Reducing Children's Aggression Using Observational Learning
Use observational learning to modify the who-what-where-when of aggression.
Posted Nov 01, 2020
All children (like all people) can be verbally and physically aggressive. All children (like all people) are more likely to act aggressively when frustrated. Neuro-developmentally atypical children experience more frustration than most: lost notebooks, forgotten assignments, hours to complete homework, frequent corrections from parents and teachers, difficulties with bedtime routines, and more. Many neuro-developmentally atypical children are brought to my practice because of overly frequent and intense aggressive episodes in response to these kinds of frustrations.
When working with these children, I often try to help parents realize that humans have evolved to feel anger in response to frustration and, in some circumstances, behave aggressively, and those angry feelings and even (infrequent) aggressive behaviors are "normal" and adaptive. The goal of our work together is not to suppress or eliminate all anger and aggression. Our work is instead about influencing when and where their child becomes angry, with whom or what their child becomes angry, and how their child expresses anger. Similarly, our work together is about influencing when and where their child (hopefully rarely) behaves aggressively, against whom their child (hopefully rarely) aggress, and how their child (hopefully rarely) behaves aggressively.
I then try to help parents understand that the (a) children (like all people) learn when and where to aggress, against whom to aggress, and how to aggress; (b) alternatives to aggressive behavior can also be learned, and (c) there are effective, learning theory and research-based, strategies for helping children replace aggressive behaviors with alternative behaviors.
One way we learn is through reinforcement. Any behavior that is rewarded, or reinforced, is more likely to occur in the future. This includes aggression. I could use this space to talk about using differential reinforcement (not reinforcing aggressive behaviors, rewarding alternative behaviors, or "positive opposites") to decrease the frequency of aggression and increase the frequency of alternatives to aggression. I imagine, though, that if you are far enough along in your career as a parent of a neuro-developmentally atypical child to be reading this blog post, you are already aware of these kinds of behavior management or "parent training" concepts and strategies.
So I won"t focus on differential reinforcement strategies here (you may go to Kazdin (2009), reference below, for an outstanding introduction and comprehensive approach). I will instead focus on how children (like all people) learn and can re-learn the when, where, who, and how of aggressive behaviors through observation and modeling.
Learning Aggressive Behavior — Observation and Modeling
Children (like all people, but even more so than adults) learn by watching and imitating others (social modeling). Children are wired by evolution to pay close attention to and model the behaviors of people in their immediate social environments (family, peers, teachers, etc.). This, along with reinforcement, is how children learn the specific language, norms of respect (how to show respect and to whom), gender roles, etc. of their group (family, clan, community, tribe, ethnic group, country). This, along with reinforcement, is how children learn to identify and express emotions, including anger and aggression.
Younger children are wired to pay especially close attention to and model the behavior of (a) people with whom they have a nurturing relationship and (b) people who have social control over them. That would be you, parents (and perhaps grandparents, older siblings, other relatives and teachers, and coaches). Older children are also wired to pay especially close attention to their peers (friend group, classmates, teammates, community groups, etc.).
One way to think of observational learning of aggression is that children develop aggressive scripts by observing the aggressive actions of important people in their lives. A script is a set of cognitive-emotional-behavioral associations, stored in memory, that help us quickly and automatically (usually out of awareness) predict how a social interaction is likely to play out and quickly and automatically generate a response. An aggressive script is accessed when a situation looks like-sounds like-feels like the situations in which the script was originally learned. Children with more strongly developed aggressive scripts for particular situations are more likely to respond aggressively in those situations.
Learning Alternatives to Aggressive Behaviors — Observation and Modeling
It is important to identify the behaviors in which you want your child to engage, when frustrated, instead of aggressive behaviors (behavior that is incompatible with aggression, aggression cannot occur while that behavior is occurring, what Kazdin (2009) calls "positive opposites). These might include withdrawing from the conflict / taking a break; communicating what they are experiencing verbally, in writing, or via drawing; reminding themselves of the (negative) consequences of aggression; physical exercise, or relaxation exercises such as deep breathing, etc.
One way to creatively individualize alternative behaviors is to pay attention to the times when your child manages frustration without aggression, or at least with less aggression than sometimes occurs (what Bannink (2006) and other solution-focused therapists call "exceptions" to the problem). What did you/your child do or think differently? How did you/your child learn to do or think that? Any differences in the context or sequence of events leading up to the "difference." What might happen if this different way of thinking and behaving happened more often? Is this a difference that can make a difference?
Of course, as you likely already know, it is best to regularly and consistently positively reinforce these "positive opposites" or "exceptions." Catch your child doing well. An episode in which your child begins to become frustrated and does not, or does not escalate as much as they usually do, is gold. For example, a time when your child is frustrated by homework, yells, pounds the table, stomps around a bit and then returns to work. You might notice this with the child, ask your child how they did that, and effusively praise them or reward them in some other way.
It can be just as important, though, to help your child develop new scripts using observational learning.
First identify, collaboratively with your child if possible, a list of frustrating situations (homework struggles, sibling intrusion, the transition from gaming to bed, etc.) and a list of alternative behaviors for those situations.
Then model these alternative behaviors: Role-play yourself, with your child watching, responding to these frustrating situations in better ways. Try to have someone pretend to "reinforce" you — for example, another parent or partner.
Next, rehearse — role-play — these situations and desired behaviors together with your child. You can be the parent asking about homework or telling them it's time for bed and they can respond appropriately. Be sure to reinforce successful role-plays, or early on even partial successes (this is known as shaping or successive approximation).
Support this learning with ongoing, real-life, or "in-vivo" modeling. When you experience frustration or a setback, when with your child at home, in the car, etc., state out loud something like "oh, X just happened and it is frustrating, I feel angry and want to Y, but I am thinking Z and/ or of doing Z instead". If you have a co-parent or partner or someone else available have them reward you (with praise, a hug, etc.) Repeat this regularly.
You can also support this learning by jointly, together with your family, thinking through and discussing your family values. What kinds of people do you want to be and want your children to be? How do you want to act towards other people, even difficult and frustrating people, and how do you want them to act? Check in with follow-up meetings to see how things are going. An example of a more focused approach might be a father sitting down with his son and discussing what kind of man he strives to be and hopes his son will be when he grows up — a warrior? A guardian?
It can help to jointly read books, watch movies or TV shows, discuss religious services and stories and even play video games with your child, especially books, movies, etc. your child is interested in, and notice times when major characters manage conflict and setbacks without aggression and instead behave in ways that are similar to the "exceptions" or "positive opposites" you are working to develop. The Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Anne of Green Gables, and Little House on the Prairie series provide many good examples.
Finally, guide your child as they grow older and move out into the world and become more and more involved with and influenced by peer and community groups. Find sports teams with coaches that teach and model pro-social behavior. Find community groups such as girl or boy scouts with a well-articulated, and frequently reviewed, code of ethics. You can try religious services and youth groups. Also, volunteer service organizations (I have worked with some teens who have been hugely influenced by a week away with Habitat for Humanity). Discuss with your child the groups and leaders you observe: What are their strengths and weaknesses? What are their values? Is this how we (you) want to be as you grow into an adult? The kind of teacher or coach you would want to be? How can you be a pro-social leader in these settings?
Bannink, F. (2006). 1001 solution-focused questions: Handbook for solution-focused
interviewing (revised 2nd edition). New York: W. W. Norton.
Franzoi, S. L. (2006). Social Psychology. (4th Edition). Boston: McGraw-Hill
Kazdin, A. (2009). The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child. NY: Mariner Books.