I t is Monday morning, fifteen minutes into class, and already Brian
and James, two second graders in a city school, have been out of their
seats three times, bickering and posturing, finally ending with a scuffle
on the floor. Another week of classroom disarray begins. Another com-
mitted teacher is frustrated and dismayed, aware that the performance
test scores for this class are falling, not progressing. In a small town
halfway across the country, Jenny and Andre, two four-year-olds, are
swearing and exchanging obscene gestures at their child care center.
The staff shake their heads and wonder if there are any sweet, cute kids
anywhere. Incidents like these are repeated across the nation from urban cen-
ters to rural communities. Impulsive student aggressiveness is escalating
while test scores are plummeting. Are these two realities interconnected?
And more importantly, why is this happening now in your school, center,
The reasons are multiple and complex. Children in the United States
are growing up in a culture where violence is glamorized in entertain-
ment and sports. Changes in family structure and mobility can lead to a
loss of connectedness with relatives and supportive adults in children’s
lives. The number of children living in poverty has increased in the past
decade, and it is not uncommon for children to witness violence within
their homes or on the streets that surround them.
Throughout history, children have witnessed frightening events as a
result of natural disasters or human activities. Many recovered success-
fully and have moved on to have happy and healthy lives. What is differ-
ent today is the combined effects of societal changes in both family and
community. Families work, play, and eat differently from their ances-
tors. Children are repeatedly exposed to real and fictional violent acts
on the TV screens in their living rooms. These experiences—and many
others—affect both children’s and adults’ brain development.
Young children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of violence.
Children who witness family violence may never feel safe unless they
receive support from caring adults. Without support, children exposed to
familial violence experience persistent or “toxic” stress, which has lifelong