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Kerr and Nelson [1989] suggested three functional explanations for aggression in the classroom:

  • students may lack the ability to discriminate the environmental cues or prompts that set the occasion for prosocial rather than antisocial behaviors. [Inappropriate or ineffective stimulus control].
  • aggressive behaviors are reinforced by tangible reward or personal gain, by the reaction of others, or by the avoidance of aversive, unpleasant situations or consequences. [Direct or indirect reinforcement.]
  • aggressive behavior may be imitated. [Modeling of aggression]

When one deliberates on the environments that may provide the optimal advantages for prosocial development, several related issues come to mind. One issue involves the sheer size of the environment. Anthropological evidence suggests that there are several primary units that have been used by human beings to evolve over time. The first is the family. Whether this is the nuclear family of mother, father and children or the extended family that may include grandparents and other relations, or the tribal family; the family is an integral part of the development of the child. It is significant that the family in prehistoric or primitive peoples tends to not exceed twenty-five [25] people. This seems to be the normal size of the human equivalent of the ‘herd’. But like other species who operate socially in small groups, there is another level that occasionally operates and that is when family groups of interrelated peoples come together in clan meetings of about five hundred [500] people. While these larger groups may reach as many as one thousand [1,000], around five hundred is more usual.

These numbers are significant cognitively as well. It seems that most people are capable of ‘knowing’ about five hundred people. This means that they can be familiar enough with five hundred individual to speak to them by name and know something about their lives. In addition, the upper limit seems to be somewhere around one thousand. Whether the cognitive or pragmatic aspects of these numbers came first is not relevant to our concerns here. What is important is that there seems to be a natural limit to the size of an environment that can have a unified impact upon the child. A classroom size of twenty-five and a school size of five hundred may be the ‘ideal’ size limit for the promotion of growth and development. These sizes would, of course, include school staff as well as children. This would provide an environment where everyone knows everyone else in some more or less intimate way and the norms of the group can be conveyed and supported throughout.

The question of size is related to a variety of other issues. The first, is the question of intimacy and privacy. While on the one hand human beings seek closeness and intimacy in another’s company, they alternately also seek privacy. With very small groups, privacy is diminished. With very large groups, intimacy is limited [this in the sense that one cannot be intimate with the group; only a faction of it]. Factionalization versus frustration. Each has its own disadvantage. One seeks, therefore, a group sufficiently large to provide some private moments, while still being able to know how the others intimately think and feel about issues of importance.

Schools of more than five hundred total people lose this ability. The pejoratives about institutions come to mind: they are cold, impersonal, and over regulated. Is not this a reaction to the very size of the entity of concern? But the issues go even further, smaller groupings provide an expansion of prosocial roles for children. There is a limit to the number of ‘best athletes’ in a school. On a baseball team, nine people play most often with substitutes making up a team of about twenty-five. If a school of five hundred has a team, twenty-five of five hundred [or 5%] of the kids have an opportunity to be ‘baseball players’. In a school of one thousand, that percentage is cut in half.

From the perspective of cost savings, the larger school is clearly superior even on this one example alone. But from the perspective of growth and development of children [effective outcome expectations of schools], this example points to the deficiencies of large size. If you count up the prosocial roles of a school [class government, valedictorian, student messenger, etc.] and realize that with increasing size in order to diminish costs, we have also diminished the number of prosocial roles available to our children, we begin to have an outline of pragmatic concern. Economies of size can diminish quality of environment 1.

Costs cannot be truly separated from quality. If the cost of educating a child poorly results in added costs of incarceration or ‘treatment’; we have missed the point. A prosocial environment has certain size requirements that provide for the ability of children to be close to the teachers and students and make available as many prosocial roles as possible. Within this framework there is some possibility to identify and correct inappropriate or ineffective stimulus control and to influence aggression modeling as well as direct and indirect reinforcement. Environments that exceed evolutionary limits diminish this potential.

From a social learning perspective, student aggression may occur as a result of complex interactions of these issues requiring interventions at the environmental as well as the individual level and that both the context and the function of aggressive behavior must be considered when developing interventions. [Rutherford & Nelson, 1995]. A cultural evolution within the school which enables individuals and groups within the environment to provide acceptable alternatives to antisocial behavior becomes a significant initiative. The creation of such a social ethos will be based upon creating positive energy flow from the fundamental strength of the present system; the development of positive high expectations which create a Pygmalion effect not only from leadership, but from peers as well; and finally by the teaching of a repertoire of behaviors which are necessary for the individual in the situation to have the capacity to carry out the sociocultural functions.

The expectation that teachers can play the role of teachers [instead of policemen] and that students can be responsible decision makers who are reinforced by other students for making ‘good choices’ is enhanced by the fact that we are returning teachers to their own skill and knowledge base 2. The fact that prosocial skills of both interpsychic and interpersonal focus require modeling, role playing, performance feedback, and transfer training sequence just as in math and reading, make it an educational role and function. The evolutionary process is directed at providing teachers with content and dialogue which will enable them to reduce personal, moralistic and pejorative dialogue while increasing prosocial skill training as part of the educational content. Along with the direct teaching, themes and artifacts provide continued awareness of prosocial values.

Along with the attempts to develop more prosocial and less pathological personal approaches in all children, Gilbert has indicated at least two variables that can also potentially help improve the disabled child’s self depreciating perspective. The first is that a de-energized system [person] finds it difficult to perform the analytic work necessary to deal with incoherent propositions and therefore will tend to accept them as true without analysis. The second is that human beings prefer their beliefs to be gratifying as well as true. Thus several intervention strategies become available to the practitioner:

• the teacher can bombard the child with incoherent propositions [in this case – you’re OK statements to overcome the belief that s/he is bad, stupid, etc.]; fill the environment with propositions which, if they are believed, provide a schemata which supports prosocial behaviors.3

• the teacher can use techniques to de-energize the child while the incoherent [you’re OK] propositions are being made; i.e., during self-instruction the child is telling him/herself that s/he is OK and the telling de-energizes the system sufficiently to avoid analytic work.4

• finally, since the “you’re OK “ message is much more likely to be gratifying than a “you’re not OK” messages, there is an enhanced acceptance of the belief.

Behavioral-ecological assessment involves the evaluation of observable student behaviors over the range of environmental settings in which they occur [Kerr & Nelson, 1989]. The goals are to (a) identify the specific interpersonal and environmental variables within each setting that influence behavior; (b) analyze the behavioral expectations for various settings; and (c) compare those expectations with the student’s behavior across the settings [Polsgrove, 1987]. This assessment strategy has yielded a rich supply of information about the environmental factors that influence aggressive behavior. [Rutherford & Nelson, 1995]

William F. Buckley [1985] suggests that “(t)he three generic sanctions that cause societies to cohere are social, legal, and divine.” Neither the school nor the community in general can innovate the icons of spiritual belief or develop the specific initiatives of law. The school can, however, and does without conscious awareness, influence the social sanctions that implicate our sociocultural behavior. And indirectly, as that social ethos changes, the legal and moral efforts of the other constructs will begin to reflect such changes. The insistence on punishment over rehabilitation is a legal response to the need to be more ‘macho’ than the criminal in an ethos where ‘might makes right’. In fact, failure to respond in such a manner is ludicrous, since the society disapproves of ‘bleeding heart’ responses, thereby changing the character of individual response. Even religious responses are modified as the church becomes ‘less relevant’ to the general public in an amoral ethos and some spiritual leaders even modify the word to meet the needs of the time.

The discussion leads us to the need for schools to consciously address the issues of social environment and social learning as a means to providing a prosocial impetus to a changing society.

From the book by Jerome R. Gardner – “Seeking Coherence” Book III – 12/19/97

  1. While arguably having great benefits, the advent of Child Labor Laws and minimum wage have also reduced the number of productive roles as work for children both very young and adolescent have diminished as well.
  2. Actually, one of two alternative routes to teaching prevails. The ‘mimetic’ education requires the aspects required here and is the major process used in American schools. The ‘transformative’ approach has the teacher serving as coach or facilitator rather than model. Even teachers using the transformative approach probably can use mimetic processes that align more closely to learning basic skills.
  3. Rutherford & Nelson [1995] have reported that Walker et al. [1995] noted that although students who behave antisocially initially may not be responsive to adult praise because of a history of negative adult interactions, social reinforcement paired with other behavior enhancements procedures eventually will increase the positive valence of praise.
  4.  Perhaps even more important than that, Jones, etal [1981] suggests that “We may come to believe what we say about ourselves… Or even believe something just because we expect to hear it” [McFarland, et al – 1984] since the operation of tactical mental control makes our minds reflect our outward social performance.” The implications are a ‘form follows function’ model of Confucian philosophy – “If you want a polite man, first have him act polite”. If we extrapolate and have children say they are OK, and teach them prosocial behaviors with which to act OK, there is every likelihood that they will become OK.