Study finds school environment can moderate student aggression

April 23, 2007

The culture of a school can dampen - or exacerbate - the violent or disruptive tendencies of aggressive young teens, new research indicates. A large-scale study from the University of Illinois found that while personal traits and peer interactions have the most direct effect on the aggressive behavior of middle school students, the school environment also influences student aggression.

The study assessed individual, family and school predictors of aggression in 111,662 middle school students. The findings appear in the March 2007 issue of the journal, Youth & Society.

The researchers used a statistical method called hierarchical linear modeling, which separates individual and contextual effects to determine the relative importance of each. The data were compiled from surveys of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at geographically, socioeconomically and racially diverse middle schools.

In the surveys, the students were asked to report how many times in the previous six months they had acted mean toward others, hit others or got into fights. The students also reported on how they reacted to events that upset them, their daily experience of problems or hassles, and their perceptions of family and teacher social and emotional support.

Other questions measured the students' sense of belonging in school, their perception of the fairness of school disciplinary actions and policies, and the presence or absence of cultural sensitivity training. The students were also asked to report on whether their school offered them opportunities to participate in rule making or otherwise contribute to shaping the school environment.

"The school had a relatively modest but nonetheless significant effect on student aggression," said professor of family medicine Janet Reis. "The dimensions that were found to be important were supportive decision-making, students' inclusion in helping set up the school culture - in general (providing) a more democratic and participatory environment."

Teaching strategies that emphasized understanding over memorization and cultural sensitivity training also appeared to reduce aggression at school, Reis said.

"The direction from this is that teachers and administrators might explore how to include participation from their students," Reis said. "If schools keep remembering that they really do have an impact on the children who come in every day, that it matters how the adults configure the school day, then the correlational evidence from this study is that you can expect to see, on average, some diminution in aggression and disciplinary cases, which are the bane of all school administrators."
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Peter Mulhall, the director of the Center for Prevention Research & Development at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs, and internal medicine resident Mickey Trockel co-wrote the study with Reis.

Editor's note: To reach Janet Reis, call 217-383-5007; e-mail: jsreis@uiuc.edu.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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