little criminals

John Coie is professor of psychology at Duke University.
He has served on national task forces on violence and prevention and directs a longitudinal study of youth from age 8 to young adulthood. The study focuses on identifying early risk factors for adolescent disorders, particularly involvement in violence and antisocial behavior.

What are the best predictors of violence in a young child? Are there a core group of factors explaining the roots of a young child's violence and agression?

There are three levels of predictors of violence that play an important role in leading young children toward violent acts.

The first is the community context. Poor, high-crime neighborhoods not only add an extra element of stress to the day-to-day lives of families trying to raise young children, detracting from parents ability to give time to these children, but they set standards for behavior that encourage violent solutions to disagreements or interpersonal tension, and they promote an attitude of suspicion about the motives and intentions of other people so that kids learn to strike out first before the other person has a chance to hurt them.

Secondly, families influence violence in many ways, some of them being similar to what neighborhoods do. Some parents unintentionally "train" their children to be aversive and aggressive by only paying attention to them when they behave in these ways and by failing to respond positively when their children are socially appropriate and use non-aversive or confrontational behaviors to get what they want. In more extreme cases, serious abuse can leave some children so emotionally unstable that they react unpredictably to stress, particularly events that make them fearful or angry.

Third, there are important individual differences in young children, some of them genetically linked and some due to early traumas, especially birth traumas. Impulsive and inattentive children are difficult to rear in the best of conditions, and when family and neighborhood circumstances add to the problem, these children often are unprepared, emotionally, cognitively, and socially, for the development challenges ahead of them. This can place them on a pathway where their problems escalate and they may become successively alienated from teachers, peers and even family so that their only support is from other delinquency prone youth. This happens especially often when they attend schools with a high density of children who are equally unprepared for school.

Is there an emerging consensus on the above factors? Where do experts most strongly disagree?

There is an emerging consensus in the scientific literature for this description, although some researchers place stronger emphasis on one level more than others. The tendency to emphasize biological or environmental exclusively still exists, but most scientists recognize the growing evidence that biological and environmental factors interact and have reciprocal influences on each other.

Unfortunately, children with biologically based handicaps often grow up in the most stressful and disadvantaged circumstances, with those who are supposed to nurture and provide for them sharing similar handicaps. Rather than attending the best schools, these children often attend the least well-equipped schools.

What do we do? What are the public policy aspects of this issue? What do we know works?

We need a systematic and comprehensive social policy for identifying infants and children who are vulnerable to violence prone behavior because of these age-linked risk factors. Early identification of children (e.g., very young mothers whose health habits put their babies at risk for neurological deficits, preschoolers with serious social-emotional and cognitive developmental lags) and community based prevention programs that assist them in overcoming and compensating for these early risk factors are essential if we are to seriously reduce the number of youth who are apt to become a part of our nation's serious epidemic of youth violence.

PBS Online troubled kids | psychiatrist interview | interviews | press reaction
readings | links | join the discussion | tapes & transcripts | wgbh | pbs

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation