As school resumes, predicting then intervening to mitigate aggressive behavior among children is an area of interest in many communities. Historically, assessments to determine if a child is at risk for emotional arousal and aggression has been based on written tools describing the provocation. New research finds that cartoons may better identify high risk boys and girls.
That is, if a picture is worth a thousand words, cartoons may be worth even more. Working closely with African American inner city schoolgirls, researchers are developing culturally sensitive drawings of problematic social incidents to help measure which children are likely to take offense and react aggressively.
“The girls preferred the cartoons over traditional written descriptions of provocative social situations,” said study leader Stephen S. Leff, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. “In addition, we found that these cartoon versions were as valid as the conventional written versions in measuring how these 3rd and 4th grade African American girls interpret social situations.”
The research appears in the October issue of Child Development. The team worked with the girls at public elementary schools and day camps in low-income sections of Philadelphia.
“Research on aggression among children tends to focus on physical aggression in boys,” said Dr. Leff. “We have concentrated here on girls, who may use physical aggression, but are more likely to use relational than physical aggression when expressing their anger toward others.” Examples of relational aggression are gossiping, withdrawing friendships and excluding others from social groups. Previous studies by Dr. Leff’s group, such as analyses of playground behavior, have attracted broad interest among experts working in school-based aggression prevention programs.
Child psychology researchers traditionally use written descriptions of provocative but ambiguous situations, such as apparent social snubs, in surveying children to assess “hostile attributional bias,” in which a person interprets another’s behavior as representing an intended act of hostility. “We know that children who are more likely to interpret others’ actions as hostile are more likely to behave aggressively themselves,” said Dr. Leff. “So having accurate measuring tools helps us to identify children who might benefit from intervention.”
The cartoons were drawn by Michael Grossman, R.N., M.S.N., a nursing administrator at Children’s Hospital and a co-author of the study. He drew 10 cartoons, each illustrating a written vignette describing a provocative social situation. At this stage of the research, Dr. Leff and colleagues then asked a number of urban African American girls how to adapt the cartoons to make them more culturally sensitive and engaging.
The girls suggested dressing the characters in more feminine clothes, giving them sneakers instead of shoes, braiding their hair, and giving them more neutral facial expressions, among other things (see attached graphic showing one cartoon vignette before and after the girls’ feedback). “Our goal was to make the cartoons developmentally and culturally sensitive to the children we want to reach,” said Dr. Leff, adding, “We believe that partnering with research participants helps to ensure the meaningfulness of the eventual study results.”
After Mr. Grossman revised the cartoons based on the girls’ comments, the researchers tested the cartoons with other groups of 3rd and 4th grade girls in school. Here the researchers compared the girls’ responses to the written vignettes alone to the use of written and cartoon vignettes together. They found that, as a testing tool, the cartoons were equivalent in accuracy to the written vignettes, but that the children consistently preferred using the cartoons.
The rationale for using either testing tool, Dr. Leff pointed out, is to identify children who are at risk of aggression, and thus follow-up studies will concentrate on techniques to prevent aggressive behavior. Those techniques, he said, teach children to “slow down, recognize their emotional arousal, cool down and analyze social situations” and to do problem solving when faced with a challenging situation. “For children who may be prone to misinterpret social cues as more hostile than they really are, the aim is to teach them to give other children the benefit of the doubt,” he says.
Other studies by Dr. Leff’s team will test similar cartoon vignettes with African American boys and with white children, with appropriate adaptations in the depictions. He also will study how role-playing and videotapes of social scenarios may also be useful in helping children navigate their social environments. “It’s important to find forms of media that children can best relate to,” he added.