How does violence affect children? How can teachers help? Child-development expert Dr. James Garbarino shares his advice.

Why is violence an issue teachers should address?

Every child today is affected by violence at home, on the streets, in the media — somewhere. Kids bring the effects of that exposure with them into the classroom. No teacher can afford to close her eyes to this.

What are signs of exposure to traumatic violence?

There are few obvious and unambiguous symptoms. Aggressive behavior is one. Others include: repeated nightmares; recounting violence in an emotionally numb tone; reenacting a horrible event; having extremely startled reactions; or expressing diminished expectations for the future.

If a student recounts or reenacts violence, you might try to discover the source of this behavior by asking: Is this something you saw on TV? Heard about? Remember from a dream? Report what you learn to the mental-health services in your school so the child can get therapeutic help.

Are some children more affected by violence than others?

Although all children are susceptible, some are more vulnerable than others. Children are less likely to be affected if, for example, they have one or more of the following: a strong, positive attachment to at least one loving adult; average or above average intelligence; an active rather than passive or withdrawn coping style; and behavior patterns that are not rigidly sex-stereotyped.

Children who do not have one or more of these qualities are more vulnerable. Kids are most at risk if they experience violence in the home or in more than one domain of their lives — such as both in the home and in the community. Some emotionally disabled children are also more vulnerable to soaking up the violence they see.

Can you explain more about the relationship between violence and aggressive behavior?

It's rare for children who are not exposed to violence to become aggressive. Aggression is a learned behavior with serious consequences. For example, by age eight, patterns of aggression can become well-established in children, and unless these kids receive intervention, the odds increase that they will become aggressive or violent adults. Research reveals that children who are most at risk for developing a serious problem are those who are identified by their own peers as being highly aggressive.

Can pretend violence affect kids in the same way as real violence?

Research tells us that exposure to televised or film violence is like smoking. Here's how the analogy goes: Although some people may smoke for years without exhibiting any obvious ill effects, that doesn't mean that smoking is not bad for their health. At relatively low levels in relatively healthy people, the insidious and harmful effects of smoking may not be noticeable right away. However, if you examine a large sample of people, you'll find that the damaging effects of smoking — or effects of watching Hollywood violence — are there and that they get worse over time.

Also, children who have first-hand experience with real violence in their lives are more immediately and severely affected by make-believe violence.

Can aggressive play get violence out of kids' systems?

Kids who develop a pattern of real aggressive behavior seem less able to engage in fantasy aggressive behavior. For example, if they start acting out violent fantasies with toys, their play tends to escalate into real violence. And a television show or movie might teach about only one kind of power — aggression. It doesn't teach about caring, reasoning, and helping.

Can talking and teaching about violence scare children?

It is my experience that you can talk about almost any topic with children if you approach it correctly. So it's not a matter of whether or not you should broach the subject of violence, but how to broach it. Although young children are very concrete, using visual images is too powerful and intense for them. Children should learn and hear about violence in child-size doses and in terms they can understand.

What's the best way to introduce the topic to kids?

For starters, your best bet is to answer children's questions at a child's level and create opportunities to find out if there are issues on children's minds that they are not bringing up spontaneously. The Let's Talk About Living in a World With Violence Workbook (adapted in the Seven-Step Activity Guide to Teaching About Violence) does this in a structured, educational way. It's also been pretested extensively to make sure that its content doesn't scare kids. If you start from scratch with a topic like this, you'll probably spend a lot of time and energy reinventing the wheel or may even inadvertently stumble into dangerous waters you're not prepared to navigate.

Most teachers have not been trained to teach about violence. What advice can you give them?

Sit down with colleagues; talk about your own experiences and fears, and concerns with and about violence; discuss how you intend to present the subject to kids; and try the Seven-Step Activity Guide. It is important for colleagues to use one another as sounding boards when a local incident or national tragedy has raised the level of anxiety. Even when no recent act has heightened children's and adults' fears, it's still wise to invest time discussing the topic. Should some incident then occur, you'll be more prepared to discuss it with your students.

You don't need to be scared of the topic, because if you address it in an educational way, you can bring the rest of your classroom-tested teaching skills to bear and incorporate lessons about it into already existing plans. For example, in a fairy-tale unit, you'll find plenty of grist for your mill. The issue is embedded in many curriculum areas.

Should teachers involve parents in the process?

Yes. Teachers should let parents know that they're going to be doing an educational unit about aggression — or incorporating that theme into their curriculum, and give parents the opportunity to contact them if they want to know more.

Are there potential problems in working with parents?

There are two sticky issues to keep in mind. First, if the topic of violence in the family comes up, some parents may feel angry because either they insist on their right to use violence against their children in disciplining them or because they fear disclosure of an abusive situation. It's important to find out what your school's policy is on reporting suspected child abuse. Second, some parents may worry that their children will be upset, so teachers should let them know that they'll be talking about violence within an educational framework, not showing kids horrific images.

Should teachers try to reach out to the community, too?

Yes. Recently I spoke at an elementary school that has an advisory committee of teachers, parents, and community representatives. It gets the message out that aggression and violence need to be addressed in school, and pinpoints related issues affecting the community. Also, teachers should work with the PTA or PTO.