Kindergarten killers

Discusses the increase in the levels of violence in the United States since 1986. How to spot those children most at risk for violent behavior; How most violent teenagers became antisocial and aggressive early in childhood; Types of family problems these kids are shaped by; Possible treatments; The need for early intervention; Study of early intervention labeled FAST Track.

By PT Staff, published on March 1, 1995 - last reviewed on January 23, 2015

Violence Prevention

You've heard the grim litany: One American child is shot to death
every two hours. Murder is the leading cause of death in all blacks.
Males are seven times more likely to be murdered in the U.S. than in
Canada. Yes, we've always been a violent country. But now there's a
difference. Though the crime rate has been relatively stable since 1970,
levels of violence are soaring. Just since 1986, the likelihood that a
kid under 18 will be killed by gun has zoomed 244 percent.

Although crime now peaks at age 17, usually kids are troubled long
before violence erupts. And levels of depravity are increasing. Kids are
more and more disturbed.

While a small proportion of kids first become violent in
adolescence, those kids who are most at risk for violence are antisocial
and aggressive early in childhood, reports John Richters, Ph.D., of the
National Institute of Mental Health. And they come from families with
multiple problems--instability, parent psychopathology, or criminality.
In fact, he told the American Association for Marriage and Family
Therapy, only five percent of families are typically responsible for most
violent crime.

Such kids manifest impulsivity, inattentiveness, and difficult
temperament--early. By middle school, the kids are failing, they have
poor relations with peers and teachers, and they're hanging out with
deviant kids. By early adolescence, they have terrible relationships with
their parents and turn to drugs.

Treatments from medication to social-skills training have been
applied with little success. What's really needed, Richters believes, is
to identify aggression early, and intervene comprehensively "to prevent
kids from developing an antisocial lifestyle." While few problem tots
ever become violent, almost all those who are violent at 17 had problems
early on.

At NIMH, Richters is overseeing a study of early intervention
labeled FAST Track (Families and Schools Together). How early is early?
Kindergartners are assessed for aggression and peer problems. And then a
battery of interventions is brought to bear--parent training, home visits
and child services, social skills training for the kids, and more.

A major goal: to ensure that kids have affective connections with
other people. "If a kid doesn't care about others' feelings;' says
Richters, "then we'll never have any leverage with a kid at all."

PHOTO: Two boys with guns