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.

Unfortunately there is a real danger that early warning signs will be misinterpreted. Educators and parents and in some cases students can ensure that the early warning signs are not misread 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 be used as rationale to exclude, isolate, or punish a child. Nor should it 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 and 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 and/or situations can set it off. Some children act out if stress becomes too great, if they lack positive coping skills and if they’ve learned to react with aggression.

Bad SeedsAvoid stereotypes. Stereotypes can interfere with and even harm the school community’sability to identify and help children. It is important to be aware of false cues including race, socioeconomic status, cognitive or academic ability, or physical appearance. In fact, such stereotypes can 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 won’t be misinterpreted. 

Understand that children typically exhibit multiple warning signs. It is common for children who are troubled to exhibit multiple warning 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 leads to violence. However, educators and parents and sometimes students can recognize certain early warning signs. In some situations and for some youth, different combination 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 early warning signs, especially when they are presented in combination, indicate a need for further analysis to determine an appropriate intervention.

We know from research that most children who become violent toward self or others feel rejected and psychologically 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 a severe aggression or violence. However, research also shows that when children have a positive, meaningful connection to an adult whether it is at home, in school or in the community the potential for violence is reduced significantly.

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:

Kids In HallSocial 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 who may be troubled, withdrawn, or have internal issues that hinder 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 ways including violence. Some aggressive children seek out aggressive friends, who, in turn, reinforce their violent tendencies.

Being a victim of violence. Children who have been victims of violence including physical or sexual abuse in the community, at school, or at home are sometimes at risk themselves of becoming violent toward themselves or others.

Feelings of being picked on and/or 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 and violence.

Low school interest and poor academic performance. Poor achievement can be the result of many factors. It is important to consider whether there is a drastic change in performance and/or performance becomes a chronic condition that limits the child’s capacity to learn. In some cases, such as when the low achiever feels frustrated, unworthy, chastised, and denigrated acting out and aggressive behaviors may occur. It is important to assess the emotional and cognitive reasons for the academic performance change to determine the root cause(s) 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 professional such as a school psychologist, counselor or other mental health specialist to determine its meaning.

FistUncontrolled 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 and/or others.

Patterns of impulsive hitting 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 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 and adults.

Past history of violent and aggressive behavior. Unless provided with support and counseling, a youth who has a history of aggressive and 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 behaviors. 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 12) are more likely to show violence later on than 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 parent’s 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 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.

Teen DrinkingDrug 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 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 if firearms. Children and youth who inappropriately possess or have access to firearms can have 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 indicators 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 out.

Excerpted from Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to safe Schools published by the U.S. Department of education as a public domain document.
This guide was produced by the center for Effective Collaboration and practice of the American Institutes for research in collaboration with the national Association of School Psychologists, under a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Office of Special Education Programs. Copies can be ordered from USDE by calling 1-877-433-7827 or e-mailing:

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