Reducing Conflict in Children: Lessons From Larry Aber

This blog continues my series on the child development researchers and neuroscientists who have genuinely inspired me in my 11-year journey to create Mind in the Making. Their work is truly “research to live by.”

I am sharing the story of J. Lawrence (Larry) Aber of New York University because his studies provide important insights into reducing conflict and aggression in children, an issue of great importance in our conflict-laden world. But I am also sharing his story because it illustrates the principle that in research — as in life — there can be many missteps before the right path is found.

In fact, this is one of the things that I most love about conducting research myself: it is an adventure. Like scaling a mountain peak or kayaking in rough waters, the researcher sets out on a journey, armed with experience and knowledge, but never fully knowing what he or she might find. Sometimes the path is clear, but usually it’s fraught with uncertainty, unexpected challenges and wrong turns.

The experiences of Larry Aber of New York University illustrate this point. In studying of aggression in children, Larry Aber had findings from his and others’ research, but they weren’t very strong findings. So he too kept looking.

Aber has been especially interested in aggression in younger children because it can escalate into greater aggression during the teen and adult years — and interfere with children’s learning. He wanted to know: What are the roots of aggression in children? When in a child’s life is aggression likely to flare up? Does it continue to escalate or can it be prevented, and if so, how? In other words, can more constructive ways of dealing with conflict be taught? He says:

Children who get in fights with other children, children who disobey — who are constantly in conflict with other children and teachers — are on a path where they’re not learning now and they’re going to learn less in the future.

The focus of the early research was that children who were aggressive simply hadn’t learned constructive ways to solve problems. As Aber says:

When one child pushes another, the early thinking was that children who responded aggressively to that push had an impoverished repertoire of options — they only knew how to push back or to push harder.

As a result, there were 20 years of attempts to improve children’s “repertoire” of problem-solving skills. Did these efforts yield results? Yes, but “only a little bit,” according to Aber. So the question became why.

Building on the prior laboratory work of Kenneth Dodge, Aber and his colleagues began to investigate what goes on in children’s minds when they are provoked. To do so, they asked children how they would respond to ambiguous hypothetical situations — such as one child bumping into another in a school cafeteria and spilling a drink on the second child. Which children would decide to push back harder? And which children would decide to use other problem-solving skills, and why?

They discovered a missing link, a link they call an “appraisal process.” In the spilled-drink scenario above, for example, the child who has been bumped makes an immediate assessment of the situation, such as: Maybe this kid doesn’t like me? Maybe this kid is trying to hurt me?

For the children who assume that others are out to get them, having skills to handle conflict are relatively worthless. They have what researchers call “a hostile attribution bias.” These words are a mouthful, but what they mean is that some children immediately interpret ambiguous situations as hostile. When there isn’t enough information to be certain, they jump to conclusions.

Given this insight, efforts to curb aggression in children of all ages have moved to include what Larry Aber calls “attributional retraining”; that is, helping children step back when something happens to them and make sense of the situation. Teachers using this approach help children gain perspective on the situation, to realize that they don’t have enough information to know why they were bumped, and to look for clues to understand whether this was an accident or a hostile act.

Larry Aber and his colleagues have experimented with how teachers can teach appraisal skills in order to reduce aggression. Their research holds many lessons.

In their first studies, they followed children from the first through the sixth grades in the New York City public schools. They picked this period in childhood because they’ve found that aggression can escalate during this time. Initially, they evaluated a curriculum called the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program (RCCP), developed by Educators for Social Responsibility. This curriculum teaches children appraisal skills — how to figure out someone else’s intention. It also shows children that they have choices about how they handle conflict and gives them skills for making those choices in their everyday lives. Not surprisingly, Aber found that the more RCCP lessons children were taught, the more competently they handled conflict.

But Aber suspected that the results could be even stronger, so they began work on a second series of evaluation studies in the New York public schools with a successor program to RCCP called the 4 Rs Program — Reading, Writing, Respect, and Resolution. This program doesn’t separate teaching children to handle conflict from other kinds of academic teaching; it combines what I see as social, emotional, and intellectual (SEI) skills. Each unit is based on a children’s book selected for its literary quality and its relevance to the theme. Through discussions, writing exercises, and role-play, children explore the meaning of the book, learn how to appraise complex situations, and then are taught how to resolve conflicts in these situations.

The early results of this research are even more promising. Children are less likely to jump to conclusions about others’ behavior. Their mental health is better. And the reading scores for those who initially showed the most substantial behavioral problems have improved.

Aber’s research further confirms that children need to learn how to figure out the intent and perspectives of others when they’re in conflicts. Once you’ve helped children do that, as he puts it, “you’ve opened the gate to them using problem-solving skills — that also needed to be developed.” He says:

That is an issue of learning; it is not just a side affair. That affects the environment in which children learn.

This story is taken from Mind in the Making.


Photo/image by: Sharon Mollerus / Flickr