With more than 3 million students victimized by bullying each year in the United States and tens of thousands skipping school every day to avoid it, educators across the country are launching programs to reduce aggression. Unfortunately, many of today’s aggression reduction efforts are disappointing.
A first-of-its-kind study from the University of Washington College of Education provides new insights into the individual and group norms that can predict different forms of aggression, offering guidance for schools to craft more effective intervention efforts.
While retaliation for being bullied is understandable, it can backfire says Karin Frey, research associate professor of educational psychology and lead author of the recently published article “Individual and Class Norms Differentially Predict Proactive and Reactive Aggression: A Functional Analysis” in the Journal of Educational Psychology. Frey said those skilled at bullying (also known as proactive, reward-based aggression) often use retaliation as a pretext to justify and escalate their attacks.
In their study, researchers surveyed students in grades 3–6 from 35 classrooms to determine each classroom’s beliefs regarding aggression and observed the students’ playground behavior on a second-by-second basis.
Students whose personal beliefs strongly endorsed retaliation committed one additional act of proactive aggression per hour on the playground, researchers found, compared to students who did not endorse retaliation. Meanwhile, students in classrooms with strong support for retaliation committed one additional act of reactive (defense-focused) aggression every 20 minutes compared to students in classrooms with less support for retaliation.
Frey noted that peer encouragement of retaliation creates a highly arousing context that impulsive children, those most prone to reactive aggression, find difficult to resist.
“Impulsive aggressors are often reacting to injustice—the more they are harassed or oppressed by classmates, the more dysregulated and disruptive their behavior is likely to be,” Frey said. “It is unrealistic to expect them to be able to improve their self-regulation if they are denied a fair and inclusive social milieu.”
Frey said some aggressors—those referred to as proactive, instrumental or predatory aggressors—are social leaders. Many have attractive social skills which enable them to use aggression to their benefit and often elude detection by teachers.
Meanwhile, reactive or impulsive aggressors are often victimized by others, due to their difficulty controlling their emotions.
“Emotion regulation is far more difficult if you are the frequent target of bullying, discrimination or harassment,” Frey said. “Reactive aggressors are often disruptive, but desperate for acceptance by peers. Some aggressors show both predatory and impulsive aggression. These kids have very poor self-regulatory ability, and are the most highly victimized kids in school.”
Because impulsive aggressors seek acceptance, Frey said, they are responsive to social norms.
“This can be in constructive or destructive directions, depending on the classroom norms,” she said. “Impulsive aggressors often respond positively when teachers establish inclusive classroom norms and foster self-regulatory skills.”
At the same time, socially successful, proactive aggressors are determined to keep their social status and privileges. They like to be leaders, Frey said, and are not easily influenced by social norms—unless there is something in it for them.
Frey said the team’s findings point to the need for intervention programs to address students’ self-regulatory skills as well as social norms that support effective nonaggressive responses.
“Every child needs to believe that justice and inclusivity is of the highest priority,” Frey said. “This shapes classroom norms in a way that empowers non-aggressors. It also gives impulsive aggressors hope that efforts to regulate their own behavior and avoid aggression will be useful. In this context, they are often responsive to teacher efforts to foster self-regulatory skills.”
Frey noted that cooperation is higher and aggression lower when resources and power are equitably distributed in a classroom.
“These norms may also signal to proactive aggressors that harassment of others will have fewer benefits,” she said. “Providing positive social leadership roles for these students, while being alert for their aggression and manipulation of classmates, is essential.”
Karin Frey, Research Associate Professor of Educational Psychology
Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications