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Defusing Violent Behavior in Schools

By Diane L. Smallwood and Evangeline Kern
Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine

This article is brought to you by The Public Entity Risk Institute (PERI). Visit their website: www.riskinstitute.org

Violent behavior in schools occurs in many different forms, from taunting and teasing to physical assaults and destruction of property.  Whenever violent behavior occurs at school, whether in the form of physical assault or emotional abuse, the learning process is disrupted, not only for the students directly involved but for teachers and student bystanders (Henry, 2000).  Because violence comes in multiple forms, efforts by school personnel to prevent and defuse aggressive and violent behaviors must be multidimensional and broad-based.  In educational settings, professionals can address academic and mental health factors most appropriately and effectively within a multilevel framework of prevention and intervention (Osher, Dwyer, & Jackson, 2004).  Additionally, attention should be given to ensuring that prevention efforts begin at the early childhood level and continue through secondary education programs, using developmentally appropriate strategies and activities at each level (Elias, et al., 1997). This paper describes general strategies that can be used by educators to create safe and successful learning environments.


Violent behavior in schools has many different faces.  It can be the five-year old kindergarten student who has frequent and severe tantrums that involve kicking, screaming, and breaking toys.  It can be the fifth-grade bully, who taunts his classmates and pushes them around on the playground.  It can be the group of sixth-grade girls, who gang up and emotionally harass one of the other girls.  It can be the high school student who brings a gun to school and threatens and/or shoots other students.  Although we typically associate the term violence with physical assaults, emotional violence in the form of severe teasing and harassment is often viewed by students as potentially worse and often more of a daily occurrence than the threat of physical injury (Galinsky & Salmond, 2002).

Nationally, the incidence of violent deaths occurring on school property remains relatively low; in the 2004-05 school year, there were 21 homicides and 7 suicides of children and youth (ages 5 to 18 years) at school, for a rate of approximately one violent death per two million students (Dinkes, Cataldi, Kena, & Baum, 2006).  The aggregated data, however, cannot fully capture the personal tragedy associated with the loss of even a single young life. Moreover, in addition to the reported deaths at school, students ages 12 to 18 years were the victims of well over a million nonfatal crimes within their school buildings (Dinkes, et al, 2006).

Perhaps a more telling indicator of violent behavior at school is the fact that the percentage of public schools reporting one or more violent incidents increased from 71 percent in 1999-2000 to 81 percent in 2003-04. Middle schools reported the highest rates of violence, with 53 episodes of violent crime per 1000 students compared with 28 violent crimes per 1000 students for elementary schools and high schools (Dinkes, et al., 2006).

Whenever violent behavior occurs at school, whether in the form of physical assault or emotional abuse, the learning process is disrupted, not only for the students directly involved but for teachers and student bystanders (Henry, 2000).  Aggressive and impulsive behaviors, if unchecked, have been linked to a lifetime of failure, exacting a great toll upon society.  Students demonstrating such behaviors are at risk for rejection by peers, academic underachievement or school dropout, violent behavior toward others, and performance below their potential throughout their careers, with a one in four chance of landing in correctional institutions by the age of 30 (Beland, 1997).  Aside from the immediate disruption of violent or aggressive behavior, the risk of these and other long term consequences necessitates action on the part of school personnel to establish and maintain safe and effective learning environments.

It is important to emphasize that most of the interventions described in this paper are preventive in nature. Creating environments in which learning can take place and students can feel supported socially and emotionally should be the primary goal associated with school safety.  By helping students stay in control of their emotions and actions, we can avoid the potentially tragic and costly consequences of out-of-control behavior.


Because violence comes in multiple forms, efforts by school personnel to prevent and defuse aggressive and violent behaviors must be multidimensional and broad-based.  In educational settings, professionals can address academic and mental health factors most appropriately and effectively within a multilevel framework of prevention and intervention (Osher, Dwyer, & Jackson, 2004).   Additionally, attention should be given to ensuring that prevention efforts begin at the early childhood level and continue through secondary education programs, using developmentally appropriate strategies and activities at each level (Elias, et al., 1997).

At the primary prevention, or universal, level, programs and services are targeted to the entire school population, with the goal of establishing academic, social and emotional competence in all members of the community. Examples at this universal level would include a comprehensive school curriculum using evidence-based strategies and activities that foster academic competence as well as resilience and positive skills for coping effectively with life demands.  At the secondary prevention level, services are designed for a target group of individuals identified as being “at risk” for academic difficulty or maladaptive reactions to daily stresses and extraordinary life events.  The goal at this selective level is to intervene early in order to activate learning strengths and needed social supports and to develop enhanced coping strategies.  The most intensive level of intervention is that of tertiary prevention, which provides assistance for those individuals who are showing fully developed symptoms of academic, behavioral or emotional disorders.  At this indicated or targeted level, intensive services are needed, which typically requires collaboration between school and community resources.  These individual levels are not exclusive of one another, and instead, should be viewed as parts of a system that build upon each other.  With effective services offered at the universal and early intervention levels, school-based referrals at the intensive or tertiary level should be reduced.

By coordinating programs and services at all three of these levels, schools can address the goals of (a) maximizing social, emotional, and academic competence for the entire school community, (b) intervening early with individuals who are at-risk of developing personal or educational problems or who are just beginning to encounter social, behavioral, emotional, or learning difficulties, and (c) minimizing the impact of established emotional or educational disorders.


The causes of violent and disruptive behavior are complex and often unique to the personal history of the individuals involved as well as the situational characteristics of the setting in which the behavior occurs.  Some common underpinnings of aggressive and uncontrolled behavior, however, include low frustration tolerance and poor impulse control. Coping with challenging situations and self-regulating emotions and behavior are critical to establishing readiness for all other forms of learning, and schools can play an important role in fostering the development of these skills.

In the following sections, basic strategies for preventing and addressing school-based violence are summarized.  The discussion is organized according to multiple levels of intervention, with examples of programs and practices that have been used successfully at each level.  

Interventions at the Universal Level

Prevention of school-based violence begins with building a strong schoolwide foundation characterized by supportive relationships and practices that promote protective factors for all students. Osher, Dwyer, and Jackson (2004) identified four key elements of this foundation:  (a) a caring school community in which all members feel connected, safe, and supported, (b) an instructional program that teaches appropriate behaviors and social problem solving skills, (c) a schoolwide system of positive behavioral supports, and (d) a curriculum that provides high quality academic instruction.

A thorough discussion of available programs that enable school districts to implement these four elements is beyond the scope of this paper.  A number of resources are available, however, to guide school personnel in planning and implementing appropriate programs on a schoolwide or districtwide basis.  Table 1 provides three such references, which can help get the planning process started.

Table 1
Resources for Planning Schoolwide Interventions



Positive Behavioral Support Project. (1999). Facilitator’s Guide: Positive Behavioral Support.  Tallahassee, FL: Florida Department of Education.


Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (2003). Safe and Sound: An educational leader’s guide to evidence-based social and emotional learning programs.  Chicago, IL: Author.


Osher, D., Dwyer, K., & Jackson, S. (2004). Safe, supportive, and successful schools: Step by step. Longmont, CO:  Sopris West.


The work of Beth Doll and her associates (Doll, Zucker, & Brehm, 2004) also is important as a model for creating healthy and safe learning environments.  The authors focus their attention on establishing resilient classroom environments, in which students are supported socially, emotionally, and academically.  Six characteristics of resilient classrooms have been identified, as follows:  

  • Students are able to see themselves as competent and effective learners (academic efficacy);

  • Students set and work toward self-selected learning goals (academic self-determination);

  • Students behave appropriately and adaptively with a minimum of adult supervision (behavioral self-control);

  • There are caring and authentic relationships between teachers and the students (teacher-student relationships);

  • Students have ongoing and rewarding friendships with their classmates (peer relationships); and

  • Families know about and strengthen the learning that occurs in the classroom (home-school relationships).

Specific strategies for establishing classroom routines and practices that strengthen each of these classroom characteristics are described in detail in Doll, Zucker, and Brehm (2004).

Instituting a schoolwide system of positive behavioral supports provides a set of steps to facilitate learning of prosocial behaviors, including empathy, caring, respect and responsible decision making.  School psychologists or counselors can assist in the selection and implementation of well-researched programs that will best meet the needs of a specific school context.  Schoolwide programs provide multiple opportunities to learn and practice appropriate behavioral skills and give adults and children a common language for expressing feelings and working through resolution of problem situations.  More importantly, schoolwide social and emotional learning programs offer a positive context for the more intensive interventions that might be needed in order for the most aggressive children to learn the behavioral skills that are being acquired by all students.

An additional aspect of a strong schoolwide foundation is the development of what can be considered a “safe schools infrastructure.”  This refers to development and implementation of a consistent behavioral code, appropriate discipline procedures, adequate adult supervision of all areas within school buildings, and establishment of procedures for school-based crisis prevention and response.  Partnerships between educators and law enforcement officials are an essential element of this infrastructure.

Early Interventions for Students At-Risk for Disruptive or Violent Behavior

In addition to the schoolwide foundation of behavioral supports, educators need to identify students who are displaying early warning signs of behavioral problems or who may have high risk factors that increase the likelihood of future behavioral difficulties.  Rather than ignoring challenging behaviors in young school-age children, it is important to begin to address behavioral issues as soon as they are first noticed.  The reaction does not have to be punitive in nature when misbehavior occurs; rather, discipline efforts should be viewed as opportunities for learning more adaptive behaviors. Strategies such as behavioral coaching, behavioral rehearsal and role play, daily goal setting, and self-monitoring can be helpful in teaching students to manage their own behavior and emotions more effectively.

Skill building may be an important intervention for students who are displaying aggressive and disruptive behaviors.  As part of an assessment process, an effort should be made to gain an understanding of the underlying causes for disruptive behavior, and to teach alternative behavioral strategies as needed.  Determining whether the behavior reflects a “skills problem” (i.e., the student does not possess the skills needed for success) or a “conditions problem” (i.e., the student has the behavioral skills needed for success but does not utilize them within a specific situational context) will facilitate the development of an appropriate plan of action.

Small counseling groups may provide a forum for skill training for students who need to learn more appropriate social behaviors.  Larson (2005) has emphasized the need for educational programs that teach the cognitive and behavioral skills needed for school success. Although anger is not always a component of aggressive and disruptive behavior, teaching students to understand and control anger is a critical component of a skill building program.  Anger management programs typically include several steps, including (a) educating students about anger and aggression, (b) helping students to recognize anger cues and to activate self-calming strategies, (c) working on attribution retraining to increase students’ awareness of nonhostile explanations for the behavior of others, (d) self-instructional training to teach students how to talk themselves through anger-provoking situations using effective coping self-statements, and (e) problem solving skills training to assist students in identifying alternative (non-aggressive) solutions to everyday problem situations (Larson, 2005).

Intensive Interventions for Students with a Pattern of Explosive Behaviors

Despite the best efforts of school personnel to provide appropriate behavioral supports and social-emotional learning experiences for all students as well as early interventions for students just beginning to demonstrate behavioral concerns, a small number of students will develop a pattern of explosive and disruptive school behaviors.  For these students, more intensive intervention efforts are needed and a focused and comprehensive intervention plan may need to be developed and utilized.

It is important to recognize that what works for one student is not necessarily what will work for all students with explosive behaviors.  Identifying underlying causes for behavior will assist in selecting appropriate interventions.  For example, does the behavior enable the student to express anger or frustration, or to avoid an activity or event that causes anxiety?  Is the behavior a symptom of a psychiatric condition, such as bipolar disorder, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, depression, Asperger’s Syndrome, or oppositional defiant disorder? A collaborative effort among educators, mental health professionals, and parents is essential for understanding the roots of the behavior and to determine if a more thorough psychological or psychiatric evaluation is warranted.

In addition to understanding the root causes of the behavior, an effort should be made to identify conditions that trigger outbursts.  Although it is not possible to control all of the situational demands that an individual student encounters during the school day, it may be appropriate to make adjustments in schedules or instructional strategies that will help to minimize the discomfort or frustration that may ultimately lead to emotional outbursts. Recognizing precursors to the explosive behavior will help school staff to intervene early, before the student completely loses control of his or her behavior.  When adults can recognize the early stages of an emotional meltdown, they can implement coaching strategies to help the student utilize positive coping strategies or to remove the student from the stressful situation if necessary.

Throughout this process of intervention, adults need to communicate their role as advocates for students. All children need to feel supported by the adults in their lives, but students with serious behavioral problems have an even greater need for encouragement and positive regard, in part because they may experience it so infrequently.  Engaging students in problem solving rather than adopting a harsh and punitive stance will convey an expectation that the student is capable of successfully coping with difficult situations.


Violent behavior is a serious problem for schools and communities, and there are no easy or quick solutions to ensuring safe and supportive school environments.  A combination of preventive measures and effective behavioral interventions can help to minimize the frequency and intensity of disruptions to learning.  As school personnel work toward implementing systems of behavioral supports, attention should be given to identifying programs and practices that are appropriate for specific developmental stages.  Young children will need to be taught more specific and concrete rules for behavior, and expectations for higher levels of reasoning can be incorporated into personal decision making as students become more capable of abstract thinking.

As a final consideration, attention must be given to the quality of relationships among classmates and between students and adults.  When children feel accepted and respected by others, they are more likely to achieve success academically, socially, and emotionally.


Diane Smallwood, PsyD, NCSP worked as a school psychologist for 26 years in New Jersey public schools, and she is a past president of the National Association of School Psychologists and of the New Jersey Association of School Psychologists.  She currently is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Evangeline Kern is a school psychologist with the Chester-Upland School District in Pennsylvania and a current doctoral candidate at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.


Beland, K. (1997). Second Step Curriculum. Seattle, WA:  Committee for Children.

Dinkes, R., Cataldi, E.F., Kena, G., & Baum, K.  (2006). Indicators of school crime and safety: 2006 (NCES 2007-003/NCJ 214262). U.S. Departments of Education  and Justice. Washington, DC:  U.S. Government Printing Office.

Doll, B., Zucker, S., & Brehm, K.  (2004). Resilient classrooms:  Creating healthy environments for learning. New York:  Guilford Press.

Elias, M.J., Zins, J.E., Weissberg, R.P., Frey, K.S., Greenberg, M.T., Haynes, N.M.,  Kessler, R., Schwab-Stone, M.E., & Shriver, T.P.  (1997). Promoting social and emotional learning: Guidelines for educators. Alexandria, VA:  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Galinsky, J. & Salmond, K.  (2002). Youth and violence: Students speak out for a more  civil society. New York: Families and Work Institute.

Larson, J. (2005). Think first: Addressing aggressive behavior in secondary schools.   New York: Guilford Press.

Osher, D., Dwyer, K., & Jackson, S. (2004). Safe, supportive, and successful schools: Step by step. Longmont, CO:  Sopris West.


In January 2006, PERI held a free online symposium to explore strategies for addressing violence in our nation’s schools. The program, entitled "Confronting Violence in Our Schools: Planning, Response, and Recovery," offered practical advice for dealing with school violence — not just the high profile incidents that make headlines but the real issues of school violence that schools and communities face everyday.

The Public Entity Risk Institute (PERI) is a nonprofit research organization that provides education and training resources on topics related to risk management and emergency management. PERI’s website, www.riskinstitute.org, offers free E-Training programs and a Publications, Tools, and Resources library with information on emergency planning and response, disaster recovery, school safety, workers’ compensation, and other key topics in risk management. PERI’s also maintains a national database of public sector liability and workers’ compensation claims data for benchmarking and performance measurement. The Data Exchange is a voluntary program that allows participating organizations to compare their liability and workers’ compensation losses with their peers and learn from other jurisdictions.

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