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Unlearning Violence

Over the years, in an effort to curb student violence, schools increasingly have turned to metal detectors and stepped-up security patrols, with limited success. But many teachers, school administers, parents, and others have maintained that there are better options, that violence among young people is not inevitable. A hopeful new study confirms that belief, showing that children can "unlearn" violent behavior.

Violence, experts say, is learned at an early age, and that's the best time to unlearn it. The study, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, involved 790 second- and third-graders at 12 schools in Washington State. After observation over a period of time, the researchers found that students who were taught the "Second Step" violence prevention curriculum exhibited about 30 fewer acts of aggressive behavior each day than those who didn't take the course.

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These researchers are quick to point out that Second Step and thousands of similar programs are not, by themselves, the solution to the problem of violence. But the study is at least early evidence that programs designed to teach children how to better deal with conflict - those that emphasize empathy and teach problem-solving, for example - can be effective. As one school administrator told the Monitor not long ago, these programs aren't only about stopping the violence in schools; they're about increasing the climate of nonviolence.

Critics say programs like Second Step can get in the way of academics and may teach values that are at odds with a family's beliefs. Those are legitimate concerns. But violence, and the fear of it, hinder learning. Hence well-designed conflict-resolution programs can enhance education.

We've been hearing discouraging statistics about violence and young people for several years now. Experts point out that violence has begun to be viewed as acceptable behavior - that it has almost become the norm. Programs such as Second Step can send a message to children that violence is not acceptable and is not normal. It's also not foreordained. As this latest study shows, violence can be unlearned.

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