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.

Reading about leading

I gave my brain the month of July off. Well, most of it anyway. When I was ready, I started my summer professional reading. This summer I am focusing on leadership. I’ve been a school administrator for five years, and this fall I am going to be mentoring some new principals in our school district. It prompted me to go deeper into what I believe about leadership, and to want to learn more about being an effective leader.

Leadership is a complex subject; the public library had no shortage of choices for me. But as each leader’s style is based on personal beliefs and philosophies, I was drawn to two books to start with:

    Primal Leadership

by Daniel Goleman with Boyatzis and McKee and

    The Servant Leader

by James Autry. I know Goleman’s work on emotional intelligence has influenced my district’s work in social/emotional learning. One of my own mentors, Vince Record in the San Jacinto Unified School District in southern California, based his own work as a principal on servant leadership, and I wanted to learn more.

I started with Goleman’s book, and as much as I agree with the importance of emotional management skills in the workplace, I didn’t find the book resonating with me as much – perhaps as it was business-focused. Goleman et al list the key emotional intelligence skills, and specify specific behaviours that demonstrate each skill. I found myself trying to use this as a checklist – yep, do that, yep, do that, nope, not that one. Guess I’m not effective! While the authors stress that no one person would be strong in every aspect, effective leaders have key strengths in at least four or five. One aspect I did take away with me is the importance of emotional self-management for leaders. As important as it is to be authentic and recognize one’s own emotions, which can build social capital with staff and “clients” (in our case students, parents and community members), there is great value in remaining calm during difficult situations. This may seem obvious, and in fact it is, but I did recognize that this is an area needing some focus for me in my work.

As I began The Servant Leader, I was ready to be underwhelmed with another dry leadership book. But this, for me, was different. The six tenets of servant leadership flow from one to the other, and I realized that thisis what I do and who I am, and now through Autry’s work I can understand why it works and how to fulfill my role as a leader in my way with more purpose and focus.

I still have two books to go – Simon Sinek’s

    Start with Why

and Seth Godin’s

    Tribes.If you’ve read either of these, I’d love to know which you’d recommend I read first and why.