Jesper Juul: How to prevent aggression, violence and potential radicalization in kindergartens and schools. – a short manual for professionals.

How to prevent aggression, violence and potential radicalization in kindergartens and schools.
– a short manual for professionals.

By Jesper Juul, Familylab International. 

Summary: This manual describes how and why we can expect in terms of a higher level of violence and aggression in kindergartens and schools, which will follow the hostile European attitude towards refugees and migrants and how we can deal with it as teachers and parents. The text illustrates the different and yet identical sources of aggression in European and immigrant children and youth and the need for new educational approaches. The term “prevention” is used as in primary prevention.
Since no research has been done anywhere on the correlation between political and cultural attitudes towards migrants and refugees and the occurrence of aggression and violence among children and youth the claims and predictions in the following are not evidence based but based on experience.

The enormous amount of refugees and migrants coming into Europe and the many ways in which our governments have decided not to welcome them has already resulted in outbreaks of violence and vandalism initiated by our own citizens. There is little hope that this will not escalate into more violent confrontations between groups of citizens as well as between “us and them”.
From our recent history we have learned that we must take much better care of children and youth from primarily Muslim families. We have neglected them by ignoring their existential dilemma and need to belong to our societies or simply to the point of alienation and despair. The resulting tendency to join either criminal gangs or extreme movements, which offer meaning, structure and direction to their lives, has only recently caught our attention. As a consequence two things are happening:

It has created a window for ultra right wing movements on the political scene as well as on street level. These movements, groups and gangs are all aggressive and violent in their philosophy and behavior although they claim to act out of love for their countries (Historically right wing movements tend to love nationalistic abstractions more passionately than their fellow man).

It has also made tens of thousands quiet, mature and responsible civilians come forward with all kinds of empathic, human and intelligent initiatives in order to protect our ethic and moral capital as well as our fundamental Christian values such as kindness, empathy, generosity and friendship.

In short the negative atmosphere means that thousands of European children will enter our educational institutions imprinted with aggressive and racist values form their parents and their adult networks. Simultaneously many children from refugee families will enter the same institutions and they will come marked psychologically, mentally and existentially by the horrors they have experienced in their home countries as well as a new fear of exclusion and isolation, which dominates the mindset of their parents and well as their own.

The etymology of aggression
The consequence of this will inevitably be an increase of aggressive and violent behavior among children and even from children and youth aimed at their teachers. The psychosocial origin of this aggression is fear of losing property, values and territory; fear of rejection, exclusion and isolation; unrecognized and untreated traumatic pain, which evidently leads to PTSD even in very young children.

The short version, which I’ll elaborate on below, is that both groups of children will experience either an imagined loss of value related to their inherited values and property (domestic children) or a very real loss of feeling valuable for society (emigrant children). As I have explained at length in my book on aggression (insert national titles…) these imagined or real losses of value as human beings are the very roots of aggression. When this healthy emotional reaction is not met adequately by parents, teachers, therapists, doctors and police nor intellectually understood and appreciated by politicians and policy makers it will always transform into violence. When human beings are not heard we tend to increase the “volume” of our behavior. It can be harmful violent behavior, which hurts other people or damages their property or it can be the introvert version, which results in a variety of self-damaging behavior.

The roots of destructive aggression are the individual experience of not being seen and heard and thus a lost sense of belonging and feeling of value to others. The resulting aggressive or violent behavior can either be short term and related to a specific other person or long term and related to another individual, group or social entity. This source is cross-cultural and not related to a specific gender or age.

European children
The children of frightened and aggressive European parents will be a minority in our institutions where teachers will try to imprint better ways on them. As we have know them until now these educational attempts will fail more often than not for two reasons. They will either be thwarted by parents, who fail to see the connection between their own aggressive philosophy and verbal behavior and their children’s violent behavior towards other (white) kids. Or they will tend to defend and support their behavior towards (brown) kids. In both cases these children will be confused and tend to stay loyal to the parents and their values. This will give them a sense and experience of not being included and valued in the institutions community, which will increase their aggressive behavior as well as confirm their way of thinking. The will feel like righteous outsiders.

Emigrant children
The emigrant children will fall into two main groups although they share similar life conditions. It will be common for them that their parents are very supportive and have a very strong desire for them to integrate. Parents also tend to sacrifice their own personal well-being and social success for the sake of their children’s future social success. Both phenomenon – the strong support and the sacrifice – place a huge burden on their children’s shoulders. They will feel an obligation to respond in kind and a responsibility for the well-being of the whole family, which includes a strong desire to succeed and make their parents proud and happy. If and when they collapse under the burden they will end in an emotional and existential disaster without any sense of value neither for their loved ones nor for society and the groundwork for possible radicalization emerges.

No matter how kind, open and welcoming teachers are, these children already have the feeling of not belonging to the new society because the ruling hostile political attitude is “in the air” and very much felt and understood by their parents and their adult network. The meeting with friendly and including teachers, new friends and their parents and siblings will be extremely valuable and make preschools and schools a safe haven for them. It will however not help them cope with their emotional and existential pain.

Some of them will have parents who are strong, knowledgeable and open enough to help them, but most of them need more professional support (just as their parents do). One of the consequences of our hostility towards emigrants of all ages is that we refuse to give them the help they need. In some countries they are denied even the most basic medical evaluation until they have been granted asylum one, two or three years after arriving. Proper psychological, psychiatric and psychotherapeutic care is not available for them. The most crucial and dangerous consequence is, that their trauma will become less accessible and thus more debilitating for their psychosocial development and ability to integrate – even when the desire to adapt is still strong.

One group of emigrant children will fail to process this very complex cluster of psychosocial phenomenon, which will makes them behave aggressively towards others. Another group will become self-destructive. The latter will seem well-adjusted and eager to please everybody but within some years they will react by becoming depressed, contemplating suicide and develop seriously damaging self-destructive behavior such as eating disorders, cutting, suicide, substance abuse and other behavioral patterns available in our culture. Some of them – especially the quiet, pleasing girls – will become overachievers – a kind of self-destructive behavior, which will typically lead to bigger psychological and psychosomatic problems in adulthood. The extrovert as well as the introvert are well know among European children and they are among the most dominating symptoms in adults with post traumatic stress syndrome as well.

All in all these phenomenon will not only lead to individual suffering and social isolation on a human level. They will cause huge costs for our societies at a point in our history, where we need to focus on how best to make sure that our new citizens can establish a solid existence for themselves by ways of education, training and work. A potential resource will be turned into an additional burden, and thus sadly prove one of the points, which the rightwing extremists are advocating.

How can we cope?

There are many things you can do. Some of them depend on the age group and others are the same. The motto should be:


This is the essence of what we learned many years ago working with children and youth in refugee camps in Croatia, Bosnia, Austria and Slovenia during and after the Balkan war, as well as with children of refugees in some Danish kindergartens during the same period.

This motto refers to the fact that vulnerable children like all other children have a strong need to be seen and recognized as they are without reference to a specific, currently dominating cultural ideal defined by parents and educators. In the same way they need to play, make friends, learn and develop skills, be physically touched and hugged and be granted the freedom to seek and withdraw from contact with others following their individual rhythm.

Vulnerable children – refugees as well as domestic – need all this and more of it than their happy and more balanced friends. Apart from this some children from both groups need more specialized and individual attention in cooperation with specialists and their parents and siblings. This should however never replace the ordinary qualities in their institutions and families and only in case of institutional or parental neglect, should they be removed from these.

For all vulnerable children it is absolutely essential that support and therapy is given to the whole family and for two reasons:

– It will reduce the child’s experience of being wrong, difficult, naughty, a burden or undesirable in the eyes of its most important adults.
– It will provide parents with know-how and skills, which they most likely do not have and thus increase their experience of being good enough and valuable parents. Otherwise they will feel like bad parents, which in many cases will lead to domestic violence. It will build trust in a system and professions, which are unknown and/or scaring for them and which they are likely to see as an enemy of their family.

Even when a decision is made to refer a child to a Physiotherapist, Speech therapist, Occupational Therapist or any other kind of therapy, which is usually considered “individual”, it is very important to include parents and at best both parents. Not only because of the reasons described above, but in order to make it clear for all involved, that parents must always be part of the solution and this is only possible, when the skills and insights required are adapted experientially instead of abstract. The need for this protocol is the same for domestic children and emigrant children. Within both groups you will meet parents who behave as if they are “not motivated”. Whenever this happens remind yourself that all parents feel inadequate when their child attracts professional attention and therefore it is your job to create and lead a dynamic dialogue, which will make them trust you and feel safe enough to collaborate with you. If you don’t, they will tend to withdraw from contact and relay on their own insufficient ways of coping. You will also meet very patriarch families, where you must respect the way they structure the work and responsibilities. Attempts to alter or criticize their chosen way of living as a family will not only demotivate them it will also create tensions which will become an additional burden for the children.

What your institutions and its staff need

You need to examine your historical and currents values and attitudes toward aggressive behavior and delete the elements, which are counterproductive. These are:

– Moral condemnation of such behavior. There is nothing wrong with the opinion that “we don’t want violence”, but when this is your primary (and only?) bulwark against aggression three things are likely to happen. The first is, that it does not really stop the unwanted behavior – neither among children nor from staff members. It becomes one of these self-evident values, which are mostly a decorative alibi. Secondly it very often leads to a number of so-called “consequences”, which is a modern term for punishment and it is always aggressive by its very nature and intend and therefore counterproductive when it comes to ensuring a non-violent culture within the institution. The third is a general understanding among children, that any aggressive thought or emotion is forbidden, which leads to self-oppression. When this happens (over the last two decades most clearly in Sweden) the oppressed emotions and lack of insight and skills to cope with it within each child, leads to delayed explosions of anger and violence in teenagers and young adults – currently aimed at refugee shelters and individual refugees in the streets. The predictable result of moral condemnation is that it creates exactly the kind of behavior it is meant to prevent.
– A professional culture, which allows staff members to demean and scold children, whenever they say or do things, which the adult finds unacceptable. Scolding is a traditional form of educational aggression and psychological violence, which a number of studies have shown that children experience as harsh and hurtful as physical abuse. In addition to this it is a cultural double bind, manifesting two contradicting sets of rules for children and adults, which in turn is bound to raise the number and intensity of conflicts among children and thus the “need” for scolding.

A child who reacts with physical and/or verbal aggression as a regular part of its behavior when frustrated or in conflict with others is by no means a naughty child, who knows better. The child’s aggression is a clear message to the adults, saying:

“I’m in pain and I feel lost. I know that what I’m doing is wrong so will you please help me find out what is wrong with my life? I love my parents, I like my teachers and I want to play with the other children but somehow I cannot make it.”

This message is very similar to the message from aggressive, yelling and slapping parents, scolding and punishing teachers and husbands who beat their wives.

This does not make aggression or violence morally right or socially acceptable but it does present the professional bystanders with a moral and ethical demand to understand and focus on the existential substance of the message instead of its form. It is therefore fully within responsible professional conduct to take the child’s hand, walk away from the scene and say:
“I can see that you are in trouble and I would like to help you if I can. Let’s take a walk, go outside, go to my office and figure out what is hurting you inside.”
This will not only diffuse the situation and make the child feel safe and accepted it will also send a very powerful message to the other children:
“Whenever you are in despair we will help you and we will not tolerate violent behavior.”
In this way the teacher becomes a living role model instead of an agitated preacher of principles, which the child already knows and thereby avoids making the child feel even more wrong, stupid and isolated, which will only foster more despair and aggression. The overall pedagogical message the becomes:

I do not like when people are aggressive and hurt each other, but if you cannot find any other way of saying “Autch!” I will help you find one.

This simple message sets a firm and friendly tone, defines the desired culture and its boundaries and does not divide children in good and bad people. The expression: You are here to learn and I’m here to help you learning – is another way of translating the message. In addition it will be productive to have a general willingness to recognize, name and talk about all human emotions. Both the above-mentioned groups of children will thrive in this atmosphere and those in need of more specialized help and guidance will find it easier to accept this.

In other words you and your colleges must set aside almost everything you have been taught as professionals about aggression and how to handle it and open your hearts to these troubled children. If you find my words an insufficient reason to do so I encourage you to take an honest look at the pedagogical praxis and attitude over the past 3 decades and come to terms with the fact that it has not worked a satisfactory way – neither for individual children and their parents nor for the institutions or what is happening in the streets at night.

It is possible in any institution to make rules, which prohibits certain kinds of behavior, but for the children who are able to respect them they have limited value. Those children, who sometimes find it impossible, do not benefit from them nor from suffering the consequences of violating them.

Activities and routines
There is no doubt that daily, weekly and seasonal routines and traditions are very important factors in creating safe environments for all children and especially for vulnerable children, whether they are traumatized or just socially on edge towards other children. As supplements to these I would recommend – in no specific order:

Philosophical windows

There are many good books on how to do philosophy with children, which can provide professionals with content and method. The value of these weekly (my recommendation) windows is that they encourage children as well as their teachers to think and talk about the important questions and issues of life such as e.g.: friendship; key emotions such as love, anger, hate, frustration; family; war etc. in an equal manner.
It is extremely valuable for children to think and express themselves (non-verbal children can draw) as well as for teachers who get a rare opportunity to learn about what is going on inside each individual child and to facilitate rather than teach.

Empathy training

In our book on empathy (insert national title) there is a catalogue of 12 exercises, which are liberated from specific religions and ideologies. These can be done with groups of children and will contribute on several levels:
– Each individual child will experience its own body and being in the here-and-now in new ways, which will further its psychosocial development.
– The individual growth will have a positive influence on the interaction between children and thus contribute to a healthy culture throughout the institution.
– Teachers are encouraged to do the exercises along with the group and will improve their own ability and desire to act with empathy and compassion towards the children as well as develop a found of shared experiences and language, which will enhance the interpersonal relations and culture.

Mindfulness training

Mindfulness has developed from a primarily therapeutic approach to severe stress into a broader and very well scientifically documented approach to improvement of individual awareness of mind, body and environment. In this way it is a very straightforward and valuable cluster of skills and insights, which improves children’s well-being in institutions, with many stress factors and an almost nonexistent availability of solitude, silence and introvert awareness.

Some professionals fear that this training will be dangerous for vulnerable and troubled children, but this fear stems from an outdated way of thinking, which was in favor of putting a lid on peoples emotions and lacked the insights and skills to guide the individual as well as its environment to healthy ways of coping with and sharing emotions.

We now know from our experiences with traumatized children that it is very valuable for their well-being as well as for their prognosis that they are allowed to feel, share and befriend their emotions. The fact that coping with some of the very cruel and terrible experiences requires expert psychotherapeutic help does not contradict these children’s need to develop a strong awareness of their emotional reactions and learn how to cope with these in a social context.

Introduction of experts

It is valuable for all children, but especially for the vulnerable ones if you invite professionals like Psychologists, Physiotherapists, Speech therapists, Occupational therapists, Child-neuropsychologists/psychiatrists and other relevant specialists to come to your institution. Their task is to present their crafts directly to the children, invite their questions and participation and be very open and frank about what they can do for children.
This will of course help demystifying the various professions and it will raise the level of acceptance among the children and prevent teasing and bullying.

I’m fully aware that some of these suggestions are more likely to be adopted by kindergartens than schools. It is however important to stress that many of the traditional activities like painting, drawing, drama, playing, reading of stories and fairytales etc. are very valuable for vulnerable and traumatized children. Not only because of all their familiar qualities but also because they give them an experience of normality, which is essential to their psychosocial development.

The headlines for strengthening the culture you already have or want to establish are: Inclusion, empathy and friendship. Many researchers have found it to be a sad fact, that children who need these qualities the most from professionals often get the least. Don’t let vulnerable and traumatized children scare you. Make it a habit to understand their behavior as an invitation for you and your many human and professional competences.