Aggression and Violence: Factors Related to Their Development

by Rick Van Acker

Violence and aggression defined

Violent behavior, typically, includes serious and extreme behavior that is intended to cause physical harm to another person or property. Aggression, on the other hand, refers to behavior that is less extreme. Aggression can be physical or verbal in nature, and is intended to cause physical, psychological, or emotional harm.

Violence and aggression perpetrated by and towards children has demonstrated an alarming increase. This is especially true for children between the ages of 12 and 15. Moreover, the lethality of this violence and aggression has shown a drastic increase.

Factors related to the development of aggression and violence

The development of chronic aggressive and violent behavior is complex and appears to involve the interplay of multiple risk factors. These include individual factors such as genetics, or physiological abnormalities. Factors related to family functioning, peer associations, and the community in which the child resides, however, probably account for the greatest variation in the learning and expression of aggression and violence.

Five specific conditions have been shown empirically to be most conducive to the learning and maintenance of aggression.

  • The child is provided many opportunities to observe aggression.
  • The child is the object of aggression.
  • The child is given few opportunities to develop positive affective social bonds with others (including the teachers and peers at school).
  • The child is reinforced for his or her own aggression.
  • The child associates with other individuals who engage in and encourage aggressive and violent behavior.

These conditions support the acquisition of attitudes, beliefs, expectations and emotional responses that support, tolerate, and promote the use of violence and aggression.

The importance of early intervention in dealing with aggression and violence

If we examine the ages at which children and youth begin to display serious aggressive and violent behavior, we can clearly identify two distinct pathways. Children who demonstrate noncompliance and aggressive behavior very early in their development represent the first and most serious pathway. For many of these children, aggressiveness becomes a relatively stable behavioral response between 4 and 9 years of age. There also exists a higher probability that these individuals will continue their aggressive and violent behaviors well into adulthood. An estimated 5 to 8% of males and 3-6% of females display this pattern of development.

The second pathway, involving the greater number of youth is characterized by time-limited violence and aggression displayed during adolescence. Aggressive and violent behavior is relatively common among adolescents. Estimates suggest that between 20 and 40% of males and 4-15% of females report participating in one or more serious acts of violence. Typically, youth begin to initiate these aggressive and violent behaviors following 12 years of age with the highest risk for initiation between 15 and 16 years of age. Participation in aggressive and violent behavior for the vast majority of these youth, however, drops dramatically after age 17. Thus, for most of these youth, violent and aggressive acts represent a behavioral repertoire that begins and ends within the adolescent years.


Schools must begin to provide intervention services to help prevent the development of serious aggressive and violent behavior during the early years of a child's school career and continue intervention throughout the developmental years. Efforts could be provided at two distinct levels. Primary intervention programs, including general emotion recognition, anger management, and conflict resolution strategies could be provided for all children in the school. More intensive prevention and treatment programs, perhaps involving family members, should be developed and delivered to students specifically identified as at-risk for the development of serious antisocial behavior. This latter type of intervention is dependent upon the reliable and valid identification of students at-risk for the development of aggression and violence.

Rick Van Acker, Ed. D. is an Associate Professor of Education and Special Education Chairperson at the University of Illinois at Chicago. This material was presented at the T/TAC sponsored Conference, Challenging Behavior: Making our Schools Safe Again, May 1, 1997.