Madaline Fennell has been hit, kicked and spit at as a teacher in a public school in Omaha, Neb. One pupil tried to bite her. "Luckily, I moved faster than he did," Fennell said.
Her assailants were first-graders.An outbreak of shootings by troubled high-schoolers and middle-schoolers marred the last school year. But most teachers will tell you that violent words and deeds show up as early as kindergarten.
"I have had students who would fly off the handle at the drop of the hat, throw chairs and throw tables - these are 5-year-olds - because they didn't get their way," said Mary E. Pier, a teacher in Aberdeen, Wash.
Like other teachers, she's having to spend progressively more time helping children learn social skills that used to be taught at home, church or in the neighborhood. Even well-meaning working parents have less time than before to reinforce orderly behavior, however that's defined.
Instead, a message of violent solutions is creeping in more often and earlier. Speech and hearing specialist Lou Ann Smith of Lagrange, Ind., said "just shoot him" was the advice one second-grader immediately gave to another when he told of a mild insult.
She asked why. "Well, they wouldn't do it again," was the response.
"I'm noticing it more and younger, and that's scary," the veteran of 33 years of teaching said.
Teachers are especially frustrated because keeping an orderly classroom isn't something that's taught much in education schools, let alone modifying behavior and attitudes.
A survey last October by Public Agenda, an independent, nonpartisan group, found that classroom discipline held low priority among education professors. They believed that if teachers keep the children stimulated and eager to learn, the discipline would take care of itself.
Instead, behavioral psychologists and teachers themselves are coming up with ways. Fennell and other teachers helped Omaha schools devise schoolwide strategies and held a session on classroom management at the NEA convention.
The school where Pier teaches has adopted Second Step, a program developed in Seattle and used in more than 10,000 schools in the United States and Canada. Children take part in 35-minute sessions once or twice a week to learn empathy, problem solving and anger management.
Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has found that it works.
Part of the program requires that children look into the eyes of the target of their intended wrath, to see that a feeling person is on the receiving end of the fist, foot or threat. Researchers looked at behavior six months after the children finished the program.
In Baltimore, researchers from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health found that classroom control in the first grade can influence aggression in the middle school years.
Aggressive and disruptive first-grade boys who ended up in a classroom where the teacher was not in control were far more likely to be rated severely aggressive in middle school.
The study included local school pupils who took part in a good behavior game using classroom teams. Gradually the 10-minute game, played three times a week, became the model for behavior all the time.
"These findings suggest that effective behavior management by the first-grade teacher is essential," said Sheppard G. Kellam, author of the study.
What this kind of work will do to prevent shootings by quietly troubled adolescents is unclear.
"We know fairly well that the early aggressive, disruptive response is a risk factor for later antisocial behavior and violence," Kellam said. "That's not necessarily kids that looked OK until they began to have idiosyncratic, psychiatric difficulties."
Closer attention might do more, however, to prevent the kind of routine, daily violence that claims plenty of victims. Fennell said she delved into the issue after a 15-year-old girl was shot in her neighborhood because of a dispute over a parking space.