Within the past decade, there have been numerous horrific incidents in the one place where children should feel safest; their schools. School shootings are undoubtedly tragic, and it leaves many questioning where this brutal violence is coming from. Just since 2013, over 200 school shootings have occurred in the United States (Everytown Research, 2017). Some of these shootings are reported as being accidental, while many report the perpetrator was intentionally attempting to cause harm. The accessibility and availability to guns is a contributing factor as to why these tragedies occur, but the focus of this blog will mostly be shifted towards the psychological reasoning behind violent and aggressive behavior.
Aside from shooting-related incidents in schools, violence is also present in bullying and cyberbullying. In general, bullying involves the use of physical violence while cyberbullying typically relies on psychological harm. Bullying itself is a violent behavior that is frequently exhibited in aggressive students, but can also lead the victim of the bullying to engage in self-harm or in some cases commit suicide. Cyberbullying has already claimed the lives of many innocent children and adolescents. With stakes as high as the safety of children’s lives, it is critical that we figure out what is going on in order to reduce violence in schools, and ultimately protect the students in attendance.
Aggressive behavior in children and adolescents is an issue that has been comprehensively studied. There are many possible explanations as to why young people display aggression, but intrapersonal and interpersonal variables must both be considered (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). An individual’s experiences within their home, school, family, community, and peer groups are all factors that contribute to how their behavior is formed. Biological influences, including temperament, are also important to consider when studying an issue such as aggression. The interactions between all of these factors provide the most thorough and accurate explanations for the causes of violent behavior. Researchers rely on this multilevel approach in order to understand the psychological development of aggression.
The environment that is created in a school setting is very significant in how the students attending that school behave. Moral climate is a term that explains how a student’s understanding of the appropriateness of aggression is formed by the beliefs of their classmates and teachers (Schneider et al., 2012). In other words, students learn what is considered appropriate regarding aggression by their pupils and teaching authorities. If a particular class has a very submissive teacher that allows for aggressive behavior with little punishment, as well as having aggressive students, remaining individuals will likely act more aggressive in that class. A study by Henry (2001) sought to understand how social processes in the classroom may be influential on aggressive behavior in children. He found that children do not perceive the level of aggression by the actual aggressive behavior, rather their expectations of how they should behave were associated with their own aggressive behavior (Schneider et al., 2012). Students were also motivated to sustain from aggressive behavior if aggressive students were punished or unpopular. When it comes to the school environment, an individual is likely to form ideas of what is appropriate versus inappropriate regarding aggression from their pupils and teachers. This information suggests that teachers must take this problem seriously, and be consistent when punishing aggressive behavior and rewarding good behavior.
Regarding life at home, a child that is exposed to family members with a history of substance abuse, domestic violence, and other types of family dysfunction have a greater risk of developing aggression (Schneider et al., 2012). When family members engage in this type of behavior, it becomes normalized for the child that is exposed to it. The child will begin to understand this problematic behavior as being normal, therefore increasing the chance they will behave similarly. It is common that students that hit, punch, and kick other students were either abused themselves, or witnessed abuse happen to another family member. This is no accident either. These two occurrences are highly correlated with one another, and is supported by social cognitive learning theory. This theory states that a child learns behaviors through the observation of others that aggressive behaviors can result in desirable or undesirable outcomes (Schneider et al., 2012). Not only does this observation allow the child to perceive aggression as normal, but it also allows them to see potential rewards for engaging in aggressive behavior. This suggests that home interventions may be necessary for certain students that exhibit violent behavior and aggression, largely in part of their familial experiences.
The community in which a child is brought up in can also be responsible for the formation of aggressive and violent ideals. Subculture theory suggests that a community with a history of violence and aggression will continue to contain individuals that behave similarly because the individuals of that community perceive the behavior as normal (Schneider et al., 2012). This theory is also similar to social cognition learning theory, which suggests children develop an understanding of what is normal through the observation of others. Community then becomes a significant aspect of understanding aggression and how it forms. Reformation within the community may lead to positive changes regarding aggression and violence.
Now that some of the important causes of youth aggression have been discussed, what can be done to decrease violence in schools? Some suggest prevention programs be implemented that address issues such as school environment and practices, academic performance, behavior management techniques, and academic climate and expectations (Schneider et al. 2012). A student’s school environment has been proven through various studies to have direct effects on what children understand as inappropriate aggression. Increased adult supervision as well as a no tolerance policy for inappropriate aggression are both useful measures to take in helping solve this problem. Students who do not perform well academically may become aggressive out of frustration. Teachers should work especially hard with these students to ensure that they are getting a proper education, and do not feel stressed about their schoolwork to the point of becoming violent. Behavior management techniques may be useful for obvious reasons. Meaningful assemblies about the harmful effects of violence, bullying, aggression, etc. should occur at least twice during the school year, and additional information about these problems provided in classes would be beneficial as well. Students who are prone to engaging in aggressive behavior should be required to see the school counselor to work out the problem with a trained professional. By understanding the causes of youth aggression we come one step closer in reducing violence in schools, and by taking these preventative measures we come closer in hopefully eliminating it.
Everytown Research (2017). The long, shameful list of school shootings in America. Retrieved from http://everytownresearch.org/school-shootings
Henry, D.B. (2001). Classroom context and the development of aggression: The role of normative processes. In F. Columbus (Ed.), Advances in psychology research. Huntington, NY: Nova Science.
Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied social psychology: understanding and addressing social and practical problems. Los Angeles: Sage.