The term antisocial behavior was originally defined as recurring violations of socially prescribed norms across a range of contexts (e.g., school, home, and community). Antisocial behaviors include verbal and physical aggression toward others, disregard for authority figures, readiness to break rules, and a breach of society’s social norms and mores. In the school setting, antisocial behaviors are manifested in the form of noncompliance, defiance, bullying, truancy, stealing, aggression, and eventually, school dropout. Aggression—physical, verbal, and gestural— is the hallmark characteristic of antisocial behavior. Although aggression provides these youngsters with short-term rewards, aggressive behavior is aversive to others and leads to rejection. By definition, antisocial is the opposite of prosocial, which is characterized by positive, cooperative social interaction patterns.
Researchers and practitioners often conceptualize problem behaviors as being either externalizing or internalizing problems. Externalizing behaviors refer to behavior problems that are outer directed or undercontrolled (e.g., aggression and disruption.). In contrast, internalizing behaviors refer to behavior problems that are inner directed or overcontrolled (e.g., somatic complaints, anxiety, and depression). Antisocial behavior can be viewed as a subclass of externalizing behaviors and the foundation for conduct disorder (CD), a psychiatric diagnosis. This is particularly disturbing given that conduct disorder is viewed as a chronic, lifelong condition that is often not responsive to adult-controlled tactics and is very resistant to intervention efforts.
Antisocial behavior, which is viewed as a precursor to delinquency and criminality, is an all too common form of psychopathology among today’s youth. It is the most frequently cited reason children are referred for mental health services. In fact, almost half of all referrals are due to antisocial behaviors. Without intervention, students with antisocial behavior are at risk for a host of short-term and long-term negative consequences.
Comorbidity refers to the co-occurrence of disorders. Comorbidity is a concern given that having more than one disorder may produce a highly negative “multiplier effect.” Youths with antisocial behavior are often comorbid with learning disabilities, depression, and hyperactivity. Youngsters with antisocial behaviors often have learning disabilities and academic underachievement in general. Some evidence suggests that these academic deficits actually broaden over time, whereas other evidence suggests that the deficits maintain over time. Youths with antisocial behavior and depression are also at heightened risk for pejorative outcomes such as suicide. The combination of antisocial behavior and problems of hyperactivity impulsivity-inattention (HIA) also leads to heightened risk for destructive outcomes (e.g., impaired relationships with teachers and peers, academic failure) as well as the clinical diagnosis of conduct disorders. Some suggest that the co-occurrence of conduct problems and HIA is a precursor to criminality and other serious forms of psychopathology.
Unfortunately, high-risk populations are often vulnerable to multiple-risk disorders, having a strong negative impact on their development. Consequently, it is important that screening and assessment procedures attend to multiple problems and disorders evidenced by this population. It is particularly important to address aggression early on because aggression is highly stable over time, with the consequences of aggression increasing in magnitude as children develop.
Impact On Children And Families
Antisocial behaviors can be devastating to the individual, the family, the school, and the community as a whole. Antisocial behavior can occur either early in a child’s development or later during adolescence. Outcomes are much worse for those youth with early onset antisocial behavior. Antisocial behavior evident early in a child’s educational career is actually the single best predictor of delinquency during adolescence. In fact, 70% of youths with antisocial behavior have been arrested at least once within 3 years of leaving school.
Antisocial behavior is believed to be developmentally salient by age 3 or 4 and is relatively stable by age 8. Researchers have suggested that after age 8, antisocial behavior and conduct disorders should be viewed as chronic lifelong disorders, such as diabetes. In other words, the disorder can be managed, but there is no cure. This is not to suggest that it becomes “too late” to intervene, just that the intervention shifts from prevention to remediation.
As previously mentioned, the stability of antisocial behavior over a 10-year period is about equal to the stability of intelligence, with the correlation for IQ approximating 0.70 and the correlation for aggression approximating 0.80. In general, the more severe the antisocial behavior pattern, the more stable the behavior over time and across settings (e.g., home, school, and community). These youngsters are at severe risk for a host of aversive short-term and long-term negative consequences ranging from school failure, school dropout, impaired social relationships, substance abuse, employment problems, higher rates of motor vehicle crashes, higher rates of hospitalization, and higher mortality rates.
Given that children and youth with antisocial behavior patterns become less amenable to intervention efforts over time, it is important that early detection and intervention techniques be employed to divert these youngsters from going down this destructive path.
The research community is in agreement that the best way to intervene with antisocial behavior is to identify these youth as early as possible and then provide interventions that encompasses (a) parents and the home setting, (b) teachers and the classroom setting, and (c) peers and the playground setting.
A single intervention program is rarely sufficient to address the multiple challenges of antisocial behavior. Antisocial behavior represents a wide array of behaviors that differ in onset, etiology, risk factors, and clinical course. Dimensions within a behavior can vary in frequency, intensity, repetitiveness, and chronicity. Despite the challenges of addressing antisocial behavior, many evidence-based interventions have proved effective in decreasing antisocial behavior in children.
Family-focused interventions that have proved effective in decreasing antisocial behavior in children are family therapy and parent management training. Both interventions focus on the family unit to increase positive communication skills, structure within the home, problem solving, and social-learning techniques.
Classroom interventions are often child centered and require commitment from the school as well as the classroom teacher. Behavior therapy and problem-solving skills training have met with demonstrated success in decreasing antisocial behavior patterns in children. Behavior therapy focuses on learning new positive behaviors that will replace the antisocial behaviors. Problem-solving skills training focuses on improving cognitive processes and problem-solving skills that underlie social behavior.
Another intervention approach that is useful in developing prosocial behavior and connections with peers is community-wide intervention. This intervention type focuses on activities that promote prosocial behavior that is incompatible with antisocial behavior.
Other intervention efforts, such as individual psychotherapy, group therapy, pharmacotherapy, and residential treatments, have been attempted to prevent the development of antisocial behavior. Individual psychotherapy and group therapy have not produced strong effects. Pharmacotherapy and residential treatments are usually reserved for the more severe antisocial behaviors. Pharmacotherapy is designed to affect the biological systems that research findings have correlated to aggressive and emotional behaviors. Although residential treatments have yielded behavior changes, these changes typically do not sustain when children are reintegrated into their school and home settings.
As mentioned earlier, the focus of intervention efforts employed vary according to the age of the child. For example, interventions for children in preschool through grade 3 focus on prevention strategies such as social skills instruction (designed to improve teacher-, peer-, and self-related forms of adjustment), academic instruction, family support, and early screening and identification. Interventions used for children in grades 4 through 6 focus on remediation, such as social skills training, study skills to improve academic performance and competence, and family support. Interventions used for children in grades 7 and 8 focus on amelioration, such as self-control, academic skills, prevocational skills, and family support. Finally, interventions used at the high school level (grades 9 through 12) include survival skills, vocational skills, transition to work, and coping skills.
In general, interventions should focus on achieving school success, gaining acceptance from teachers and peers, staying in school as long as possible, and going on to lead a productive life. These can be best accomplished by teaching replacement adaptive behavior patterns. Factors that increase positive outcomes of interventions include the comprehensiveness, intensity, length, and fidelity of the intervention.
Schools that have demonstrated effectiveness in preventing antisocial behavior problems have many common characteristics. They ensure the principal’s support, provide high-quality staff training, supervise prevention activities, use structured materials and programs, integrate programs into normal school operations, embed programs in a school planning activity, and create structures and systems to promote the use of best practices and implement them with high degrees of fidelity.
With sustained commitment to school-wide reform and institutional commitment to empower staff, students, and parents, children with antisocial behavior patterns are likely to improve and become productive members of society.
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