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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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.

Other People’s Problems

“Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”
Colin Powell

This quote changed the way I felt about my day today. After a whole two weeks back into our school year, I was starting to feel overloaded with, well, problems. I know that it is my responsibility to help everyone – staff, students, families, community members – to the best of my ability. That’s a core element of my servant leadership philosophy. But I was still feeling overloaded. And then I randomly came across this quote. The shift in perspective – that people walking into my office, or stopping me in the hall, or approaching me on the playground – do so because they trust me and know that I care, is something I wouldn’t give up. Ever.