The roots of violence start in the first years of life as children who don’t know how to solve problems turn to aggression. You can spot children in preschool who are at risk for becoming violent teens. They are the 4-year-olds who solve all their social problems physically. If they want a truck, they grab it and then sock the little kid who had it first. If accidentally bumped, they shove the offender back harder.

Of course, all children who grab, hit, and shove won’t become violent teens. After all, this is normal behavior for young children. Some will outgrow it, but others won’t. Instead they will develop deeply ingrained ways of approaching problems, which can lead directly from preschool aggression to teenage violence.

Four weaknesses in problem-solving skills are exhibited by teenage offenders:

  1. They make assumptions about a situation and neglect to get further information.
  2. They seldom give anyone the benefit of the doubt, but see everyone as a potential adversary. They think people are “out to get them.”
  3. They have a narrow vision of alternative solutions and rely mainly on violence.
  4. They fail to consider consequences when they lash out.

Adults can help young children develop problem-solving skills before the weakness becomes ingrained. They can help children clarify situations, consider consequences, and explore alternatives to aggression.

To help, the adult must be on the spot when difficulties arise between children. It’s important to intervene before the action gets physical. For example, as the 4-year-old grabs for the truck in the other child’s hands, the adult can stop him and say, “You really want the truck. I wonder what you can do besides grabbing it.” If the child’s response shows he can’t think of anything but grabbing, the adult can list some other ideas.

This is not a natural approach for most adults, especially when the tendency is to meet child aggression with adult aggression. That’s where training comes in. Teachers can learn to take this approach and model it for parents. Aggression can also be the subject of a parent meeting. Certainly most families are interested in both how to keep their children safe from the aggression of other children and/or manage the aggression they find in their own children. Skillful intervention by adults is a skill well worth learning.

It’s important that adults not be critical or judgmental when they intervene. This approach is about talking it through, not giving lectures on being nice. Tone of voice and attitude are all-important as the adult guides the talking. The goal is for the children to begin to see the other’s perspective and consider alternative solutions.

Four qualities are important when helping children talk to each other in a conflict situation:

  1. Firmness should come through—“I won’t let you grab or hurt.”
  2. Empathy also should come through—“I know how much you want that truck.”
  3. A problem-solving attitude rather than a power play must be part of the exchange—“He might give it to you if you ask him.”
  4. Persistence is critical—“Well, asking didn’t work. I wonder what else you could try.”

The objective is not to solve the problem in a particular way for the child but to help him discover his own alternatives to violence.

Adults often short-circuit this kind of learning by putting children in time-out. Or they solve the problem themselves: “He had it first; give it back to him.” “If you’re going to fight over that toy, you can’t play with it.” Those adult actions don’t teach the problem-solving skills so necessary for the future.

Skillful intervention makes a difference. We can teach children nonviolence in the preschool years. Of course, teaching alone won’t eliminate violence. Other factors come into play. If the child sees violence at home, on the streets, or on TV, the modeling effect comes in. Or if the child is a victim of abuse, the likelihood of his becoming a perpetrator is increased.

Safe Start is a nationwide program designed to deal with the roots of violence through prevention and intervention. Supported by the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a public/private partnership based in Chicago and built on decades of research on child development, this program is a most promising approach to reducing violence through focusing on children ages birth to 5. Brain research points to the impact of early emotional experiences on brain development, altering both structure and brain chemistry. Early experiences set up patterns of response that can last a lifetime. The program stresses prevention approaches that include helping adults understand how to teach children self-control. Adults in the program learn how to set limits, discourage unacceptable behavior, model appropriate behavior, and reduce the risk factors for violence. Early intervention includes quality early childhood education programs for children, including specialized teacher training in violence prevention. Safe Start approaches are making a lasting difference. Safe Start puts out a six-page brochure called “Safe Start: How Early Experiences Can Help Reduce Violence,” an Ounce of Prevention Fund paper by Theresa Hawley (2000). It can be obtained from the Ounce of Prevention Fund, 122 S. Michigan Ave., Suite 2050, Chicago, IL 60603–6198; (312) 922–3863.

There is no single simple solution to violence. If we are to create a peaceful world to live in, we must take a many-pronged approach. A good prong to start with is to help children learn effective nonviolent problem solving in the early years.