Approximately 30-50% of students in the United States are aggressors or victims of peer aggression. Recently, the REACH team compiled the most up-to-date research on preventative programs designed to help adults in school and community-based settings to mitigate peer aggression (i.e., a person intending to harm another person of similar age, background, or social status). The focus of our report was to examine the existing literature on peer aggression and prevention programs so as to better understand the ‘best practices’ for mitigating aggression in education-based settings, and we synthesized how to address peer aggression through programming, how to prevent it through strategies and skills, and how to implement programs geared towards reducing it.
Addressing Peer Aggression through Programmatic Efforts
There are three main prevention approaches for programs focused on peer aggression for education-based settings: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary prevention programs aim to prevent or reduce peer aggression school-wide by implementing and promoting policies and skills (e.g., attitudes of empathy and problem solving, and relationship building). Secondary prevention programs are implemented when schools are beginning to observe early signs of peer aggression problems or if there have been ongoing peer aggression challenges; these programs tend to require more effort from the administrators and children. Tertiary prevention programs are implemented to reduce the frequency and severity of peer aggression while also mitigating the negative effects that have already occurred due to peer aggression; these programs are generally more intensive and target the needs of students who display negative outcomes due to peer aggression.
Strategies to Prevent and De-Escalate Peer Aggression
Research suggests several different factors and components may reduce peer aggression, including applying whole-school approaches that incorporate school-wide policies, effective disciplinary actions, and skill development of students and teachers. Whole-school approaches include aiming to prevent peer aggression on several levels (e.g., equipping school personnel, training students, engaging community members and families). Often whole-school approaches rely on creating school-wide policies, such as prohibiting certain behaviors (e.g., zero tolerance for threatening others), require teachers to report incidents of peer aggression (e.g., formal reporting policies), or create policies that promote and reinforce positive behaviors in students (e.g., ‘We are an accepting, inclusive school where we embrace our differences.’). Further, research suggests that discipline policies should incorporate fewer punitive strategies (e.g., detention, suspension) because this may actually increase aggressive behaviors and thus punitive discipline methods. Therefore, discipline policies should support aggressive children and help them learn different, positive behaviors (e.g., using words to express yourself, walk away instead of acting aggressively, tell a trusted adult your frustrations) rather than condemn them because this may exacerbate the aggression over time. Finally, whole-school approaches emphasize the importance of students’ and teachers’ skill development. More specifically, skill development focuses on teaching students’ skills that help them recognize peer aggression and manage peer aggression when it occurs. Some skills students could learn and apply include cognitive skills (i.e., alterative thinking), emotional skills (i.e., emotion regulation), and interpersonal skills (i.e., conflict resolution). Alternatively, teachers may learn how to better identify acts of peer aggression, debunking myths they have about peer aggression, as well as feeling more confident in their actions and utilizing empathy when responding to peer aggression.
Considerations for Implementing Peer Aggression Programs
Considerations should be made by school personnel before selecting and implementing programs for addressing peer aggression. Some of these considerations include school personnel buy-in and performing a needs assessment to evaluate the nature and scope of aggression occurring within the school. Effective program selection criteria include selecting a program that meets the unique needs of the school such as a prevention program or a school-wide program, selecting a program that is developmentally appropriate (e.g., preschool, elementary, or high school targeted program), and considering the amount of program engagement and/or program adaptability. To successfully implement a program, it is important to maintain a long-term focus on meeting program goals, properly train faculty and staff, and deliver the program as it was intended to be delivered. Finally, it is recommended that a program may be periodically evaluated to ensure it is addressing peer aggression and so modifications can be made if challenges arise.
Read the Military REACH team’s full report on peer aggression and programming, Helping School Personnel Prevent and De-escalate Peer Aggression: An Overview of Existing Research and Insights into Programming, to access the citations used in this piece and to learn even more on the topic.