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Assuring that children today have the tools required for a high quality of life is an ever-increasing challenge. Rising to the top of this challenge are children and youth who display behaviors that contribute to and foster antisocial lifestyles and/or those who are fearful and sad. By presenting behaviors that are dangerous to other students, teachers, families, community members and themselves, these children disrupt teaching and learning in schools, create inhospitable neighborhoods and upset family functioning. Children with these characteristics are prime candidates for negative outcomes such as teacher and peer rejection, failure and dropping out of school or delinquency and for poor adult outcomes such as unemployment, poor mental health, and criminal lifestyles.

Many factors contribute to and maintain such behaviors:

  • antisocial behavior is more likely when parents utilize inconsistent disciplinary practices, use strong aversive consequences to manage problem behavior which model antisocial behavior, fail to have regular prosocial engagements with their children and do not monitor the whereabouts and activities of their children.
  • the development of antisocial lifestyles increases when children are rejected by typical peers and become involved in antisocial peer networks, substance abuse, deviant sexual behavior and negative community engagements.
  • schools contribute to the development and maintenance of problem behavior by ineffective instruction that results in academic failure; inconsistent and punitive management practices which often model antisocial behavior; lack of opportunity to learn and practice prosocial interpersonal and self-management skills; unclear rules and expectations regarding appropriate behavior; and failure to enforce rules.

At the same time home, school and community are the ideal “natural” and valued settings in which to organize an effort against increasing behavioral problems. Schools are identified because they provide predictable schedules of events and activities, socially appropriate adult and student role models, and personalized support around many health, social and family needs. Schools are a natural change environment where increased opportunities for academic and social success are possible and the child can test him/herself in new skills and be reinforced in this process.

Unfortunately the most common responses to atypical behaviors are punishment and exclusion. Punitive management systems which include detention, suspension, reprimands, fines and extra tasks simply are not effective strategies for reducing problem behavior, and in fact, increases in problem behavior are more likely to be seen in response to such actions.

The good news is that we have a body of evidence that enables us to identify strategies that are effective in prevention and reduction of problem behavior. The bad news is that we presently do not have a comprehensively designed systematic way to deliver these interventions to the children in need. Any provision in one system is offset by responses in the other systems.

The central assumption behind these strategies is that behavior is acquired and maintained primarily through social learning processes. While the family has the first and most intensive input, a comprehensive and systematic ecological approach goes beyond interfamilial or intrainindividual factors and views maladjustment as a problem across entire ecosystems. The aim is to change transactions within and between all pertinent environmental systems that serve to develop or maintained a child’s deviant thoughts and behaviors.

The goal and activities of Social Education are focused on a proactive instructional approach to behavior management. This focus conceptualizes the management of social behavior problems in much the same way as the management of instructional problems. For example, when a student makes an error in academic subjects (e.g., decoding, math computation, concept application), a correction procedure is implemented and the student is provided with more practice and review. If the errors become persistent or chronic, teachers diagnose the problem, identify the misrule, rearrange the presentation, and provide more practice and review. Clearly, such a proactive emphasis enhances the student’s opportunities to make the correct academic response.

In contrast, the occurrence of social behavior problems frequently elicits very different reactions. When a social behavior error occurs, the student typically is given a reminder of the rule or expected behavior, told what s/he should not do, and given a penalty for exhibiting the inappropriate behavior. For example, when a student comes late to class, talks without raising a hand, or gets out of his/her seat without permission, a common response is to describe the problem behavior (“You’re late to class”), react negatively to the behavior (“That’s rude and it disrupts others”), and give a negative consequence (“You will stay after school to make up the time”). This practice of managing social behavior problems is different from how educators tend to approach academic problems as described previously. Although academic problems are “remediated” by applying instructional principles, problem social behaviors are “punished” by applying negative consequences. A need exists to develop and validate a model in which instructional principles are employed to manage and remediate chronic social behavioral problems.

Such a model must recognize that a child needs to decode the language, emotion and body language nuances of the interaction, identify conceptual aspects of self, others and future prospects, and make attributions of success and failure in order to develop the personal information necessary to decide how to act in a given situation.

Recommended Procedures to Remediate Chronic Academic Problems and Chronic Behavior Problems

Step Chronic Academic Problem Chronic Behavior Problem
1 Identify the error pattern or misrule Identify functional relationship between behavior and environment
2 Identify skill, concept, rule, operation or form of knowledge Identify expected or acceptable behaviors
3 Modify examples and presentation to provide clearer focus on rule and provide less opportunity for practice of misrule Modify environment to allow practice of expected behaviors and remove stimuli that are likely to occasion the inappropriate behavior
4 Provide differential feedback so that more accurate responses are more strongly reinforced Provide differential reinforcement so that direction of correct responding is reinforced
5 Shape context towards target context, provide review and integrate skill with other skills Move towards broader environment for generalization and maintenance


When teaching academic skills, teachers generally complete a number of preparatory steps before students are required to demonstrate a skill independently. The preparatory steps usually involve clarifying the goals and objectives of the instruction, specifying the content to be targeted, selecting examples, explaining the skills to be learned, modeling the skills, providing supervised practice, providing corrective feedback and furnishing opportunities for independent practice. While schools often will test the academic competencies of new children, they often assume that children coming to them have acquired a basic level of social competence. This is true despite the fact that children come to them from a variety of cultures and with a variety of competency levels. The assumption leads to immediate responses without preparatory steps before the student is required to demonstrate the skill. Unfortunately, a compelling body of literature indicates that the responses are of punishment, counseling and psychotherapy are the least effective responses to reduce such behaviors in the school.

We suggest that an effective response to the rise in problem behavior in our schools requires a shift from conventional approaches to an integrated set of components which use learning techniques in a variety of modes and intensities. A community will need an integrated approach that directly and systematically considers procedures that are associated with three ecological systems of home, school and community peers. Within each of these major systems, there are sub-systems that need attention. Of the major systems, the school is the pivotal keystone in that it has direct impact on each of the other two and has a substantial period of professional time with the child. A School that operates successfully will need an integrated approach that address four sub-systems:

  • school wide procedures for all student, staff and settings.
  • specific setting procedures for all students and staff for specific school settings like cafeteria, hallways, playground or bus.
  • classroom procedures for a specific teacher and his/her students during structured instructionally-focused contexts; and
  • individual student procedures for the 1-7% of students who typically are associated with 50% of the behavioral incidents experienced in a school building.

The individual student procedures should be congruent with the family system, by coordinating with the family procedures and any outside individual services for emotional, behavioral or substance abuse problems. Where the family uses disciplinary practices that tend to contribute to the formation and maintenance of problem behaviors, a system of re-training parents in child management skills may help them to maintain discipline in the home and provide continuity with the school. When the family is unable to benefit from the child management training because of the intensity of individual and personal needs of the parent, sibling or primary child, a clinical response might be necessary which again would follow a learning theory pattern, but may be cognitive in form. Thus subsystems exist in the family.

  • family wide procedures for all children and adult family members and all settings.
  • specific setting procedures for all children in specific settings like home alone, out with peers, driving, etc..
  • individual parent procedures for adult family members to examine thoughts and feelings as they affect behaviors.
  • individual child procedures for children and adolescents to examine thoughts and feelings as they affect behaviors and to learn social competency skills.

The final system is that of community. This entity has several subsystems, the most critical of which is the peer group, which is probably the most pervading and important of all the affectional system in terms of long-range personal-social adjustment. This system develops through the transient social interactions among babies, crystallizes with the formation of social relationships among children and then progressively expands during childhood, preadolescence, adolescence and adulthood. The peer system begins at about three years old and peaks between the ages of nine and eleven, waning with the onset of adolescence, when peer relations become entangled with heterosexual affection. Developmentally and functionally, it progresses according to a definite maturational pattern. Play with inanimate objects precedes play with animate objects, so that pre social play by definition precedes social play of comparable complexity.

When peer acceptance is not given or circumstance prevent participation, developmental progress is retarded and/or relationships develop with a deviant peers where antisocial behavior is the active social learning.

Procedures for successful interventions with the behavioral activities of such atypical peer groups are hard to sustain. However, many of these peers may also be in school and receive some benefit from school wide procedures as well as potentially receive services within classrooms which are focused on prosocial skill building or a less minimum intensity level of cognitive restructuring. Further these peers may be served by an out reach group [gang] worker from public or private agencies and the procedures should be congruent with a comprehensive systematic set.

The learning theory procedures described for all of these systems and subsystems, if congruent, should promote a culture of high positive expectation, with prosocial rituals which become embedded in the community. Shopkeepers with Stop & Think; Good Choice – Bad Choice signs might expect to be able to benefit from the learning carried over from home and school and contribute there own procedural input. Crossing guards can learn the Life Space Crisis Interventions and respond more effectively with issues that arise outside of school. Recreation workers can learn about Psychological First Aid as an early response to adolescents in anguish.

While to this point, we have concentrated on the antisocial child, there are essentially two broad clusters of behavior disorders that are of concern:

Over-controlled or internalizers

This group contains children with social anxieties and withdrawal. While not intrusively problematic in behavior, they are often far more in need of intervention than is immediately apparent. The death of such a youngster by suicide is often the first act which intrusively is brought to bear on the social entities s/he populates. Such a child is often isolated from peers or relates only on a most superficial level. Unlike their counterparts, they need to be able to identify, label and express their emotions of anger and sadness more effectively.

Under-controlled or externalizers

This group contains the children and youth who are identified as having a conduct disordered, oppositional defiant disorder &/or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. The under-controlled child lacks or has insufficient control over behavior that is expected in a given setting.

The distinction between difficult behaviors and “behavior disorders” is a variable of intensity and lies in the severity and extent of such behavior. It is the degree of the disruption or destruction, the frequency of occurrence of the behaviors in more than one setting, and the persistence of these behaviors over time. When antisocial behavior endures for at least six months, causes impairment in home, social and school functioning and takes a form deemed more serious and intense than ordinary mischief, a child qualifies for a primary diagnosis of either conduct disorder or severe oppositional defiant disorder [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual].

Kazdin [1987] has outlined several key facets of the syndrome differentiating it from other problems of childhood behaviors [Short & Shapiro, 1993].

  • antisocial behavior – as already stated, these children typically and persistently exhibit some combination of physical and verbal aggression, stealing, lying, and violation of social norms and the rights of others. Additionally, they are more likely to abuse substances including alcohol.
  • chronicity – such children exhibit these serious disruptive behaviors over months and years and are often unresponsive to treatment.
  • impairment of functioning – these children exhibit antisocial behavior in sufficient frequency and intensity to affect significantly their education performance and interpersonal interactions.

Estimates of the prevalence of conduct disorder in the general population range from about 3% to 7% and it is the most prevalent form of childhood disorder. As a result, such children represent the most common type of referral for children’s mental health services making up from 33% to 75% of clinical referrals. Whereas internalizing disorders may respond to clinical intervention or ameliorate spontaneously over time, some aspects of conduct disorder may persist in relatively constant form and thus the prognosis is considered to be relatively poor. One reason for the chronic nature of the behavior is that the initiation of distorted beliefs about self and others that influence the behavior, occurs in ongoing interaction with significant adults [parents], who continue to with the same messages which support such beliefs. In addition, the externalizing of the behavior most often evokes responses that punish, ridicule or invalidate the emotional content of the experience.

Personal characteristics associated with subsequent conduct disorder often appear in preschool years, sometimes as early as age two. Such characteristics may include resistance to discipline, irritability, developmental cognitive and language difficulties and early aggressive behaviors.

Cognitive factors play an important and well-documented role in antisocial behaviors and conduct disorders. Antisocial children often exhibit a cognitive response bias in which they interpret ambiguous interpersonal stimuli as being hostile. This cognitive bias may result in and justify aggressive responses to the misperceived hostile stimulus.

In addition, such children may also be deficient in problem solving skills, particularly in the generation of multiple and/or prosocial alternative solutions which results in rigidity of aggressive responses.

Common themes of antisocial thinking include the belief and mind-set that they are being victimized. Many adult offenders are accustomed to feeling unfairly treated and have learned a defiant, hostile attitude as part of their basic orientation toward life and other people. They think they are entitled to a kind of absolute freedom in the way they conduct their lives. From this point of view, any restriction of their freedom is resented as an unjust intrusion.

Relationships with other people are dominated by a struggle for power. Win-lose (“us and them”) is the dominant form of personal relationship and winning is defined as forcing someone else to lose. They picture themselves as the victim and righteous anger displaces the feelings of loss and failure. The logic is a vicious cycle. Whether they win or lose, the underlying cognitive structure is reinforced.

The hardening of such attitudes over time suggests that early intervention, despite its limited success in the past is a prerequisite to effective outcomes. The goal of primary prevention is to lower the incidence rather than to treat the problem (secondary prevention) or its sequel (tertiary prevention). Lowering the incidence can only occur when the child begins to think differently. If s/he has beliefs about self and others which are distorted and distressing, these thoughts must change if s/he is to learn to behave more typically.

A child develops within a complex system of relationships affected by multiple levels of the surrounding environment. Further, it is clear that these various influences have differing levels of influence at different points of development. While the family has the earliest and most profound effect on the emerging person, there are really several interrelated systems that influence [shape] and maintain [reinforce] behavior. Substantive change in antisocial behavior requires a level of effort that matches the level of the problem. Efforts to implement individual elements will not be effective.