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Developing behavioral alternatives for antisocial children at the point
of school entry
The Clearing House
Authors: Hill M Walker
Authors: Annemieke Golly
Subject Terms: Elementary school students
At risk youth
The antisocial children and children at-risk who are entering the schoolhouse
door as preschoolers, kindergartners, and first-grade children are at-risk
to become dropouts and delinquents in the future. Ways to divert children
from a destructive path are discussed.
Copyright HELDREF PUBLICATIONS Nov/Dec 1999
Educators are increasingly shocked, and in some cases overwhelmed, by the
challenging behavior of some children who are now entering school. The
children are not ready to learn and are unable to cope with either the
demands of schooling or the social tasks involved in making friends and
getting along with others. Often, these children seem unaware of the negative,
destructive impact they have on others.
Many preschoolers, kindergartners, and first-grade children are routinely
displaying forms of unacceptable behavior that would have been rare just
a few years ago (e.g., assaulting teachers, bullying, sexual harassment,
physical aggression toward peers, and inappropriate sexual behavior). We
now see mature acts of deviance in younger and younger groups of our children,
partly because of the risk factors they are increasingly exposed to from
the moment of birth.
Figure I contains two brief descriptions of the sort of challenging behavior
that more and more young children are displaying toward peers and adults.
These events are akin to "behavioral earthquakes" that seem to come out
of nowhere, do considerable damage in a matter of seconds, and require
long periods for recovery. Educators and the general public frequently
ask how and why these behavioral changes are happening in our children.
Risk Factors in the Formative Years
Clearly, our children reflect the risk factors to which they are exposed
in their families, neighborhoods, schools, and the larger society (OJJDP
1995). The more risk factors one is exposed to and the longer one is exposed
to them, the greater the potential for them to have negative, destructive
effects. Our society has changed in ways that allow greater numbers of
our children and youth to be exposed to an array of risk factors in their
Family-based risk factors include weak supervision and monitoring of children's
activities, whereabouts, and peer associations; lack of discipline or the
use of harsh or punitive discipline; parents' lack of involvement in the
child's life; and family pressures that register negatively on children,
such as unemployment, alcohol and drug use, domestic violence, and child
abuse (Patterson, Reid, and Dishion 1992). Neighborhood and community-based
risk factors include such things as a high rate of crime, unsafe neighborhoods,
lack of social cohesion and familiarity among residents of a community
or neighborhood, few after-school recreation-lei sure activities for children
and youth, weak bonding to the schooling process, and lack of connection
between the school and community it serves (OJJDP 1995). School-based risks
often involve bullying and sexual harassment, the failure to learn to read
or read well, inability to achieve the social rewards and recognition that
the school offers to some children and not others, academic failure, placement
outside the mainstream, suspension and expulsion, and dropping out of school.
Each of the schoolbased risk factors can diminish the life chances of vulnerable
students and propel them along a path to delinquency and later adult
Our larger society also seems to be producing more and more "social toxins"
that diminish our collective quality of life and exert negative effects
on our children and youth; some examples are the amount and graphic nature
of media violence (news coverage, movies, TV, video games); the growing
incivility of our society; social fragmentation and alienation; concepts
of right and wrong and morality that are increasingly portrayed as relative
rather than clear-cut; alienation; and discrimination (Hughes and Hasbrouck
1996). Children and youth model what they see adults do. In the past two
decades, our society has provided very poor models for its children and
youth and seems to have suffered a diminished capacity to raise and socialize
Collectively, these risk factors are producing children and youth who (a)
see violence as a viable means of solving problems, (b) don't respect the
rights of others, (c) are not socially responsible, (d) have not been taught
basic manners and social conventions, and (e) don't value human life as
they should. Many children exposed to those factors develop highly antisocial,
aggressive, and disruptive behavior patterns, which they bring with them
to school. That usually proves to be a disaster for their school careers
and for those who must deal with them. Such children often have very atypical
views about standards governing appropriate behavior and accepting
for their actions.
Preschools and elementary schools, in particular, are not equipped or set
up to deal with students like these. Typically, teachers at that level
have not been trained to manage extreme forms of out-of-control behavior.
Even when such children improve their behavior and develop the potential
to become more socially effective, the reputations they have acquired among
their peers and teachers sometimes create a barrier to adults' seeing and
accepting the positive changes that have actually occurred (Hollinger 1987).
That, in turn, causes the antisocial child to conclude that positive change
may be hopeless and not worth the effort.
Around grade four or five, these students begin gravitating to each other
because they are rejected by everyone else (see Patterson, Reid, and Dishion
1992). At that stage, they bond into a deviant, disruptive peer group,
which further distances them from normal social networks and activities
as well as normative standards of behavior. Further, they are often assigned
to self-contained, alternative settings where they run the risk of being
pejoratively labeled and sometimes stigmatized. Many, perhaps a majority,
of these children become chronic discipline problems, attend school erratically,
and, by middle school or early high school, start committing arrestable
offenses (Walker, Colvin, and Ramsey 1995). Dropping out of school becomes
a real possibility for them.
Diverting Children from a Destructive Path
There is hope for such students, but it requires an early and continuing
investment by schools and families, principally teachers and parents. The
entry into preschool or elementary school provides one of the first
we have to address the social-behavioral problems of students, some of
whom will be severely at-risk. If we intervene effectively and consistently
at this point and involve the three social agents (parents, teachers, peers)
who have the greatest influence on the developing child, the chances are
relatively good that we can divert them from a destructive path leading
to a host of negative developmental outcomes (Reid 1993).
Kazdin (1987) argues persuasively that, if we have not had an impact on
the problem by grade three or four through comprehensive early interventions,
then we are unlikely to turn the child around. In such cases, he suggests
we treat the problem much like diabetes, which, at present, cannot be cured.
That is, we should continue to provide appropriate social, behavioral,
and academic supports but recognize that we are unlikely to achieve anything
approaching a cure. That doesn't mean we should ever give up on students,
but it is a realistic assessment of what we can and cannot expect from
our efforts if we miss the developmental "window of opportunity" at preschool
or the beginning of elementary school. It is never too late or too early
to intervene, but the return on our investment is far greater the earlier
we do so.
There are three types of prevention: primary, secondary, and tertiary (see
Simeonsson 1991); each involves a different approach to intervention. Primary
prevention means doing things to keep problems from emerging. Teaching
anger management and conflict resolution, or focusing on enhancing school
readiness for everyone, are examples of universal interventions that achieve
primary prevention goals. Developing a schoolwide discipline plan is another.
If applied correctly, those interventions can reduce the likelihood of
problems emerging among all children, but especially marginalized children.
In contrast, secondary prevention requires individually tailored interventions
applied to those students who already show at-risk status when they enter
school. Individual counseling and the design of special, one-on-one behavior
management programs are examples of those types of interventions. Finally,
tertiary prevention strategies involve intensive intervention approaches
that are characterized as "wraparound" and that are applied to the children
and youth who are most severely at-risk. Generally, students at this level
of prevention have not responded to either primary or secondary approaches.
Wraparound interventions commonly require a case manager who coordinates
services and support among families, schools, and social service agencies.
We recently developed a secondary prevention program, called First Step
to Success, which is designed for remediating antisocial behavior patterns
among kindergartners who are at-risk.' Produced through a four-year grant
(1992-96) to the senior author from the U.S. Office of Special Education
Programs, the program was developed, evaluated, and packaged in its final
form via a cooperative arrangement among the University of Oregon, the
Eugene School District 4J, and the Oregon Learning Center. First Step to
Success has three components: (1) a universal screening procedure to identify
children showing the early signs of antisocial behavior, (2) a school
to teach the child at-risk an adaptive behavior pattern for achieving school
success, and (3) a home component in which parents are enlisted as partners
with the teacher and school to teach the child the social skills he or
she needs to be successful in school. The program requires approximately
two to three months for implementation, and the child is monitored after
the completion of the program in order to preserve behavior gains.
Systematic evaluation of the program indicates that it has a powerful effect
on the target child's school adjustment and acceptance by teachers and
peers (see Walker et al. 1998 for technical details on the program's outcomes).
Parents, teachers, and kindergartners who have participated in the program
have been very positive about their experiences. First Step to Success
was featured in an October 1995 20120 segment of ABC News on teaching emotional
intelligence and in the 10 March 1999 issue of Newsweek in an article by
Sharon Begley on family breakdowns that lead to violent and destructive
It must be concluded that we are now beginning to reap the bitter harvest
of our failure to nurture our children safely and effectively (APA 1993).
The antisocial children and children at-risk who are entering the schoolhouse
door today are tomorrow's dropouts and delinquents. As Lisbeth Schorr (1988)
has so eloquently argued, however, the ability to turn things around is
still within our reach.
Two Children At-Risk
THE CASE OF TESS
Tess was a bright, five-year-old kindergarten student in a class with twenty-six
other children. She talked back to adults, did not follow directions, bossed
other students around, and threw tantrums when she did not get her way.
Tess's behavior was particularly exasperating because of her well-developed
language skills. One day, while throwing a tantrum, she blurted out, "Why
don't they send these teachers back to college and teach them how to really
On another occasion, when her teacher asked the class to line up, she refused
to get out of her chair, wrapped her legs around it, and clung on to her
desk screaming, "You can't make me go anywhere."
Needless to say, Tess caused her teacher and parents a lot of grief. As
a result of her obnoxious behavior, Tess was strongly rejected by her peers.
THE CASE OF DANNY
Danny was a fourth grader who became angry very easily He would fight with
other children on the playground and used his aggression to get his way.
He was a classic bully One day on the school bus, he got into an argument
with another student and began to fight. When the bus driver told him to
stop, he actually threatened the bus driver.
The driver stopped the bus and telephoned the school to say she was returning
because it wasn't safe to drive while Danny was fighting. When the school
bus returned to school, his teacher went onto the bus and asked Danny to
get off. He refused. The principal and the teacher had to then physically
remove him from the bus. Once off the bus, Danny broke free and ran to
a nearby shopping center. When he was finally caught and returned to school,
he threw a tantrum in which he called the principal and teacher names and
broke a window.
1. For more information on the First Step to Success program, contact Annemieke
Golly, Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior, 1265 University
of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon 97403-1265; tel. 514-346-3582.
American Psychological Association (APA). 1993. Violence and Youth: Psychology's
response. Washington, DC: APA.
Children First for Oregon. 1996. Report card on the status of children
in Oregon. Portland, OR: Children First for Oregon, 921 S.W. Morrison,
Suite 418, 97205.
Hollinger, 1 1987. Social skills for behaviorally disordered children as
preparation for mainstreaming: Theory, practice and new directions. Remedial
and Special Education 8(4):17-27.
Hughes, J., and J. Hasbrouck. 1996. Television violence: Implications for
violence prevention. School Psychology Review 25(2): 134-51.
Kazdin, A. 1987. Conduct disorders in childhood and adolescence. London:
Sage. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). 1995.
Guide for implementing a comprehensive strategy for serious, violent and
chronic juvenile offenders. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice
and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Department of Justice.
Patterson, G. R., J. Reid, and I Dishion. 1992. Antisocial boys. Eugene,
Reid, J. 1993. Prevention of conduct disorder before and after school entry:
Relating interventions to developmental findings. Development and
Schorr, L. 1988. Within our reach: Breaking the cycle of disadvantage.
New York: Doubleday.
Simeonsson, R. 1991. Primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention in early
intervention. Journal of Early Intervention 15:124-34.
Walker, H. M., G. Colvin, and E. Ramsey. 1995. Antisocial behavior in school:
Strategies and best practices. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole. Walker,
H. M., K. Kavanagh, B. Stiller, A. Golly, H. H. Severson, and E.
G. Fell. 1998. First Steps: An early intervention approach for preventing
school antisocial behavior. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders
Hill M. Walker is co-director of the Institute on Violence and Destructive
Behavior director of the Center on Human Development, and a professor of
special education, all at the University of Oregon, Eugene. Annemieke Golly
is a teacher educator, behavioral consultant, and First Step to Success
Coordinator Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior, University
of Oregon, Eugene.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner.
Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.
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