Public Release: 

Psychologists identify best aggression-prevention programs in schools

Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

Philadelphia, Pa.--In one of the first studies ever to compare existing school-based aggression prevention programs across the nation, researchers from The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia found that targeting programs to kindergarten and young elementary school students, focusing on aggression in girls as well as boys, and conducting programs in naturalistic settings like playgrounds are key factors in the success of aggression prevention in schools.

"As many as 30 percent of school-age children are repeatedly teased, threatened, or attacked by their peers. We often think of school violence as fist fighting between high schools boys, but in reality, aggressive behaviors begin to express themselves at a very young age and occur almost as frequently in girls as they do in boys," says Stephen Leff, Ph.D., psychologist at Children's Hospital and principal investigator of the study. "By defining aggression broadly to include both physical aggression and relational aggression (gossiping, threatening to exclude from the peer group), effective aggression prevention programs are better able to target both boys and girls and focus on the everyday acts of aggression that occur on school playgrounds and that can lead to more serious violence in later years."

In an article in the October issue of School Psychology Review, the Children's Hospital research team reviewed 34 school aggression prevention programs throughout the nation. The five most promising programs were then carefully evaluated on criteria including research design and outcome evaluation. Through this evaluation, researchers were able to identify strengths and limitations of existing programs and to determine best practice for successful aggression prevention programs.

Dr. Leff and his colleagues offer the following suggestions for designing and evaluating successful school-based aggression prevention programs:

-- Define aggression broadly
Aggression should be broadly defined as "any action taken by a child that inflicts bodily or mental harm upon another child." Because there is increasing evidence that daily school-yard aggression can develop into more serious aggression and violence, programs must strive to better understand, control and decrease the everyday bullying and victimization that occurs in schools.

-- Focus on prevention and early intervention
Because of the link between early, mild forms of aggression, and later, more serious acts of violence, prevention and early intervention programs should target pre-school and elementary school-age children. The programs should focus on teaching young children prosocial behaviors, anger management skills, and respect for peers and adults.

-- Target young girls
Recognizing and understanding different types of aggression, allows programs to be adapted to suit the need of both boys and girls. Girls more commonly express "relational aggression" including gossiping and excluding or withdrawing friendships when angry, while boys are more likely to engage in acts of physical aggression.

-- Be culturally sensitive and foster collaboration between schools, families and neighborhoods
Aggression prevention programs should be developed in a manner that is responsive to the specific needs and values of the school and its surrounding community. Location of school, cultural background, language barriers and ethnic issues all must be considered to ensure the most culturally appropriate program.

-- Emphasize positive social behavior
The overall goal of aggression prevention programs is to replace aggressive and violent behavior with pro-social behaviors. Programs should emphasize positive role models, building social skills, problem solving and anger management. The use of innovative tools like peer-peer partnerships, educational videos and role-play also increases the success of programs.

-- Incorporate strong research component
Promising programs should have the ability to measure outcomes using a rigorous research design, use standardized treatment procedures and gather feedback from a variety of sources, including students, teachers, and families.

-- Conduct programs in naturalistic settings
Most aggression prevention programs are conducted in the classroom, while the majority of aggressive acts occur in the unstructured school settings, such as on the playground, in the lunchroom or in the hallways. Successful programs should be adaptable to playgrounds and other naturalistic settings.

-- Evaluate long-term effects
Evaluating both short-term and long-term effects on children in aggression prevention programs allows program designers and facilitators to adapt and improve structure and maximize the long-term benefit to program participants.

"Our hope is that studies like this one will help school personnel identify which types of prevention programs are available for implementation, what the important factors are to consider when modifying a prevention program for one's particular school, and what will best help our nation's children deal with their aggression before it leads to something more serious," says Dr. Leff.

Founded in 1855 as the nation's first pediatric hospital, The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia is ranked today as the best pediatric hospital in the nation by a comprehensive Child Magazine survey. Through its long-standing commitment to providing exceptional patient care, training new generations of pediatric healthcare professionals and pioneering major research initiatives, Children's Hospital has fostered many discoveries that have benefited children worldwide. Its pediatric research program is among the largest in the country, ranking second in National Institutes of Health funding. In addition, its unique family-centered care and public service programs have brought the 381-bed hospital recognition as a leading advocate for children and adolescents from before birth through age 19.

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