Academic Achievement, School Factors, and Violence

American children spend a minimum of 100 days per year in formal educational settings (Wentzel & Looney, 2007). The school therefore serves as an important axis of socialization. School has a major influence on the development of intellectual and social competence, goals, and values (e.g., Wentzel & Looney, 2007). Most children have to develop these competencies within a school structure which additionally requires that they learn to get along with large numbers of other children. In a common school setting, children have to learn to coordinate their goals and activities with those of others, to delay personal gratification, and to be more independent than they would need to be at home, where their relationship with the adult in charge is more personal and intimate (Wentzel & Looney, 2007).

Individual development is “embedded within social institutions" (p. 94) such as school (Payne & Welch, 2013). Therefore, while school may have its own impacts on the child, including adverse ones such as meeting deviant peers or being victimized, school practices and experiences are also likely to interact with the child’s predisposition and possibly enhance or exacerbate its effect. Payne and Welch (2013) use the example of a child with high impulsivity, asked to sit still in a classroom. Under different circumstances that child might function adequately, but the interaction between the child’s hyperactivity and the classroom situation causes the child to have problems complying with adults. They point out that school may exact excessive demands on children who enroll with emerging behavioral problems by forcing them to interact with students and teachers— demands that may exacerbate any existing antisocial tendencies. In societies where attendance at school is mandatory, the potential scope of adverse impacts is quite enormous. The intensity of the requisite all-day attendance, grinding on for many years, enhances the potential for dramatic positive impacts for those who benefit, and dramatic adverse impacts for those whose school experience is unhappy. Unfortunately, “cumulative continuity” of attitudes, traits, and experiences means that earlier negative interactions at school may snowball into larger problems (Payne & Welch, 2013). All told, unhappy school experiences are an important contender as a cause of serious behavioral problems like violence.

Academic achievement might be linked with violence for many reasons. It is “widely acknowledged” that intelligence is one of the best predictors of academic achievement (Steinmayr, Ziegler, & Trauble, 2010; p. 14), and these correlations are quite high (for example, Mayes and Calhoun [2007] report correlations between Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-IV scores and reading comprehension at r = 0.70 in a sample of children with attention deficit disorder). Intelligence deficits have been associated with violent behavior in adolescents and adults in many studies (e.g., Ayduk, Rodriguez, Mischel, Shoda, & Wright, 2007; Barker et al., 2007; Cohen, Brumm, Zawacki, Paul, Sweet & Rosenbaum, 2003; Giancola, 2000b).

In addition to their association with intellectual deficits, low school achievement and school problems are likely to engender frustration and negative emotionality (strain), enhancing any risks for violence already accruing. Negative emotionality is likely to have a special relationship with physically aggressive externalizing behaviors in young children and violence in older ones as it may increase the chances of lashing out (e.g., Dutton, 2011; Dutton, Starzomski, & Ryan, 1996; Eisenberg, Cumberland, Spinrad, Fabes, Shepard, Reiser et al., 2001). It is possible that other aspects of academic life, such as school attachment or suspension, exert effects on negative emotionality as well. Thornberry has proposed that the relationship between academics and delinquency is reciprocal and that adolescents who become involved in delinquency “tend to have lower subsequent grades, develop weaker school bonds, and are less likely to graduate from high school or to attend college” (Hoffmann, Erickson, & Spence, 2013, p. 631). In a study testing those reciprocal relations, however, Hoffmann et al. (2013) found only associations leading from GPA to delinquency and school attachment, not from delinquency to GPA.

Magnuson, Duncan, and Kalil (2006) point out that a sense of school connectedness and relationships with teachers play a crucial role in the emotional and academic adjustment of middle school children. The quality of teacher-student relationships is an especially important predictor of student’s achievement motivation and adjustment during middle childhood. Research suggests that positive relationships with teachers are more important than characteristics of the school such class size, attendance, or dropout rates in inducing these outcomes. Participation in extracurricular activities associated with school is correlated with low levels of antisocial behavior as well.

Although we will emphasize the role that school factors play in causing delinquency and violence, many authors optimistically see the school as an important locus for reducing antisocial behavior. Payne and Welch (2007) emphasize the role of school in promoting positive social bonds, providing conventional role models, and fostering commitment to conventional goals, all of which may increase access to social capital and economic opportunity. Thus, they see the school as an important adjunct in efforts to reduce antisocial behavior.

Academic problems have other side effects, such as increasing the likelihood of associations with delinquent peers and interfering with job opportunities (Moffitt, 1997b), and some of these may lead to criminality, but not necessarily violence. Without digressing into an overly complex discussion, we simply aver that the facts suggest that the relations between school bonding, academic achievement, other school problems, and delinquent misbehavior are complex, reciprocal, and possibly self-reinforcing (see Chapter 5 on education factors).

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