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Decreasing violent or aggressive theme play among preschool children with behavior disorders.

Decreasing Violent or Aggressive Theme Play Among Preschool Children with Behavior Disorders

In recent years, parents, teachers, and mental health professionals have expressed increased concern regarding the effect of aggressive stimuli and violent play themes on young children's lives. This concern is based on mounting evidence that rates of verbal and physical aggression by children may be increased by viewing aggressive or violent acts (either live or enacted) or by having access to toys or games that represent violent or aggressive themes.

Early work on the effect of aggressive themes in children's play (Feshbach, 1956) demonstrated that children who listened to an aggressive story and then were permitted to play with neutral toys engaged in more inappropriate or antisocial acts than did children who had listened to neutral stories. In 1971, Turner and Goldsmith found that the presence of toy guns, as opposed to more novel or nonaggressive toys (e.g., airplanes, blocks, dolls), increased the rate of observed antisocial behavior in preschool freeplay settings. Similarly, Etaugh and Happach (1979) found some degree of association between aggression-related play (hitting punching bags) and subsequent aggressive behavior directed toward peers.

Whereas Feshbach (1956) included thematic aggression (e.g., pointing and shooting a toy gun and saying "Bang, you're dead.") in his measure of antisocial behavior, more recent investigations have included only acts of physical and verbal aggression (e.g., throwing toys, hitting and pushing) as inappropriate behaviors (Etaugh & Happach, 1979; Mendoza, 1972; Turner & Goldsmith, 1971). These distinctions between the types of behavior considered to be aggressive are of importance to teachers who observe violent or aggressive theme play in their classrooms. Students may not be engaging in physical aggression but rather in what Feshbach (1956) identified as thematic aggression or pretend violence. Given evidence that violent or aggressive play themes may increase the incidence of actual agression, teachers should have effective procedures for reducing these behaviors. Though procedures for dealing with physical aggression are well documented and available in the literature (Alberto & Troutman, 1986; Kerr & Nelson, 1983), there is no apparent body of literature evaluating procedures that intervene directly with violent or aggressive theme play.

Early childhood special educators frequently have recommended verbal promts as a method for instructing children, as well as a strategy for reducing play involving inappropriate themes or content (Brophy, Good, & Needler, 1975; Goetz, 1982; Thomson, 1972). Verbal prompts typically include an interruption of unacceptable or inappropriate behaviors followed by a suggestion that a child engage in an alternative, appropriate behavior such as "Use the tinker toys to build camers instead of guns," or "Can you think of another way to play?"

Several potentials risks can be identified in the use of verbal prompts to reduce violent or aggressive theme play. First, provision of verbal prompts as a consequence may actually reinforce violent or aggressive theme play and serve to maintain these undesired behaviors. Second, the reinforcing qualities of these aggressive behaivors may be stronger than prompted alternative responses, and thus might continue despite a teacher's skill at suggesting alternative responses. A procedure that would eliminate these risks would be of interest.

Contingency statements regarding a modified time-out might eliminate the risks of maintaining or reinforcing violent or aggressive theme play. For example, a child might be told of a classroom rule whereby violent or aggressive theme play is permitted to occur only on a small rug in the freeplay area. The purpose of this study was to assess the effects of both verbal prompts to play differently and contingency statements on rates of violent or aggressive play in a preschool classroom. Specifically, we wanted to determine the most effective type of intervention. The procedures were implemented in an alternating-treatments design (Tawney & Gast, 1984) during two freeplay periods in an integrated classroom serving preschool children with behavior disorders.


Subjects and Setting

Eleven children (three females and eight males) between the ages 3 and 5 served as subjects for this study. All children were enrolled in a preschool program, Project PREP (Preparation for Regular Education Placement) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The program served children with behavior disorders in an integrated setting with their normally developing peers. The classroom program was designed to prepare students for future placement in regular education environments. Six children were originally referred to the program for behavior disorders, and the remaining five were normally developing peers. Children enrolled as behavior disordered met the federal definition of "seriously emotionally disturbed" as found in P.L. 94-142, The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (1977). In addition, one girl functioned in the mild range of mental retardation, one body demonstrated significant developmental delay, and another boy was alternately labeled as having "autism" or a "pervasive developmental disorder" (American Psychiatric Association, 1980). Additionally, all children identified as behavior disordered also met the Project PREP entrance criterion of prior exclusion from one or more mainstream preschool or day care centers because of excesses or deficits in social behavior.

The preschool program operated for 3 hours a day, 5 days a week. Classroom activities were only somewhat typical of preschool programs because of the amount of "structure" inherent in classroom activities. Children received large- and small-group instruction in a variety of preacademic content areas (e.g., visual discrimination, fine motor activities). Most children also received direct instruction in beginning academic skills with programs based on Distar Math (Engelman & Carnine, 1975), Distar Reading (Engelman & Bruner, 1983) and Distar Language (Engelman & Osborn, 1976). Additional goals for children enrolled in Project PREP were the acquisition of social skills and the acquisition of kindergarten "survival skills" (e.g., following teacher directions, on task behavior, etc.).

The present study was conducted daily during two 20-minute freeplay periods. During these periods, children were free to choose from a variety of common preschool toys (trucks, dolls, and blocks, etc.) and to introduce their own play themes. Toys suggesting violent or aggressive theme play (e.g., play guns) were specifically excluded from the classroom. Two classroom teachers supervised these periods, interacting with children only in a supervisory role to maintain safe and careful play. Occasionally other adults (e.g., parents observing their children, research assistants collecting data on social behavior) were present near the freeplay area. None of these adults interacted with the children.

During specified periods of the present study, a 2 x 4-ft piece of rug was placed inside the boundary of the freeplay area. Whether or not the rug was present varied according to which phase of the study was in effect.

Response Definitions

The following were considered violent or aggressive theme behaviors:

1. Play about cartoons, television, or movies that was destructive aggressive in content, accompanied by verbalizations that made direct mention of injury, death, or destruction (e.g., sociodramatic play regarding Voltron, Masters of the Universe, Darth Vadar).

2. Use of toys, writing implements, or body parts as weapons (e.g., guns, swords, light sabers), thematically causing death, injury, or destruction, accompanied by any gestures (pointing weapon at peer or object) and words or imitations of noises produced by the instrument.

3. Any verbalization to self, others, or a group imitating the sound of exploding bombs or gunfire; or verbalizations about the use, design, or action of weapons.

4. Any mention of destructive/aggressive items or themes in the course of play (e.g., guns, death, killing, bombing).

5. Initiation and offers to begin or continue violent or aggressive theme play or other dramatic play activities that centered around the themes of death, injury, killing, nuclear war, or similar topics.

6. Physical aggression was not included in this measure.

Observational Procedures

One of the two supervising teachers held a stopwatch, pencil, and clipboard with data sheets attached. Data were collected throughout each 20-minute freeplay session. Occurrences of violent or aggressive theme play were recorded on prepared data sheets by the same teacher using a whole-interval time-sampling procedure. Each minute, a 5-second scan was conducted, and instances of occurrence (+) or nonoccurrence (-) of violent or aggressive theme play were scored in interval boxes on the data sheets. The scan was conducted during the first 5-seconds of each minute, with the observer looking right to left as the stopwatch indicated the passage of 5 seconds.

Interobserver Agreement

To assess reliability, the second classroom teacher also recorded occurrences of violent or aggressive theme play simultaneously but independently during 10% of the observation sessions across all phases of the study. She used the same equipment and procedures as the first teacher. The second teacher stood at the same visual angle as the first teacher and scanned right to left as the first teacher announced the scan. The teachers were separated by sufficient distance to prevent visual comparison of the data.

Interobserver agreement was calculated on an interval-by-interval basis. Given varying rates of target behavior under different experimental conditions, three types of reliability measures were calcualted: (a) percent agreement, (b) percent agreement for nonoccurrence, and (c) percent agreement for occurrence.

Simple percent agreement between observers ranged from 85% to 100% with a mean of 96% for all assessments. Nonoccurrence reliaiblity averaged 94% and ranged from 81% to 100%. Occurrence reliability ranged from 0% to 100%, with a mean of 75%. On a number of days, occurrence reliability measures were at marginal to unacceptable levels. It should be noted that these assessments coincided with days when the target behavior occurred three times or less. According to Hartman (1977), percent-agreement statistics are dependent on the specific frequency of a behavior for the session in which it was calculated; that is, when behavior occurs at high frequency, higher percentages of agreement result. Conversely, when the behavior is at lower frequency, the most stringent estimates tend to underestimate the degree to which there is actual agreement.

Experimental Design

The two procedures for reducing violent or aggressive theme play were compared within an alternating-treatments design in the form, ABAC. An initial baseline phase (A) was completed to assess rates of violent or aggressive theme play without specific intervention in the two freeplay periods. Both verbal prompts and verbal contingency statements were then introduced on the first day of treatment (B), with the order of treatment counterbalanced and randomly assigned across days and freeplay periods each day. In other words, verbal prompts were implemented during one freeplay period and contingency statements with subsequent modified time-out during the other freeplay period each day, with random assignment of treatment to freeplay period. The children had no knowledge of which treatment procedure was in effect until the freeplay period began. After 31 days of alternating treatments, both interventions were withdrawn to assess the effect of either treatment relative to baseline conditions. Last, the procedure yielding the lowest frequency of target behaviors was implemented in both daily freeplay periods to replicate treatment effects (C).

Experimental Conditions

General Procedures. During all phases and conditions children were allowed free access to play materials in the classroom. Play was supervised by two teachers, and children were removed from the play area only for infractions of classroom rules (i.e., time-out for actual physical aggression and throwing toys, whether or not the toy hit another child). Supervision was limited to verbal prompts to play safely, verbal praise for cooperative and/or creative play, and assistance in negotiating disputes.

Baseline (A). Typical supervision of freeplay took place. Occurrences of violent or aggressive theme play were permitted without teacher comment. Teachers intervened only when play escalated to actual physical aggression or toy throwing. No other intervention was provided.

Contingency Statements With Subsequent Modified Time-Out (B1). During freeplay sessions under contingency statements, a 2' x 4' carpet sample was placed inside the play area. At the beginning of these freeplay periods, a teacher pointed to the rug and announced, "The rug is here. When you play guns or other dangerous games the teacher will tell you to go to the rug and play." At the scan, (i.e., 0 to 5 seconds in each minute) if one of the target behaviors was occurring, the teacher said to those involved in a pleasant tone of voice, "If you want to play guns, go over on the rug." An interval of 10 seconds was provided for movement to the rug. If violent or aggressive theme play continued for more than 10 seconds after the warning, the child (or children) received physical assistance to move to the rug. If violent or aggressive theme play terminated following the contingency statement no further warning or physical assistance was provided.

Violent or aggressive theme play was restricted to the rug. If a child played with guns or exhibited other aggressive themes, he or she could shoot at the rug, at himself or herself, or at a peer who was also on the rug. Children were free to leave the rug at any point to engage in other play behaviors. Children were also allowed to engage in violent or aggressive theme play on the rug by choice (i.e., without being directed there by the teacher). No teacher attention or contingency statements were provided for violent or aggressive theme play occurring between scans.

Verbal Prompts (B2). At the beginning of freeplay periods when the verbal prompt treatment was in effect a teacher announced, "The rug is not here. Play nicely with your friends." The children were then permitted to play. If target behavior was observed during a 5-second scan, the teacher provided verbal prompts to the children engaged in the violent or aggressive theme play. Examples of the verbal prompts included, "Find a new way to play," "Make the Legos into a building," or "Try something else." No verbal prompts were provided for instances of target behavior that occurred at times other than during the 5-second scans.

Baseline (A). The second baseline phase was implemented as described earlier for the first baseline condition.

More Effective Treatment (C). Contingency statements with subsequent modified time-out for continued violent or aggressive theme play were implemented during both freeplay periods each day during the final phase of this study.


Experimental Analysis

Measures of violent or aggressive theme play during freeplay sessions are presented in Figure 1. The percentage measure was calculated by dividing the total number of scans in which the target behavior occurred by the total number of scans conducted.

Baseline 1. Levels of violent or aggressive theme play in the first baseline condition averaged 55% of the scans. Children engaged in the target behavior between 20% and 80% of the observations. Baseline 1 lasted for 3 days.

Alternating Treatments. Implementation of the alternating treatments condition, which compared verbal prompts to contingency statements, produced immediate reductions in violent or aggressive theme play under both experimental conditions.

Percent occurrence during contingency statements dropped to an average of 6%, ranging from 0% to 25%.

Percent occurrence of violent or aggressive theme play during verbal prompts was higher and more variable. Under this condition, the target behavior averaged 20% and ranged from 9% to 60%.

On Day 20, the teacher who served as the primary intervention agent was assigned other duties during freeplay and the second teacher became the primary intervention agent.

Baseline 2. After Day 34, both treatments were withdrawn and the baseline condition was reintroduced. Violent or aggressive theme play increased to levels comparable to the previous baseline, with a mean of 55% and a range between 20% and 80%. This was identical to the mean of the first baseline phase.

More Effective Treatment. The more effective treatment (contingency statements) was introduced during the final phase for both daily freeplay settings. Over the 8 days of this condition, the level of target behavior in both freeplay periods decreased to a percent occurrence similar to that established with contingency statements during the alternating-treatments condition. In this final phase, the average occurrence of violent or aggressive theme play was 8% with a range of 0% to 40%.

Overt Acts of Aggression

The primary dependent measure was the percent occurrence of violent or aggressive theme play. However, two analyses of the incidence of overt aggressive acts were also performed. As mentioned earlier, a time-out contingency was in effect for instances of hitting, kicking, biting, or other acts of aggression, that occurred between children. Instances of throwing toys, whether or not the toy hit the intended victim, were also consequated with time-out. The time out was brief (i.e., 1-3 minutes) and occurred in a secluded corner of the classroom.

The number of overt aggressive acts varied across phases of treatment. The number of aggressive acts during baseline phases averaged 3.6 per day (40 aggressive acts across 11 days). The number of overt aggressive acts dropped to an average of 2.1 per day during the alternating-treatments phase (64 aggressive acts across 31 days) and then increased slightly to 2.4 per day during the final phase of the study when contingency statements were in effect for both daily freeplay periods.

A further analysis of the number of aggressive acts revealed that aggressive acts often occurred in clusters with two or more students engaging in aggression within the same session. The treatments evaluated in the present study appeared to be effective in controlling the emergence of these clusters. This trend was revealed through an analysis of the percent of sessions in which no overt acts of aggression occurred. Only 4.4% of baseline freeplay sessions were free of overt aggressive acts as compared with 38% of the sessions in the alternating-treatments phase and 33% of the sessions in the final phase of the study.


The purpose of this study was to compare the effectiveness of two freeplay management procedures (contingency statements and verbal prompts) for reducing violent or aggressive theme play behaviors. The results of this study clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of both procedures compared with baseline conditions. It was also noted that the contingency statement strategy was more effective than the verbal prompt strategy.

Less clear, however, is why these procedures were effective. The effectiveness of contingency statements could be attributed to the removal or reinforcing properties evident in this type of play. However, further research is needed to delineate and identify the elements in children's social community that may serve as natural reinforcers for violent or aggressive theme play.

Beginning on Day 23, a reduction was noted in differential effects for the two procedures. Three possible explanations can be provided to explain this phenomenon: (a) a general decrease in children's interest in this type of play over the course of the study, (b) subtle differences in intervention styles associated with the change of intervention agents, and (c) carryover effects. First, if a decrease in the children's interest in violent or aggressive theme play occurred, then low levels of the target behavior would have been observed during the return to baseline phase. However, percent occurrence of target behavior returned to preintervention levels with the withdrawal of treatment.

Second, it is unlikely that the change in the intervention agent was responsible for both the more rapid declining trend and the increase in overlap between the data paths. The agent change occurred on Day 20 with several sessions before overlap in the data paths was observed. The fact that the agent change and overlap in data paths did not occur concurrently makes it unlikely that these two events are related in a cause-and-effect relationship. The more rapid deceleration of the data path representing the verbal prompt condition following agent change may have resulted from stimulus generalization. Consistent application of the procedures by a second adult may have extended the degree to which stimulus control had been established.

Finally, carryover effects may account for the loss of differential effects during the last few days of the alternating-treatments phase. Barlow and Hayes (1979) discussed the positive or negative influence one treatment can have on an adjacent treatment, irrespective of the overall sequencing of the treatments. Carryover effects occur when the powerful elements of one treatment begin to effect the second treatment, leading to similar levels of the target behavior for both interventions. Applying these ideas to our results, it may be that the effective elements embedded in verbal contingency statements began to transfer to the more general verbal prompts, thus creating a situation where verbal prompts became more powerful than noted earlier in the alternating-treatments phase.

Implications of this study are important for special educators, psychologists, and parents. Martens, Peterson, Witt, and Cirone (1986) reported that regular and special education teachers viewed "redirection of the student toward appropriate behavior via a signal" as the most effective, easiest to use, and most frequently applied classroom intervention. The verbal prompt strategy investigated in this study would fall into this category. Much less information was available on teachers' opinions of "verbally calling attention to rules," the category in which our contingency statement would fall. Our limited data, however, do not show verbal prompts to be superior to reminders of classroom rules. Given the variability in effectiveness of the verbal prompt procedure as demonstrated in the present study, the use of this strategy alone might be questionable. Thus, a procedure such as a contingency statement might be of value to educators who typically employ rules such as "no guns at school." Moreover, a procedure that can be implemented by a single teacher and that is combined with verbal praise for more appropriate types of play is desirable.

The appropriate use of contingency statements requires attention to two elements: (a) establishing the warning as an effective discriminative stimulus for the limitation of violent or aggressive theme play (stimulus control), and (b) minimizing the punishing aspects of the procedure. Stimulus control is in effect when a response made in the presence of one or more antecedent stimuli is followed by a predictable consequence. The development of stimulus control is enhanced through the consistent use of salient discriminative stimuli--in this case, the presence of the rug and the statement regarding the classroom rule limiting where violent or aggressive theme play could occur. Limiting the punishing aspects of the procedure is accomplished through the inclusion of four components: (a) delivery of the contingency statement in a pleasant tone of voice; (b) providing the opportunity for children to play within the restricted area by their own choice; (c) clear specification that no time limit is imposed for staying on the rug and that children are free to leave whenever they choose as long as violent or aggressive theme play stops when they leave the rug; and (d) restriction of the contingency statement to information about where to play. No instructions about ending violent or aggressive them play are given.

The frequency of overt acts of aggression varied across phases of treatment. The use of a separate consequence for these acts (i.e., a brief time out) prevents any conclusions regarding the relationship of violent or aggressive theme play and overt aggression from being drawn. However, the time-out contingency was part of the overall classroom management system (i.e., it was not a new intervention) and the number of overt aggressive acts that occurred during the baseline phases were representative of the levels of aggression typically recorded during freeplay. Although the time-out contingency had produced levels of aggression that were quite low (X = 3.6 aggressive acts per day during free play) further reductions occurred during both the alternating-treatments and final phases of the study. These data suggest that violent or aggressive theme play may not be harmless.

Further investigations are needed to validate the effectiveness of this procedure in other community settings. Additional efforts could further identify the elements that maintain violent or aggressive theme play. With the growing concern regarding the effect of this play on later development, further investigations of this sort would be beneficial.


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Kerr, M. M., & Nelson, C. M. (1983). Strategies for managing behavior problems in the classroom. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill.

Martens, B. K., Peterson, R. L., Witt, J. C., & Cirone, S. (1986). Teacher perceptions of school-based interventions. Exceptional Children, 53, 213-223.

Mendoza, A. (1972). The effects of exposure to toys conducive to violence. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Miami.

Tawney, J. W., & Gast, D. L. (1984). Single subject research in special education. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill.

Thomson, C. (1972). Skills for young children. Unpublished manuscript, University of Kansas, Department of Human Development and Family Life, Lawrence.

Turner, C. W., & Goldsmith, D. (1971). Effects of toy guns and airplanes on children's antisocial freeplay behavior. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 21, 303-315.

SARA SHERBURNE is Visiting Instructor, Department of Special Education, College of Human Resources and Education, West Virginia University, Morgantown. BONNIE UTLEY is Assistant Professor, Program in Special Education, University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. SCOTT MCCONNELL is Assistant Professor, Psychology in the Schools Training Program, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. JEANETTE GANNON is former Head Teacher, Project STEP-UP, Association for Retarded Citizens, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
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Author:Sherburne, Sara; Utley, Bonnie; McConnell, Scott; Gannon, Jeanette
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Oct 1, 1988
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