School climate can play an important role in reducing aggression among middle school students, according to an analysis of data from more than 100,000 students in grades 6-8. A group of researchers concludes in a recent issue of Youth & Society that while individual student factors play a more important role, “school environment may be especially salient in early adolescence.”
The early teenage years are “a time when young people experience changes along many dimensions in social and cognitive skills,” the researchers say.
“School environments constructed to be in synchrony with young adolescents’ trajectory toward greater independence may alleviate stress during a potentially turbulent period,” they note.
School climate factors that the study linked to lower levels of aggression are:
• Policies perceived as inclusive of students (e.g. democratic processes, acceptance of student input);
• instructional styles that emphasize understanding rather than memorization; and
• introduction of concepts of cultural diversity.
The researchers report that school-level factors in their study account for less than the 6% to 7% in variance for aggression that have been reported in earlier studies.
Among the individual student factors in this study associated with aggression are:
• Problematic coping strategies (this factor was the strongest predictor of aggression);
• hassles at school; and
• hassles associated with rejection from peers.
Not all factors associated with aggressive behaviors can be modified by schools, the researchers emphasize, so it is important to focus attention and effort on factors that are modifiable.
While school level factors were less important than individual factors in aggression, which holds the potential for school violence, a more systemic approach has the advantage of requiring less effort than implementing and sustaining individually targeted programs of behavioral change, the study says.
Among the individual factors, positive perception of the quality of school life and problem-solving skills were associated with fewer self-reports of aggression.
Other factors examined in the study–social support from family, social support from teachers, coping via support from peers and coping via support from family or adults at school–were not as strongly associated with the frequency of aggression, the researchers report.
Poor coping strategies
Proactively aggressive children have problematic coping strategies that can lead to aggression, the researchers write. Interventions to improve social behavior and decision-making have been shown to decrease aggression in previous research, the study says.
“Proactive, aggressive children tend to interpret verbal and physical aggressive acts as positive events and evidence maladaptive solutions for perceived problems,” the researchers write. “Prone to misinterpret social events and other people’s intentions, these children may turn to aggression as an appropriate response or solution to an interpersonal problem.”
Expanding these interventions into the classroom may be beneficial if the school has the resources, the researchers say. However, the researchers note that one major prevention program by the Metropolitan Area Child Study Research Group (2002) produced disappointing results with fifth and sixth graders, perhaps because the intervention, for children in some neighborhoods, came too late.
Boredom in school
Students who were bored in school and feeling singled out by teachers reported being involved in more fights. While boredom is often linked with retention issues and academic performance, boredom may also be more likely to lead to aggression, the researchers report. They add that cultural diversity programs in schools seem to be especially effective with proactive aggressive children.
“The very best school average aggressive behavior score was 1.71, less than half of the worst school average score of 3.84, suggesting that meaningful differences across populations of students in schools is possible,” the researchers write. “The value of attempting school change may be especially important for low-income students, given that social cognitive interventions vary in their impact by student age and by level of community resources, a set of circumstances that schools may not be able to rally against with focused preventive interventions.”
Self-reports of aggression
Using hierarchical linear modeling, the researchers assessed individual student, family and school predictors of aggression for 111,662 students in 198 middle schools. The study relied on student self-reports of aggression over the previous six months (e.g. hitting others, being mean to others and getting into a fight). Surveys used in the study were first reviewed by parent advisory teams at the schools. Surveys required 1 hour of class time over 2 days and were read aloud by teachers. Students were asked how often they engaged in aggressive behaviors: never, once or twice, 3-6 times, 7-12 times or more than 12 times.
“Individual and School Predictors of Middle School Aggression”, by Janet Reis, Mickey Trockel and Peter Mulhall. Youth & Society Volume 38 Number 3 March 2007 pp. 322-347.
Published in ERN May/June 2007 Volume 20 Number 5