Topic Editor: Richard E. Tremblay, PhD, Université de Montréal, Canada and University College Dublin, Ireland
Topic funded by: Margaret & Wallace McCain Family Foundation
Most children will show physically aggressive behaviour occasionally, and then learn other means of expressing emotions and solving conflicts. A minority of children will not. Interventions at an early age aimed at helping these children to learn adequate behaviour and emotional responses are warranted.
Intervention can address the at-risk child’s developmental deficits directly (e.g., improving emotion regulation skills) or indirectly by changing the child’s environment (for example by providing parental training). Targeted programs combining parent and child intervention in the preschool years have resulted in improved parenting and decrease in children’s negative behaviour. Interventions can be universal (offered to all children - e.g., a whole child care or kindergarten group) or target specific problems and the children who have them. Prenatal to toddlerhood home visits to support at risk families have been shown to reduce later behaviour problems. Universal programs in preschool can improve children’s emotion regulation and reduce later aggression. A multi-modal intervention for aggressive boys in kindergarten was shown to improve high-school graduation and reduce criminality 15 years later.
Targets for intervention
Development of effortful control in early childhood is critical for the reduction of aggressive behaviours and impulses. Effortful control refers to the voluntary regulation of attention and behaviour, including inhibition of undesirable behaviour and activation of appropriate behaviour. It is linked to the development of conscience, empathy, and internalization of social norms. Poor effortful control is associated with reactive aggression, that is, emotionally-driven reaction rather than unprovoked aggression, and with externalized behaviour problems. Warm, positive parenting can help reduce behaviour problems but the effect of parental behaviour is facilitated by children’s effortful control. Interventions can address children’s problem-solving strategies, support gentle parental discipline, and foster supportive teaching.
Young children learn self-control, reciprocity and adequate behaviour in part through play with peers, specifically play that demands turn-taking, negotiation, shift in control and restraint like rough-and-tumble play. Studies in other mammals (rats and apes) showed that rough-and-tumble play is critical for the development of the brain area responsible for executive control. One consequence of lacking the opportunity to play in these animals is misreading social signals that could prevent an encounter from escalating into aggression. Human children who engage in rough-and-tumble play show better social skills and play with peer is facilitated by a positive previous experience of playing with parents. This suggest that encouraging play could help children develop the abilities that will help them control their aggressive impulses and assess correctly their peers’ reactions during interactions. When rough-and-tumble play is not socially acceptable, peer-play with similar properties (turn-taking, shift in control, self-restraint) should be encouraged.
Regarding indirect aggression, it should be recognized that social and relational aggression are seriously harmful behaviours perpetrated by both boys and girls. Intervention could start in preschool and preferably involve parents and teachers. The goals would be to teach how to deal with relational aggression, as well as strategies for relationship building and problem solving.
Whatever the strategy, several keys to successful intervention targeting aggression in preschool children are proposed:
Intervention should include parents;
Intervention must be flexible yet faithful to protocol;
Parental intervention should address both parenting behaviour and parents’ knowledge of child development;
Schools/centres should plan strategies to engage parents in intervention; needs for staff training must be realistically assessed.