of the lack of
understanding. For teachers particularly, the payoff comes in a childs readiness to
learn and in reduced disruptive behaviour in the classroom behaviour which has an
impact on the whole class.
Teachers may not realize that it is not just the aggressive children who are suffering,
says Tremblay. "I have the impression that most teachers do not realize that these
disruptive children are disruptive not only to themselves but disruptive to the rest of
For children who havent learned self control, the effects are felt in all areas
of their lives uncontrolled aggression is linked to poor academic performance, to
loneliness and insecurity that can last a lifetime.
Aggressive children tend to be rejected and that leads them into a downward spiral,
says Wendy Craig, professor of psychology at Queens University. Because they are
rejected, aggressive children dont get the opportunity to learn good social skills
from their better-socialized peers. "The rejected kids find each other and form
childhood gangs. They reinforce each other, teach each other how to be more
Craig believes these children have high status until Grade 3. Tremblay says the
rejection starts much earlier. "Nobody wants to play with an aggressive three or four
or five-year-old. They are rejected very early on.
"Already in kindergarten we see relationships forming among children who are
rejected. By default they associate with each other and you dont recognize them as
having delinquent gangs by age five or six. But they grow older together and by
adolescence they can roam around more freely. They can associate more freely and then it
Their victims also show up at an early age. Although less well studied, "Victims
have lower social skills and are isolated, neglected kids," says Craig.
Are girls becoming more aggressive? Some researchers say yes. But Tremblay says the
data is inconclusive, especially in relation to gang behaviour. In elementary schools, the
girls who are highly physically aggressive, compared to other girls, are still much less
so than the most aggressive boys.
In both sexes, violence is an outcome of the search for dominance and status the
very qualities that will likely elude those who cannot control their aggression.
Craig says female aggression manifests itself differently. "We are more aware of
male violence," says the Queens University psychologist. "Their forms of
aggression are more severe. There may be the same amount as in girls, but it is more
effective. They use guns and knives." Girls she has studied report high levels of
verbal and social aggression. They practice exclusion, getting back at people.
Tremblay says, "The most aggressive girls are the ones who also will fail in
school, who will be rejected by others, who are more at risk of mating with physically
aggressive boys. They are more at risk of becoming teenage mothers. Their children are
more at risk of ending up at the hospital emergency because of physical abuse."
Thus, violence can cluster in families, says Tremblay, and leads to poverty. Children
who cant control their aggression drop out of school and are more likely to engage
in delinquent behaviour. As parents, they cant and dont teach their children
self-control, leading to a continuing cycle of family violence and poverty. A person who
has trouble controlling aggression is unlikely to hang onto a job.
The research is quite clear that the cycle can be broken, if the intervention occurs
soon enough. Children may be born with different innate levels of aggression but Tremblay
believes the impact of environment is very strong. Even very aggressive children can learn
to control their behaviour, he says.
"Some children are born with a very assertive character and being brought up in
the right environment they learn to control their aggression and become very pro-social
and dynamic, useful leaders in society. But, if you have a turbo motor and dont
learn how to control it in the first few years, it becomes very hard later."
Tremblay points out that adolescents are actually much less physically violent than
young children. "When we study aggression in preschoolers we count the frequency of
incidents in the last 15 minutes. When we study adolescents we look at incidents in the
But toddlers arent threatening. "We give them plastic toys and we can
physically control them. Adolescents are much less easy to control and when they are
aggressive they are much more likely to do serious damage."
"Preschool teachers need to understand what is going on. They have an important
role and can see these aggressive children very clearly. Teachers can reach physically
aggressive children relatively easily because these children have this need for being
liked and will learn very well," says Tremblay.
"In Quebec we have been implementing a social skills program in kindergarten
classrooms in hundreds of schools and we find that teachers once they understand
that is a way of getting better classroom dynamic become strong advocates of these
Teachers are asked to do a lot, says Craig. Theyre overloaded and they feel
overwhelmed by everything they are asked to do. She adds that "teachers are not
trained in this area. This kind of training would be a good start."
The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Fraser Mustards research
university without walls is helping to develop programs to help teachers teach
social skills that reduce aggressive behaviour in JK, K and Grades 14. In the next
issue of Professionally Speaking, look for Programs That Help.