Are children becoming more aggressive?


image via Bing images – free to use commercially

When I first began teaching, we had to talk to our students about not playing “Power Rangers” on the playground, because they children were acting out the ninja-style fight scenes. In general, once they’d been talked to, they found other things to play. Fast forward to today: a group of grade 2 students are playing at lunch. The game is “Family” and each child has chosen a character, mom, dad, stepmom, baby, sister, brother. The “baby” lies on the ground, pretending to sleep. “Mom” says, “What are you, a dead baby? Get up, dead baby” and gives his legs a kick. He doesn’t respond. The “mom” grabs the baby by the legs and starts dragging him to his “room” along the ground. “Baby” gets mad, stands up and yells that he likes the “other mom” better. “Mom” hits him on the arm – he runs over to a supervisor to tell on her.

This game is not just about family – these students play many versions, whether it’s “cats” or “knights” or what have you. But each day it’s the same – grabbing, pulling, capturing, anger, hitting, tears.  These students have worked with the classroom teacher, with the child care worker, and with the principal to understand school rules, to work on using words to resolve their conflicts, and to choose games without such physical aggression. Still the same drama plays out on a regular basis.

Elsewhere on the playground some intermediate boys are playing tag – but it’s zombie tag. The one who’s “it” jumps on the back of another, making him fall to the ground. The zombie mimes twisting the boy’s head and breaking his neck. The “victim” grabs a handful of sand and throws it at the zombie – he’s actually angry now.

These observations lead me to wonder: are children getting more aggressive? We know that since the incursion of TV into our homes, it’s been suggested that violent media are affecting our kids. But there’s more to it than that, as a number of recent articles explain.

  1. Biological factors: Pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom suggests that children have a lower level of development of proprioceptive sense (our body’s ability to recognize and understand our bodies’ orientation in space and how it interacts with other objects) due to less time engaged in physical play and work. Children who do not go outside and play, lift, push, climb, run and jump have muscles and joints that don’t recognize how hard they are contacting other objects (or people).
  2. Lower verbal and/or cognitive and executive function ability: One of my personal frustrations is seeing young children essentially ignored by parents and caregivers who are involved on their phones or tablets while in the presence of their kids – pushing a stroller with headphones in their ears, or sitting at a bus stop texting while the toddler stares into space. Are kids getting less exposure to vocabulary and language learning experiences? If so, they won’t develop the language to negotiate, express feelings and resolve conflict without physical aggression. (Rick Nauert – Penn State University)
  3. Lower ability to manage physiological responses to stress – we know that kids have more stress in their lives, as a result of the higher levels of parental stress, highly structured and scheduled extra-curricular lives, social stress from social media and other reasons. If children are in a chronically stressed state their ability to use reason and logic to solve problems is reduced, and the likelihood of the fight or flight response to situations is elevated. (Rick Nauert – Penn State University)  Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s work on attachment and the maturation process ties in to this: “We need safe places to feel sad about the things in life we can not change. Without that our emotions turn to aggression.” When children don’t have a safe emotional space, with a secure attachment to a caring, mature adult, they harden to protect themselves.
  4. Media violence – as mentioned before, for over 50 years we have wondered about the link between violence on tv, in movies, music, and video games and children’s behaviour. Since most studies have been short-term, results are still inconclusive – there is a definite correlation but not clear causation. Douglas Gentile, associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University explains why he believes that video games in particular influence children’s behaviour.

“You practice being vigilant for enemies, practice thinking that it’s acceptable to respond aggressively to provocation, and practice becoming desensitized to the consequences of violence…Researchers found that over time children start to think more aggressively. And when provoked at home, school or in other situations, children will react much like they do when playing a violent video game. Repeated practice of aggressive ways of thinking appears to drive the long-term effect of violent games on aggression. “

And if you think that this only affects high school students, a study from Princeton found that  about 70 percent of children as young as nine years old report playing “Mature”-rated games (suitable for those seventeen and older), which contain the most graphic violence of all.

5. Parental separation and divorce – the Canadian Department of Justice has compiled a significant body of research that children who experience parental separation and divorce are at greater risk of depression and behavioural problems including aggression into adulthood, exacerbated by parents having a high level of conflict after the divorce.

Our children currently have access to the highest levels of instruction and intervention in social-emotional skills, self-regulation, conflict resolution, and other skills that should provide them with the tools to counter aggression. We need to continue to place a high emphasis on these skills and understandings in order to prevent our young children from carrying their aggression into adulthood.

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Reflections on “Spirals of Inquiry”

My first professional summer read is “Spirals of Inquiry: for Equity and Quality” by Linda Kaser and Judy Halbert.  Published by the BCPVPA, this book has been distributed widely in Surrey schools and I am hoping to take the framework and concepts presented into my work starting in a new school this fall.  

My first reflections are on the first four chapters of the book.  These sections provide a foundation for practices that have been proven through experience and research to have a positive effect on student learning, including engagement,motivation, achievement and success.

One of the basic tenets of the book is that teaching and learning must weave three “ways”:

1.   Wise ways, based on Canadian Aboriginal worldview and learning principles

2.   Strong ways, based on research including John Hattie’s Visible Learning meta-analysis, formative assessment and feedback, reciprocal teaching and social-emotional learning

3.   New ways, which includes innovative practices, structures and settings that account for local context, student needs, resources and challenges.

This approach resonates with me.  There are many practices and approaches that educators have seen come and go with the swing of the pendulum.  Each individual teacher chooses those that make sense to them for their own personal reasons.  And just as many are ignored or quickly discarded as fads.  By acknowledging the value of practices from the past, present and future, we can take the best of each to develop a learning environment that mets the unique needs of each student and community. 

The authors of the book are very forthright in their belief that knowledge of effective or innovative practices is not enough – and that action is a professional responsibility of all educators.  As a teacher I was usually open and eager to integrate new and effective practices into my teaching, but as a principal I do not always know where, when or how to start those conversations with teachers who seem reluctant to adapt their classroom practices to better meet student needs.  In reading this book I felt a new moral imperative to make learning for both students, staff and myself an intentional priority.

So where will we start?  I am working on that.  A few thoughts so far are:

– staff meetings that focus on learning rather than organizational details

– an “inquiry team” of interested parties that will take on our first attempt at the spiral process ( more on that to come)

– talking about our big questions and encouraging curiosity about what is going on for our students, why that might be, and developing hunches about what might make a difference.

Reflecting with purpose

20130127-102025.jpg “Being a reflective practitioner” – what does this mean? Donald Schon developed the phrase and framework in 1980s, essentially describing a process of inquiry into one’s own actions, through identifying a situation, floating hypotheses, testing them, and evaluating results. I believe I am reflective (and this blog is one of my outlets for reflection) but sometimes I feel stuck in a soup of thinking about a situation, my thoughts turning into worry or anxiety rather than assessing a way to move forward in acting to resolve a situation.

I need to reflect because I encounter problems and situations each day that are never exactly the same as previous ones. We all have a “solutions database” of answers to problems we’ve already solved (what Schon calls the “fix-it” or single-loop learning model), but I find that I can never just input a new problem and have an answer spit out at me because each situation is as unique and variable as the human beings (including myself!) that are involved. It takes time and reflection.

But wait, I sometimes say to myself, I don’t have time to think! This article by Joseph Raelin captures the high-paced trap too common in leadership and management in many sectors, including education. Our brains are capable of 50,000 – 60,000 thoughts in a day. How do we sift through and act in a way that is aligned with goals, purpose and philosophy?

Our district leadership has always been explicit that “there are very few true emergencies in education” and our site administrators are encouraged to take time to reflect. When a crying student, angry parent, or great teacher at the end of their rope with a challenging student are standing before me, however, it’s hard to slow things down.


I’m working on learning explicitly how to focus my reflections in order to achieve my purpose – not just to solve problems as quickly as possible, but to validate and support the importance of every person with whom I work. (This purpose came out of my reading of “Start With Why” by Simon Sinek and led to one of my earlier blog posts.) Here are a few steps to help with that process and make the most of my reflective time:

1) Reflect on one thing at a time. This is difficult for me when I get in the soup of everything that happens in a day. But pick one. It may encompass several situations (ie How am I managing conflict with colleagues?) or single incident (student, parent, teacher concern).

2) Reflect externally. Enunciating thoughts helps to clarify and sort them. Journal, blog, talk to a partner, colleague, or friend. This process helps to get rid of irrelevant data and begin to focus on the relevant parts of the issue.

3) Run your “celery test” (Sinek). Even though I wrote about this earlier in the year, I sometimes have to force myself to back right up to this point to work out the knots of a situation.

4) Act, test, evaluate, repeat. The reflective process is ongoing.

Doing the right thing

I wish I always knew for certain what “the right thing to do” was. Or at least 95% certain. I wish I didn’t feel like I ought to be certain, and I wish I didn’t give myself a hard time for my uncertainty.

I have been a school principal, lead learner, instructional leader, and even mentor for three years now, and all I am certain about is that my idea of what is “the right thing to do” is continuously evolving. I always have as a foundation some things I know are “right” – things that shape the core of my beliefs and principles about children and the other human beings with whom I work and serve. But along comes a situation different in details, or context,or scope from anything in my experience, and I find myself struggling at times to know what the right thing to do is. I know I’m not alone but it’s not something people in roles of leadership talk a lot about.

I know that uncertainty is a characteristic of learners. Not being sure leads to questioning, testing, observing, evaluating. Learners accept mistakes part of the process. Can I accept making mistakes in my work, accepting my responsibility to repair and learn from them? Can I accept showing my uncertaintty to others? Can others have the patience to allow me to learn through my uncertainty?

20121205-194236.jpg“Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.”
Anne Lamott

This quote from author Ann Lamott gave me some inspiration. I didn’t know much about Lamott until I read this article about her changing relationship with her teenaged son. It reminded me of the questioning, painful, and tumultuous uncertainty that comes with being human, with caring for others, and for wanting to do the right thing.

Seeing poverty in a new light

I left my reading of Dr. Donna Beegle’s “See Poverty, Be the Difference” to the end of my summer reading. I should have read it sooner so that I had more time to digest, reflect, and think about how I can apply what I’m learning to the start of a new school year. I’m starting to be able to synthesize much of what I’ve been learning about leadership and learning this summer.

Right now I’m thinking about my purpose as a school administrator – to treat each person as an important human and give them the opportunity to be important in the world. Some of the biggest challenges in my day to day work surround supporting students and their families who are living in poverty. Often these kids and their families are marginalized, stereotyped and judged as being lazy, stupid, or addicted. But there are significant structural causes for poverty. In British Columbia, according to the BC Teachers’ Federation,

“Poverty in British Columbia is structural, brought about by a low-wage market, woefully inadequate welfare provisions, the loss of low-rent housing, and discrimination. Balancing basic expenses of rent and food on limited income is increasingly difficult.?

20120815-210353.jpgI also watched, and very strongly recommend, the documentary “Four Feet Up” by Nance Ackerman. It’s a very compelling and realistic view of a child living in poverty in Canada. You can watch it here.

Here are a few of the important “aha” moments I’ve had while viewing and reading:

1. It is ultimately important for people who serve those living in poverty not to judge based on clothing, speech, or situation (ie being evicted, not having food, etc.) Poverty can be generational, or caused by a traumatic life event, and often families are working as hard as they damn well can to get by. Kids may feel a great shame in not having the clothing, food, or stuff that other kids have. Parents may as well, but they often have a sense of pride in their resourcefulness and ability to survive. Yes, they may need help to access supports and resources for themselves and their families. We may think we know best how to get that help. But we need to honour their strengths and develop the trust that will allow us to help.

2. Poverty has many characteristics of an oral-based culture, so written communication is pretty useless. Sending home a newsletter or having a beautiful website full of information is just not going to get there. “If you don’t get a response, the communication didn’t work.” This got me thinking about the amount of paper we send home to families, and how much time we spend chasing down responses. Is there a better way?

3. Children and families living in poverty often attribute their situation to personal failing. That somehow people in middle class are smarter, or better, than they are. They just don’t see opportunities as being available to them, and often in school they don’t equate effort with success – they think the successful kids are innately better or smarter than they are. When they are taught about the structural reasons for poverty, and are able to see that they are just as creative, smart, and worthy as anyone else, suddenly opportunities seem more possible. We can send these strong messages daily in our work with kids!

4. Education, to many in poverty, is not really seen as a benefit. As much as we may tell students and parents that education is important to getting a good job and making good money, at a daily level school is an additional stressor that many families just can’t cope with. And getting a job just means working really hard and still not having enough to get by. Schools need to do a better job of putting the benefits of education in a context that makes sense to and is motivating to kids living in poverty.

5. Access to quality education, proper language (middle-class print-based language) and caring mentorship are the most important keys to breaking the cycle of poverty. We have to believe in the ability of all children to learn, to move forward, and to help them be able to demonstrate their intelligence and talent. We need to believe in them until they can believe in themselves.

6. Trauma and chronic stress can be misdiagnosed as ADHD. Instead of working so hard in School-Based Team and parent conferences to get a diagnosis (which doesn’t change anything), our energy should just be put into finding and doing what works for that child. This reinforces my belief in the Collaborative Problem Solving approach developed by Dr. Ross Greene.

I know that as school starts up I am going to be taking careful stock of my attitudes, assumptions and approach in working with our students and families who are living in poverty, and continually working to live my purpose every day.