Developing School-Wide Programs for Aggression Prevention and Intervention

by Rick Van Acker

Each and every educator has the responsibility to develop the attitudes, knowledge, and skills needed to implement programs within their classrooms and schools to help prevent and treat student aggression and violence. In spite of increased awareness on the part of educators, current school-based efforts to address aggression and violence are generally ineffective. Having examined issues related to the development of aggression and violence the lack of effectiveness of most school programs can be attributed to the one or more of the following causes:

  • Intervention programs target only one promising factor and focus on changing the individual and ignore social contexts.
  • Intervention programs are implemented too late in the developmental cycle for aggression and violence.
  • Intervention programs fail to target school factors that exacerbate the development of aggressive and violent behavior.
  • Programs fail to effectively teach desired pro-social beliefs, norms, and behaviors.
  • Programs fail to recognize differences in the types of violence and often target only one type.

The steps involved in developing a school-wide plan require teachers, staff, and administrators to pull together, as a good plan requires thought, commitment, and a certain amount of resources (human and fiscal).

STEP 1: Set a direction.

The first step is to determine a basic direction for the plan. This generally requires a review of existing programs and policies. Examination of past disciplinary referrals and suspension and expulsion data is frequently enlightening. Information can be gathered on the school climate, teacher efficacy, and cultural beliefs. This material can be reviewed with the goal of identifying student and programmatic needs. The strengths and weaknesses of existing programs and procedures can be explored. A guiding philosophy should be established along with expectations for the specific settings throughout the school.

STEP 2: Developing student supports and screening procedures.

The next step involves the development of the instructional programs to promote the development of desired behavior and to reduce undesired behavior. A general set of social problem-solving instructional programs should be put in place for all students. There is a need to promote the learning and practice of pro-social problem solving skills for all children. These skills and instructional approaches must permeate the entire curriculum. (Isolated social problem solving classes are typically ineffective). Moreover, there should be both classroom and school-wide structures to acknowledge and reinforce students who demonstrate these pro-social behaviors.

For example, many students may have few social supports in the school in the way of friends or "special" teachers. Such children might benefit from social skill training and/or teacher mentors. A school might involve students in a series of social service activities in the community in and around the school to give students a new sense of belonging and responsibility. A subgroup of students may require supports to assist them in the successful completion of their schoolwork or homework. For these students, a "Homework Club" provided after school might prove helpful. These special support services could be developed and put in place to be offered for use as students require.

Screening procedures to systematically identify children in need of these supports should be implemented. Screening efforts have the distinct advantage of being proactive in nature and allow for all students in a classroom to be assessed. Systematic screening programs allow students to be identified far earlier than traditional reactive referral procedures. Aggressive behavior patterns appear much more responsive to early intervention than programs delivered only after the aggressive patterns have become well established. Schools should implement procedures to identify those children in the school thought to be most at-risk for the development of aggressive and violent behavior. Once these students have been identified (e.g., thorough review of disciplinary referrals or thorough teacher nomination) the list is systematically explored for the types of services children need.

A number of effective systematic screening approaches have been proposed to identify children at-risk for the development of antisocial behavior. Screening should be conducted regularly, starting in preschool, to identify students showing initial signs that suggest the development of antisocial behavior. Multiple-gate procedures that employ a variety of respondents (e.g., parents, teachers, peers, observers) and that cross contexts (e.g., home, classroom, playground) should be used when possible as they help to provide the broadest perspective on the target student's risk status. For example:

  • Initially, teachers are asked to nominate and rank order students manifesting behaviors that suggest either internalizing or externalizing behavior problems (Gate 1).
  • Teachers are then asked to rate the behavior of the three highest-ranked students under each category on a checklist and a rating scale.
  • Those students whose scores on these measures exceed local norms (Gate 2) are then observed in both structured and unstructured situations. Data related to responsiveness to teacher requests and peer interactions are collected.
  • Parents also are asked to rate their child's behavioral adjustment.
  • Students exceeding age and gender appropriate norms are recommended for early intervention programs and services.

Routine screening beginning in preschool and carried out annually throughout the elementary, middle, and high school years would allow school personnel to more effectively provide for at-risk students as patterns of problem behavior arise.

STEP 3: Developing realistic and effective consequences.

The school personnel should discuss the nature of their existing systems to consequate undesired behavior. If current systems rely heavily upon suppresionary tactics, consideration of instructional consequences should be considered (especially for routine and minor school violations). The goal is to establish a system of consequences that promote student growth and development, while allowing the school setting to be safe for all students. To this end, procedures to provide staff with guidelines for the management of both minor and major behavior problems/school rule violations are needed. Additionally, the school personnel must develop a set of procedures governing the management of illegal behavior. Crisis management policies and procedures should be established.

STEP 4: Supporting and monitoring teacher behavior.

Perhaps the most important, yet most frequently forgotten aspect of a school-wide system for the prevention and treatment of student aggression and violence is a plan to monitor and support teacher behavior. The ultimate success or failure of the plan will rely upon the effective implementation of the programs and procedures.

Dealing with potentially aggressive students is difficult and can cause highly charged emotions in teachers not prepared to effectively address student confrontation. Schools have employed a variety of techniques both to support and monitor teacher behavior.

  • Teacher consultation and collaboration programs. These can be accessed voluntarily and/or through a set trigger process (e.g., on the third disciplinary referral for any given student or the fifth disciplinary referral initiated by a given teacher).
  • Voluntary or mandated in-service instruction related to conflict management and strategies for dealing with student resistance.
  • Routine audio or videotaped classroom interaction for self- or peer-monitoring and critique. (The teachers must adopt a view that teaching is a complex activity that always involves the potential for improvement).

Another important aspect of support involves continued training. Aggression and violence are behaviors that call for the teacher to remain calm and to act in a manner that protects the aggressive student, other students, and the environment. In most cases, a teacher must continue to work with a student following a crisis situation and it is critical to maintain the therapeutic relationship with the child throughout the intervention. This requires a level of knowledge and skill that dictates a high level of training and support.