|Section 3: What to Look For
Why didn't we see it coming? In the wake of violence, we ask this question not so much
to place blame, but to understand better what we can do to prevent such an occurrence from
ever happening again. We review over and over in our minds the days leading up to the
incident did the child say or do anything that would have cued us in to the
impending crisis? Did we miss an opportunity to help?
There are early warning signs in most cases of violence to self and others
certain behavioral and emotional signs that, when viewed in context, can signal a troubled
child. But early warning signs are just that indicators that a student may need
Such signs may or may not indicate a serious problem they do not necessarily
mean that a child is prone to violence toward self or others. Rather, early warning signs
provide us with the impetus to check out our concerns and address the child's needs. Early
warning signs allow us to act responsibly by getting help for the child before problems
Early warning signs can help frame concern for a child. However, it is important to
avoid inappropriately labeling or stigmatizing individual students because they appear to
fit a specific profile or set of early warning indicators. It's okay to be worried about a
child, but it's not okay to overreact and jump to conclusions.
Teachers and administrators and other school support staff are not
professionally trained to analyze children's feelings and motives. But they are on the
front line when it comes to observing troublesome behavior and making referrals to
appropriate professionals, such as school psychologists, social workers, counselors, and
nurses. They also play a significant role in responding to diagnostic information provided
by specialists. Thus, it is no surprise that effective schools take special care in
training the entire school community to understand and identify early warning signs.
When staff members seek help for a troubled child, when friends report worries about a
peer or friend, when parents raise concerns about their child's thoughts or habits,
children can get the help they need. By actively sharing information, a school community
can provide quick, effective responses.
Principles for Identifying the Early Warning
Signs of School Violence
Educators and families can increase their ability to recognize early warning signs by
establishing close, caring, and supportive relationships with children and youth
getting to know them well enough to be aware of their needs, feelings, attitudes, and
behavior patterns. Educators and parents together can review school records for patterns
of behavior or sudden changes in behavior.
Unfortunately, there is a real danger that early warning signs will be
misinterpreted. Educators and parentsand in some cases, studentscan
ensure that the early warning signs are not misinterpreted by using several significant
principles to better understand them. These principles include:
Do no harm. There are certain risks associated with using early
warning signs to identify children who are troubled. First and foremost, the intent should
be to get help for a child early. The early warning signs should not to be used as
rationale to exclude, isolate, or punish a child. Nor should they be used as a checklist
for formally identifying, mislabeling, or stereotyping children. Formal disability
identification under federal law requires individualized evaluation by qualified
professionals. In addition, all referrals to outside agencies based on the early warning
signs must be kept confidential and must be done with parental consent (except referrals
for suspected child abuse or neglect).
Understand violence and aggression within a context. Violence
is contextual. Violent and aggressive behavior as an expression of emotion may have many
antecedent factors factors that exist within the school, the home, and the larger
social environment. In fact, for those children who are at risk for aggression and
violence, certain environments or situations can set it off. Some children may act out if
stress becomes too great, if they lack positive coping skills, and if they have learned to
react with aggression.
Avoid stereotypes. Stereotypes can interfere with and
even harm the school community's ability to identify and help children. It is
important to be aware of false cues including race, socio-economic status,
cognitive or academic ability, or physical appearance. In fact, such stereotypes can
unfairly harm children, especially when the school community acts upon them.
View warning signs within a developmental context. Children and
youth at different levels of development have varying social and emotional capabilities.
They may express their needs differently in elementary, middle, and high school. The point
is to know what is developmentally typical behavior, so that behaviors are not
Understand that children typically exhibit multiple warning signs.
It is common for children who are troubled to exhibit multiple signs. Research confirms
that most children who are troubled and at risk for aggression exhibit more than one
warning sign, repeatedly, and with increasing intensity over time. Thus, it is important
not to overreact to single signs, words, or actions.
Early Warning Signs
It is not always possible to predict behavior that will lead to violence. However,
educators and parentsand sometimes studentscan recognize certain early warning
signs. In some situations and for some youth, different combinations of events, behaviors,
and emotions may lead to aggressive rage or violent behavior toward self or others. A good
rule of thumb is to assume that these warning signs, especially when they are presented in
combination, indicate a need for further analysis to determine an appropriate
We know from research that most children who become violent toward self or others feel
rejected and psychologically victimized. In most cases, children exhibit aggressive
behavior early in life and, if not provided support, will continue a progressive
developmental pattern toward severe aggression or violence. However, research also shows
that when children have a positive, meaningful connection to an adult whether it be
at home, in school, or in the community the potential for violence is reduced
None of these signs alone is sufficient for predicting aggression and violence.
Moreover, it is inappropriate and potentially harmful to use the early
warning signs as a checklist against which to match individual children. Rather, the early
warning signs are offered only as an aid in identifying and referring children who may
need help. School communities must ensure that staff and students only use the early
warning signs for identification and referral purposes only trained professionals
should make diagnoses in consultation with the child's parents or guardian.
The following early warning signs are presented with the following qualifications: They
are not equally significant and they are not presented in order of seriousness. The early
warning signs include:
Social withdrawal. In some situations, gradual and
eventually complete withdrawal from social contacts can be an important indicator of a
troubled child. The withdrawal often stems from feelings of depression, rejection,
persecution, unworthiness, and lack of confidence.
Excessive feelings of isolation and being alone.
Research has shown that the majority of children who are isolated and appear to be
friendless are not violent. In fact, these feelings are sometimes characteristic of
children and youth who may be troubled, withdrawn, or have internal issues that hinder
development of social affiliations. However, research also has shown that in some cases
feelings of isolation and not having friends are associated with children who behave
aggressively and violently.
Excessive feelings of rejection. In the process
of growing up, and in the course of adolescent development, many young people experience
emotionally painful rejection. Children who are troubled often are isolated from their
mentally healthy peers. Their responses to rejection will depend on many background
factors. Without support, they may be at risk of expressing their emotional distress in
negative waysincluding violence. Some aggressive children who are rejected by
non-aggressive peers seek out aggressive friends who, in turn, reinforce their violent
Being a victim of violence. Children who are
victims of violenceincluding physical or sexual abusein the community, at
school, or at home are sometimes at risk themselves of becoming violent toward themselves
Feelings of being picked on and persecuted. The youth
who feels constantly picked on, teased, bullied, singled out for ridicule, and humiliated
at home or at school may initially withdraw socially. If not given adequate support in
addressing these feelings, some children may vent them in inappropriate ways
including possible aggression or violence.
Low school interest and poor academic performance.
Poor school achievement can be the result of many factors. It is important to consider
whether there is a drastic change in performance and/or poor performance becomes a chronic
condition that limits the child's capacity to learn. In some situationssuch as when
the low achiever feels frustrated, unworthy, chastised, and denigratedacting out and
aggressive behaviors may occur. It is important to assess the emotional and cognitive
reasons for the academic performance change to determine the true nature of the problem.
Expression of violence in writings and drawings.
Children and youth often express their thoughts, feelings, desires, and intentions in
their drawings and in stories, poetry, and other written expressive forms. Many children
produce work about violent themes that for the most part is harmless when taken in
context. However, an overrepresentation of violence in writings and drawings that is
directed at specific individuals (family members, peers, other adults) consistently over
time, may signal emotional problems and the potential for violence. Because there is a
real danger in misdiagnosing such a sign, it is important to seek the guidance of a
qualified professionalsuch as a school psychologist, counselor, or other mental
health specialistto determine its meaning.
Uncontrolled anger. Everyone gets angry; anger is a
natural emotion. However, anger that is expressed frequently and intensely in response to
minor irritants may signal potential violent behavior toward self or others.
Patterns of impulsive and chronic hitting, intimidating, and
bullying behaviors. Children often engage in acts of shoving and mild
aggression. However, some mildly aggressive behaviors such as constant hitting and
bullying of others that occur early in children's lives, if left unattended, might later
escalate into more serious behaviors.
History of discipline problems. Chronic behavior
and disciplinary problems both in school and at home may suggest that underlying emotional
needs are not being met. These unmet needs may be manifested in acting out and aggressive
behaviors. These problems may set the stage for the child to violate norms and rules, defy
authority, disengage from school, and engage in aggressive behaviors with other children
Past history of violent and aggressive behavior.
Unless provided with support and counseling, a youth who has a history of aggressive or
violent behavior is likely to repeat those behaviors. Aggressive and violent acts may be
directed toward other individuals, be expressed in cruelty to animals, or include fire
setting. Youth who show an early pattern of antisocial behavior frequently and across
multiple settings are particularly at risk for future aggressive and antisocial behavior.
Similarly, youth who engage in overt behaviors such as bullying, generalized aggression
and defiance, and covert behaviors such as stealing, vandalism, lying, cheating, and fire
setting also are at risk for more serious aggressive behavior. Research suggests that age
of onset may be a key factor in interpreting early warning signs. For example, children
who engage in aggression and drug abuse at an early age (before age 12) are more likely to
show violence later on than are children who begin such behavior at an older age. In the
presence of such signs it is important to review the child's history with behavioral
experts and seek parents' observations and insights.
Intolerance for differences and prejudicial attitudes.
All children have likes and dislikes. However, an intense prejudice toward others based on
racial, ethnic, religious, language, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and physical
appearance when coupled with other factors may lead to violent assaults
against those who are perceived to be different. Membership in hate groups or the
willingness to victimize individuals with disabilities or health problems also should be
treated as early warning signs.
Drug use and alcohol use. Apart from being unhealthy
behaviors, drug use and alcohol use reduces self-control and exposes children and youth to
violence, either as perpetrators, as victims, or both.
Affiliation with gangs. Gangs that support anti-social
values and behaviors including extortion, intimidation, and acts of violence toward
other students cause fear and stress among other students. Youth who are influenced
by these groups those who emulate and copy their behavior, as well as those who
become affiliated with them may adopt these values and act in violent or aggressive
ways in certain situations. Gang-related violence and turf battles are common occurrences
tied to the use of drugs that often result in injury and/or death.
Inappropriate access to, possession of, and use of firearms.
Children and youth who inappropriately possess or have access to firearms can have an
increased risk for violence. Research shows that such youngsters also have a higher
probability of becoming victims. Families can reduce inappropriate access and use by
restricting, monitoring, and supervising children's access to firearms and other weapons.
Children who have a history of aggression, impulsiveness, or other emotional problems
should not have access to firearms and other weapons.
Serious threats of violence. Idle threats are a common
response to frustration. Alternatively, one of the most reliable indicators that a youth
is likely to commit a dangerous act toward self or others is a detailed and specific
threat to use violence. Recent incidents across the country clearly indicate that threats
to commit violence against oneself or others should be taken very seriously. Steps must be
taken to understand the nature of these threats and to prevent them from being carried
Identifying and Responding to Imminent Warning
Unlike early warning signs, imminent warning signs indicate that a student is very
close to behaving in a way that is potentially dangerous to self and/or to others.
Imminent warning signs require an immediate response.
No single warning sign can predict that a dangerous act will occur. Rather, imminent
warning signs usually are presented as a sequence of overt, serious, hostile behaviors or
threats directed at peers, staff, or other individuals. Usually, imminent warning signs
are evident to more than one staff memberas well as to the child's family.
- Imminent warning signs may include:
- Serious physical fighting with peers or family members.
- Severe destruction of property.
- Severe rage for seemingly minor reasons.
- Detailed threats of lethal violence.
- Possession and/or use of firearms and other weapons.
- Other self-injurious behaviors or threats of suicide.
When warning signs indicate that danger is imminent, safety must always
be the first and foremost consideration. Action must be taken immediately. Immediate
intervention by school authorities and possibly law enforcement officers is needed when a
Has presented a detailed plan (time, place, method) to harm or kill others
particularly if the child has a history of aggression or has attempted to carry out
threats in the past.
Is carrying a weapon, particularly a firearm, and has threatened to use it.
In situations where students present other threatening behaviors, parents
should be informed of the concerns immediately. School communities also have the
responsibility to seek assistance from appropriate agencies, such as child and family
services and community mental health. These responses should reflect school board policies
and be consistent with the violence prevention and response plan (for more information see
Using the Early Warning Signs To Shape Intervention Practices
An early warning sign is not a predictor that a child or youth will commit a violent
act toward self or others. Effective schools recognize the potential in every child to
overcome difficult experiences and to control negative emotions. Adults in these school
communities use their knowledge of early warning signs to address problems before they
escalate into violence.
Effective school communities support staff, students, and families in understanding the
early warning signs. Support strategies include having:
School board policies in place that support training and ongoing consultation.
The entire school community knows how to identify early warning signs, and understands the
principles that support them.
School leaders who encourage others to raise concerns about observed early
warning signs and to report all observations of imminent warning signs immediately. This
is in addition to school district policies that sanction and promote the identification of
early warning signs.
Easy access to a team of specialists trained in evaluating and addressing
serious behavioral and academic concerns.
Each school community should develop a procedure that students and staff can follow
when reporting their concerns about a child who exhibits early warning signs. For example,
in many schools the principal is the first point of contact. In cases that do not pose
imminent danger, the principal contacts a school psychologist or other qualified
professional, who takes responsibility for addressing the concern immediately. If the
concern is determined to be serious but not to pose a threat of imminent danger
the child's family should be contacted. The family should be consulted before
implementing any interventions with the child. In cases where school-based contextual
factors are determined to be causing or exacerbating the child's troubling behavior, the
school should act quickly to modify them.
It is often difficult to acknowledge that a child is troubled. Everyone
including administrators, families, teachers, school staff, students, and community
members may find it too troubling sometimes to admit that a child close to them
needs help. When faced with resistance or denial, school communities must persist to
ensure that children get the help they need.
Understanding early and imminent warning signs is an essential step in ensuring a safe
school. The next step involves supporting the emotional and behavioral adjustment of