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June 1998


Focus on Teen Violence

Means We’re Looking Through
the Telescope Backwards

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Jason wants the truck. He pushes Matthew to the floor and grabs it. On the playground, Adam hits Michael, calls him a cry-baby and warns him not to tell.

By Johanna Brand

Kindergartens and playgrounds are violent places. Weary teachers know very well that not all children have learned how to control themselves by the time they get to school.

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 don’t learn not to hit.

Children’s aggressive behaviour doesn’t disappear if it’s 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. It’s what’s under there that’s 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 Children’s 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 CIAR’s 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 Institute’s 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 change.


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 child’s 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 the class."

For children who haven’t 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 Queen’s University. Because they are rejected, aggressive children don’t 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 negative."

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 don’t 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 snowballs."

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 Queen’s 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 can’t control their aggression drop out of school and are more likely to engage in delinquent behaviour. As parents, they can’t and don’t 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 don’t 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 last year."

But toddlers aren’t 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 programs."

Teachers are asked to do a lot, says Craig. They’re 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 Mustard’s research university without walls – is helping to develop programs to help teachers teach social skills that reduce aggressive behaviour in JK, K and Grades 1–4. In the next issue of Professionally Speaking, look for Programs That Help.