Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

Accurate Identification of Childhood Aggression: A Key to Successful Intervention

Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

Accurate Identification of Childhood Aggression: A Key to Successful Intervention

Article excerpt

The need for early intervention with aggression extends well beyond the disruptive influence such aggression has for the classroom teacher. Childhood aggression has been found to be associated with peer rejection (Coie, Dodge, & Coppetelli,1982; Coie, Dodge, Terry, & Wright, 1991), degree of drug use in adolescence (Elliott, Huizinga, & Ageton, 1985; Simcha-Fagan, Greets, & Langner,1986), adolescent delinquency (Farmington, 1991; Parker & Ashore, 1978), school drop-out (Cox & Gunn, 1980), and adult criminality (Wilson & Herrnstein, 1985). However, many of the programs currently employed such as social skills training and contingency management are often ineffective in reducing aggressive behaviors or the negative consequence (e.g., peer rejection) of such behaviors (Bierman, Miller, & Stabb, 1987).

One possible explanation for the ineffectiveness of some intervention programs is that they fail to recognize the complex nature of aggressive behaviors or the factors that predispose children to display aggression. Traditionally, aggression has been viewed as a unitary construct with little consideration to the specific nature of the aggressive behavior. This simplistic and undiscriminating conceptualization of aggression has given rise to a one-size-fits-all approach to intervening. For example, when faced with an aggressive child, the intervention of first choice is frequently to apply contingency management techniques such as response-cost, rewards, and punishments. If that intervention proves ineffective, parents, teachers, and counselors may find themselves running down the check list of alternative strategies hoping to find one that works or simply concluding that this child is beyond help. The problem with this approach is that it fails to recognize the importance of identifying the specific type of aggression being exhibited and employing interventions tailored to that specific type of aggression.

Identifying Types of Student Aggression

Identifying types of student aggression is an essential first step to intervening. One model for subtyping childhood aggression provides insight both into the complexity of childhood aggression and the need to tailor intervention strategies to this specific nature (Brown, Atkins, Osborne, & Milnamow, 1996; Dodge & Coie, 1987). This research suggests that two distinct subtypes of childhood aggression exist-reactive aggression and proactive aggression.

Understanding the unique characteristics of each subtype may serve as a base for accurate diagnosis and may also represent the essential first step to intervention planning.

Reactive Aggression

Reactive aggression is defined as a defensive response to a perceived threat or provocation. These threats are most often viewed as blocks to the student's goal achievement and as such elicit frustration, which serves as the root of the aggressive behavior (Berkowitz, 1990; Dollard, Doob, Miller, Mowrer, & Sears, 1939). It is suggested that children exhibiting a reactive type of aggression are attributing hostile intentions or motives to ambiguous stimuli encountered (Dodge & Coie, 1987). For example, a child sitting in a crowded school bus explodes in anger when his books are bumped off his lap by another student walking down the aisle. A hostile attributional bias predisposes the child to assign malevolent intent to the other student's actions, when it may be just as plausible to assume that the chain of events was purely accidental. Because the basis for his response rests within his own personal interpretation of the event, the student's over-reactive behavior often appears unwarranted to an objective observer. In fact, many of the child's aggressive behaviors appear to occur out of nowhere. Due to the impulsive, nonmediated quality of reactive aggression, it may not be readily governed by real or perceived consequences. The following illustrates a child displaying reactive aggression. …

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