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February 1, 1995
Vol. 52
No. 5

Breaking the Cycle of Conflict

Troubled behavior is self-perpetuating, but there are ways educators can reclaim violent students.

<POEM><POEMLINE>Land where the bullets fly—</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Land where my brothers die—</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>From every street and countryside,</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Let us run and hide.</POEMLINE></POEM>
An urban youngster sings this corrupted version of the patriotic “My Country 'Tis of Thee.” His feelings of fear and helplessness are shared by thousands of young people. Living in environments of violence, they learn to watch their backs, not look to their futures. These are the psychological orphans, children of rage and rebellion who are forever biting the hand that didn't feed them.
Considering the scale of violence in our culture, it is surprising that citizens are so ill-informed about its causes and cures. Perhaps this is because those who shout the loudest know the least, particularly politicians who exploit the public fear of crime. Trapped in survival-mode mentality, the public wastes resources fighting delinquents instead of delinquency.
Violence is particularly threatening when it invades our schools. Since passage of the inclusive provision in the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (P.L. 94-142) in 1975, schools have had a zero reject legal obligation to educate all children, including those with emotional and behavioral handicaps. Many schools strive to create safe, inclusive environments for all students and to resocialize troublesome students. Other educators, driven by the catch phrase zero tolerance, resort to punishment and expulsion. They are assisted in this not-in-my-backyard mentality by a cottage industry of legal consultants (Walker 1993).
True, there must be consequences for school violence. School officials need the power to make provisions for students who endanger others; all students—offenders and victims alike—need the security of a school safe from violence. But, as Goodlad (1993) posits, if we cease trying to teach difficult students, we shift the responsibility for their enculturation elsewhere—and there is no elsewhere. Excluding violent students from an education is no more moral than forcing the most critical patients from an emergency room. These students need to belong somewhere.
Like the common cold, violence is hard to explain or eradicate. More than three decades ago, the two of us began our work with “children who hate,” as they then were called by our teachers, Fritz Redl and David Wineman (1957). The ensuing years have brought us into direct contact with thousands of such youths. Careers in “aggression immersion” discourage many dedicated people. At times one wants to surrender and retreat into a private cocoon. Eleanor Guetzloe, our colleague and author of dozens of publications on youth suicide, recently shifted her research focus to youth violence. She was promptly amazed at how complex this problem is compared to the more manageable task of understanding youth suicide.

Roots of Violence

Violence is behavior that violates another individual. An umbrella term, it describes a variety of destructive personality traits and antisocial behaviors. It is present in all societies, but the level of violence varies greatly among cultures. Extreme, chronic violence is a sure sign that something is awry in the child or the community. Similarly, aggression is programmed into the biological beast in all of us; in threatening situations, inborn protective mechanisms tell us to fight or flee. Violent aggression, however, is not endemic to the human experience.
Violence is a highly moralistic concept; it tends to evoke highly charged debate. The National Council on Crime and Delinquency has proposed replacing the rhetoric of moral condemnation with a preventive public health approach. While still holding youth accountable for their behavior, this orientation would clarify the origins of violence and the avenues for rational intervention (Krisberg and Austin 1993).
In this spirit, we have identified four protective factors that eliminate or curb violence: social bonds, stress and conflict resolution, cultural sanctions, and brain controls. In the absence of these factors, violence is unleashed.

1. Broken Social Bonds

The most powerful restraints on violent behavior are healthy human attachments. These originate in early relationships of parental affection and guidance. Securely attached, children learn trust, competence, self-management, and prosocial behavior. Early in this century, psychiatrists, including David Levy and Lauretta Bender, found that children reared in depersonalized orphanages developed “affect hunger” or “affectionless personality” (Karen 1994). When the social bond between child and adult was not nurtured, conscience was impaired and children did not internalize values. These unbonded children were labeled antisocial, primitive-unsocialized, or sociopathic.
Today, the orphanages are gone, but we are mass-producing hordes of adult-detached children. More families are disrupted by divorce, abuse, poverty, drugs, and other forces that interfere with normal parenting. Adults whose own lives are chaotic cannot effectively monitor and manage children's activities or affiliations. Nor can they spend time with children, teach conflict-resolution skills, or communicate consistent behavioral expectations (Walker 1993).
Historically, extended families or tribes provided social bonds. Theologian Martin Marty observes that even though parents often were too young and immature, or may have died early, the tribe carried on cultural values. Today, having lost our tribes, we rely on a tiny nuclear family of one or two overstressed parents. Schools are now being asked to become new tribes, but seldom are prepared to play this role. When families fail, however, the only alternative institution for re-education is prison.
Angry adult-wary youths do not fare well in factory schools. They gravitate to other alienated people—gangs and other negative peer subcultures, or predatory adults like pimps, pedophiles, or criminal mentors. In these “artificial belongings,” they acquire training and support for antisocial lifestyles. Relishing freedom from adult authority, they never gain true independence because they have not known secure dependence. “Nobody tells me what to do!” they shout, masking the reality that nobody really cares. Since they do not care either, their violence can be calculated and cold-blooded, motivated by money, power, status, revenge, racism, and hedonistic pleasure and aggression.
Although understanding teachers could offer surrogate bonds, these children's behavior drives most adults away. Moreover, school discipline rooted in punishment or exclusion only further estranges these students. Even specialized alternative programs seldom provide little more than what Knitzer and colleagues call “a curriculum of control” (1990).

2. Stress and Conflict

In manageable doses, stress is a normal product of living. Most children handle it reasonably well; they are resilient and thrive in spite of challenges. But others are overwhelmed and behave in self-destructive or antisocial ways.
Sources of stress abound: normal adolescent development, family conflict, poverty, the mean streets of dangerous neighborhoods. When stress is severe and prolonged, children adopt ingrained styles of defensive behavior. They may have a hostile bias toward all adults, carry a menacing interpersonal demeanor to school, and believe that respect can be gained only through intimidation.
Schools themselves are major stressors for many students. Daily, students risk bad grades, bullies, and peer rejection. Sociologists have identified patterns of “school-induced delinquency” caused by school failure (Gold and Osgood 1992). Unable to secure self-esteem in positive ways, some students seek status through antisocial behavior.
Students may harbor dark conflicts that explode in school. We recall an 8th grade boy who, for no apparent reason, battled peers and teachers for a year. Finally, the boy revealed that he was being sexually abused and threatened by an adult neighbor. If nobody had helped, stress could have become unbearable, possibly resulting in extreme violence to himself or others. Mones (1993) has worked with hundreds of severely abused children who developed post-traumatic stress disorders. Overwhelmed with fear and rage, they killed their tormentors.
Schools traditionally approach behavioral crises by demanding compliance with rules. Sometimes this works, but troubled behavior may mask problems that adults need to understand. For example: A newly enrolled 3rd grader became wild and disrespectful, resulting in almost daily removal from class. It was several weeks before the staff discovered that he and his siblings had been abandoned by their mother shortly after they moved to a deserted farm. Fearful of being separated, the children told no one and continued riding the bus to school each day. Many children carry to school each morning a stack of accumulated stressors from the night before. For them, schools need to be a refuge where their lives can be put back in balance (Garbarino 1992). Those who simply punish are often the last to discover what is causing a child's life to fall apart.
A “conflict cycle model” that Long (1990) has developed can teach professionals, parents, and students how to keep stressful situations from escalating. An aggressive student under stress creates these same feelings in peers or adults. People who are not trained to recognize these feelings will act on them and mirror or duplicate the aggressive student's behavior. For example, a youth shouts at a peer to “fuck off,” and the normal impulse is to retort “you fuck off.” Thus the conflict cycle whirls into retaliation. Long's analysis of hundreds of crisis incidents shows that most originate from problems outside of school, but escalate to violence because participants cannot disengage from confrontations.

3. A Culture of Violence

Societies placing clear, consistent, reasonable sanctions on acts of aggression do not mass-produce violent children. The United States has strong laws against violence, but they are inconsistently applied and compete with pervasive proviolence messages. Most violence is a private affair, in abusive homes ruled by petty tyrants. But America's infatuation with violence extends to the media, sports, politics, the military, and even church and school. From the O.J. Simpson trial to abortion protests to brutal rap music and talk show themes, there is no avoiding it. Even cartoons are violent, and it has been shown that children who watch them consistently are more aggressive than their peers.
We educators have a responsibility to try to stress-proof students against this onslaught. By analyzing violence in the media and the meaning of true sportsmanship, we may help inoculate children from these proviolence messages. Rather than moralizing, we should ask questions like, “Do you think this film would be damaging to your younger brothers and sisters?” The maturity that young people show in such discussions can be heartening.

4. Unhealthy Brains

With so much learned violence, educators often overlook neurologically triggered aggression. Only an intact, rational, sober brain can control angry impulses. Violence, however, is frequently a byproduct of intoxication. Mental illnesses due to neurological trauma, disease, or chemical imbalances can also cause impaired thinking and perception.
Research on young people awaiting execution for murders offers dramatic evidence of how such abnormalities foster violence: half of the youths on death row have histories of brain trauma or dysfunction.
Alcohol and other drug abuse chemically alters brain states, leading to loss of self-control, angry outbursts, and deadly violent acts. In the view of pollster George Gallup Jr., America does not have a crime problem; it has an alcohol and drug problem. A recent report to Congress tied alcohol to 49 percent of murders and 52 percent of rapes. By 9th grade, 90 percent of young people have tried alcohol and a third of 12th graders are binge drinkers. Of particular concern is the impact of chemicals on fetal brains. Babies with fetal alcohol syndrome and crack babies are at risk for later violence because brain damage can impair cognitive controls and social bonding.
Psychiatrist Robert Hunt (1993) has summarized research on the neurobiological roots of aggression. He observed that in some children with prefrontal-cortical deficits, the slightest irritation can trigger rage. People with paranoid disorders may plot revenge, setting off a predatory pattern of brain activation like that of a stalking lion. Extremely hyperactive children manifest tornado-like aggression, which passes as quickly as it begins. Hunt speculates that even psychologically based aggression can cause secondary impairment in brain functioning.
When educators suspect organic problems, their responsibility is primarily to secure appropriate diagnosis and treatment. However, in the battle against substance abuse, schools are major players. A wide range of curriculums and student service programs are available to combat substance abuse (Brendtro et al. 1993). It is crucial to teach about the fetal damage chemicals cause, and to support teenage mothers and fathers so they will succeed in the dual roles of student and parent.

Victories in Violence Prevention

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  3. Reinvention of treatment. For two decades, traditional rehabilitation has declined as public policies have reverted to punishment and removal of our most troubled and violent students. Because these strategies have failed, we are positioned for “growth-centered” treatment (Palmer 1992). Whereas older rehabilitation approaches were preoccupied with controlling deficit and deviance, new reclaiming paradigms attempt to develop strength and resilience (Brendtro et al. 1990, Guetzloe 1994). Educators cannot solve these problems alone. In new collaborations, mental health workers, alcohol counselors, and justice professionals are moving into schools for front-line prevention. By investing in counselors instead of huge security forces, schools can intervene more effectively and at less cost.
This new psychology calls for new roles for students as well as professionals. With adult-wary students, adult-dominated methods backfire. Coercion feeds rebellion and fosters delinquent subcultures. The antidote to aggression and hedonism is to get students hooked on helping. Schools that enlist antisocial students as partners in their own healing are creating prosocial adult and peer bonds (Vorrath and Brendtro 1985).
  • Attachment: Positive social bonds are prerequisites to prosocial behavior.
  • Achievement: Setting high expectations means refusing to accept failure.
  • Autonomy: True discipline lies in demanding responsibility rather than obedience.
  • Altruism: Through helping others, young people find proof of their own self-worth.
We all must make it our business to help reclaim violent students. The alternative is to discard them.

Brendtro, L., and J. Banbury. (1994). “Tapping the Strengths of Oppositional Youth.” Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Problems 3, 2: 41–45.

Brendtro, L., M. Brokenleg, and S. Van Bockern. (1990). Reclaiming Youth at Risk: Our Hope for the Future. Bloomington, Ind.: National Educational Service.

Brendtro, L., N. Long, and J. Johnson. (1993). “Alcohol and Kids: Facing Our Problem.” Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Problems 2, 3: 2–4.

Charney, R. (1993). “Teaching Children Nonviolence.” Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Problems 2, 1: 46–48.

Curwin, R., and A. Mendler. (1988). Discipline with Dignity. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Freedman, M. (1993). The Kindness of Strangers: Adult Mentors, Urban Youth, and the New Volunteerism. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Garbarino, J. (1992). Children in Danger: Coping with the Consequences of Community Violence. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gold, M., and D. Osgood. (1992). Personality and Peer Influence in Juvenile Corrections. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Goodlad, J. (1993). “The Occupation of Teaching in Schools.” In The Moral Dimensions of Teaching, J. Goodlad, R. Soder, and K. Sirotnik. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Guetzloe, E. (1994). “Risk, Resilience, and Protection.” Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Problems 3, 2: 2–5.

Hoover, J., and C. Juul. (1993). “Bullying in Europe and the U.S.” Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Problems 2, 1: 25–29.

Hunt, R. (1993). “Neurobiological Patterns of Aggression.” Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Problems 2, 1: 14–19.

Johnson, D. W., and R. Johnson. (1991). Teaching Students to Be Peacemakers. Edina, Minn.: Interaction Book Company.

Karen, R. (1994). Becoming Attached. New York: Warner Books.

Knitzer, J., Z. Steinberg, and B. Fleisch. (1990). At the Schoolhouse Door: An Examination of Programs and Policies for Children with Behavioral and Emotional Problems. New York: Bank Street College of Education.

Krisberg, B., and J. Austin. (1993). Reinventing Juvenile Justice. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage.

Lantieri, L. (1994). “Breaking Cycles of Conflict.” In Video of the National Youth Violence Summit. Bloomington, Ind.: National Education Service.

Long, N. J. (Spring 1990). “Managing Highly Resistant Students.” Perspective: 6–9.

Mones, P. (1993). “Parricide: A Window on Child Abuse.” Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Problems 2, 1: 30–34.

Palmer, T. (1992). The Re-emergence of Correctional Intervention. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications.

Redl, F., and D. Wineman. (1957). The Aggressive Child. Glencoe: Free Press.

Schneider, S. (In Press). “Young Leaders Mentoring Troubled Children.” Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Problems.

Varenhorst, B. (1992). “Developing Youth as Resources to Their Peers.” Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Problems 1, 3: 10–13.

Vorrath, H., and L. Brendtro. (1985). Positive Peer Culture. Hawthorne, N.Y.: Aldine du Gruyter.

Walker, H. (1993). “Antisocial Behavior in School.” Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Problems 2, 1: 20–24.

Wood, M., and N. Long. (1991). Life Space Intervention: Talking with Children and Youth in Crisis. Austin, Tex.: PRO-ED.

Larry Brendtro has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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