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Spencer Grant Studies Research: Nipping Aggression in the Bud

Is there something about the middle school experience or the ages between 11 and 14 that engenders aggression in adolescents? Four Teachers College faculty members and four graduate students have been commissioned by the Spencer Foundation to find some answers.

"In the sixth grade, very few kids have problems with aggression," Professor Marla Brassard noted. Yet, by eighth grade, the levels of aggression to teachers and peers normally increase. "We want to see them before it develops and see the processes that affect the likelihood that these problems will develop."

Professors Brassard, Charles Basch, Suniya Luthar and Margaret Terry Orr, with four Spencer Fellows, are examining risk factors for aggressive behavior to determine which are amenable to change. At three middle schools in Massachusetts, the researchers began in 1999 to collect data on 1,100 sixth graders entering seventh grade. They will follow up with students once a year through eighth grade to see which factors affecting behavior relate to young people who have more serious problems.

Professor Orr is looking specifically at the ways that school-wide policies and practices affect teenagers. These include discipline methods, alternatives for handling conflict and aggression between students or between students and teachers, and the availability of influential adults to listen to students.

Professor Luthar will be comparing low- and high-income schools to identify specific influences that lead to the development of aggression, mental health problems and substance use.

Professor Brassard, whose work over the past decade and a half has dealt with psychological maltreatment and verbal aggression, has been examining issues of peer victimization and parental psychological aggression in early adolescence. She describes psychological aggression as behavior that is intended to inflict psychological pain on another person, such as swearing at someone, calling them names, and physically threatening them. Her work, and that of others has shown that psychological abuse and neglect are the most common forms of maltreatment and are as damaging as other forms of abuse and neglect.

Preliminary findings of this research were presented by Brassard, Basch and students David B. Hardy, Michelle Butterfass and Dennis Vogel at the American Psychological Association Conference in August 2000.

Brassard and her colleagues reported that one of the strongest predictors of mental health problems in children is the quality of their relationships with peers. The development of healthy relationships with peers is ultimately affected by relationships children have with caregivers and parents. Those children who are exposed to circumstances that undermine their health and well being, such as conflictual relationships with parents, often exhibit excessively aggressive behaviors and a lack of empathy toward others. This can lead to a lack of social competence and poor peer relationships.

In their study, Brassard and the other researchers found that students who were subjected to parental psychological abuse were immature by comparison and exhibited more depressive symptoms and less self-regulation than those students who had less parental psychological abuse or maltreatment. When students were psychologically maltreated by their parents and victimized by peers, they were significantly more depressed than those who were not victimized by peers. Their findings supported the belief that children exposed to psychological abuse by parents and caregivers have more difficulty developing and regulating their emotions, and tend to be more likely to turn to aggression in dealing with others.

Research Brassard did with Caroline E. Crutcher, Butterfass and Basch also indicated a gender-based difference in responses to maltreatment or abuse by parents. Boys were more emotionally distressed when they were psychologically abused, whereas girls were more distressed by believing they were emotionally neglected. "The kids who are most at risk are those who perceive their parents as being psychologically aggressive toward them and as not caring about them," Brassard said. "Almost all of the sixth graders reporting both delinquency and depressive symptoms were in this group."

She added, "Kids who feel their parents care about them will do better even if parents are psychologically aggressive, or if they seem not to care about their children, but are not abusive. Children in these two situations will be better adjusted, although not as well adjusted as kids who feel cared about by their parents and are not threatened or yelled and sworn at."

Another focus of the research is student-teacher relationships. With Bethany Casarjian, who earned her Ph.D. from TC's school psychology program, Brassard looked at the student-teacher relationship and its affect on student behavior. She found that the level to which students see a teacher as being psychologically aggressive will affect the psychological or physical aggression a student says he or she will display toward the teacher. The teacher's level of psychological aggression also affects how students say they see themselves academically, how they will value the subject being taught, and the level of emotional and behavioral engagement they will exhibit in the classroom. Although aggressive students are more likely to perceive their teacher as being psychologically aggressive to them, even students who are not aggressive will respond aggressively to a teacher whom they perceive to be psychologically aggressive.

The Spencer team is now trying to determine the extent to which students' aggressive behavior toward teachers is in response to a "mean" teacher or to a teacher who is reacting to the students' provocative behavior.

"Most kids see their relationships with teachers as among the most positive relationships they have," Brassard noted. "They agree on which teachers treat kids in a supportive manner and promote learning behavior and they agree on which teachers don't." These findings, she said, are important in developing effective teacher training.

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