Early Childhood Education

Violence and Young Children


Many kinds of violence occur in the daily lives of children growing up today. They see entertainment violence on the screen—in TV programs, movies, video and computer games. There are highly popular toys connected to violent TV programs and other media that encourage children to imitate in their play the violence that they see on the screen. There is real-world violence that children see in the news—weapons exploding, adults hurting adults, adults hurting children, even children hurting children. And then there is the violence that a growing number of children experience directly in their own homes and beyond, whether from an isolated trauma or as a regular part of their lives in violent communities or in war zones (Feerick and Silverman, 2006). The following are some examples that illustrate this fact:

A child care program is out on a field trip. As the children are about to cross a busy street a police officer offers to stop the traffic so the children may cross safely. One child runs to the teacher, grabs his leg and starts to scream. The teacher finds out later that the police arrested the child’s father the previous weekend when the child was present.

A kindergartner walks into her classroom and announces to the other children in the entry area that she wasn’t in school the day before because her grandmother died. Another child looks up at her and asks, “Who shot her?”

On September 12, 2001, a teacher notices several children building a structure with large cardboard blocks. Two children get inside and the others aggressively crash it down. They pull out the two children who were inside and report that they are “dead.”



The Continuum of Violence in Children’s Lives. Copied with permission from Teaching Young Children in Violent Times: Building a Peaceable Classroom, 2nd ed., by Diane E. Levin.


A teacher struggles to deal with the use of toy weapons in her classroom. Several children try to turn anything they can find into one. When she tells them “no weapons in school,” they sneak around trying to create and play with symbolic weapons when they think she isn’t looking.

The violence in children’s lives can be thought of as fitting along a continuum of severity, as shown in the figure. At the bottom is entertainment violence that is most prevalent in American society and touches most children’s lives. At the top are the most extreme forms of violence—chronic and direct exposure in the immediate environment, which fewer children experience, at least in most parts of the United States, but which builds onto exposure to the more prevalent forms of violence below it on the pyramid. The degree to which children’s development, ideas, and behavior are affected by violence is likely to increase as they move up the continuum, but few children growing up today are likely to avoid experiencing some form of exposure to violence (Levin, 2003).


The Impact of Violence on Young Children

The effects of violence are often most obvious for the most severely involved children, those at the top of the violence continuum. Anna Freud’s work during World War II was among the first to direct attention to the devestating effects violence could have on children and how adults could help them cope (Freud and Burlingame, 1943). Since the 1980s, clinicians have recognized that posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can result, a condition whereby children exhibit such symptoms as flashbacks to the traumatic event(s), hypervigilance, regression, sleep troubles, and increased levels of aggression (Garbarino et al., 1999; Groves, 2002). Children with PTSD generally require extended therapeutic help to work through the symptoms.

For early childhood practitioners, it can be helpful to look at the range of ways violence can affect all children to varying degrees (Levin, 2003). First, it is important to keep in mind that children do not experience or understand violence as adults do. Children make their own unique meanings from what they see and hear. They do this based on such things as their age, prior experiences, and individual temperament. For instance, the boy who panicked when he saw a policeman on the street the night after a policeman arrested his father is using his prior negative experience to interpret the new experience negatively as well. So did the child who asked “who shot her” after hearing the grandmother had just died; children who observe regular shootings, whether on television or in their neighborhood, might reasonably assume that if someone dies it is because he or she is shot!

A second concern that educators share is the influence of exposure to violence on how children see the world. Children learn, from both entertainment violence and the violence that they experience directly, that the world is a dangerous place, adults may be unable to protect them, and weapons and fighting are needed to keep people safe. In this situation, one of the most basic human needs—a sense of safety and trust—can be seriously undermined (Erikson, 1950).

Third, the early years is a time when children are working to establish separate male or female identities who can effectively deal with and have an impact on the world. They are developing the confidence and skills they need to get their needs met and solve the problems they encounter, hopefully without violence. And yet, exposure to violence can make children feel that fighting and using weapons are necessary in order to be strong, independent, and competent. Exposure to violence also gives children powerful stereotypes about the relationship of males and females to violence.

Fourth, the period of early childhood is a time when children are learning how to participate in relationships with others and how to rely on and support others in mutually respectful ways as a part of a caring community. As they succeed, children develop a sense of connectedness and belonging that can help them feel secure enough to try new things, experiment, explore, learn, and grow as autonomous individuals. Violence undermines children’s ability to develop positive interpersonal skills or a sense of connection with others. The rugged individual who can protect himself or herself is the model held up to be emulated. Needing others is associated with vulnerability and helplessness. And violence is often seen as the method of choice for solving conflicts with others.

Current theoretical interpretations of the impact of violence on children suggest that they need help understanding the violence they see and overcoming the fears it can create. They often do this through their play, art, storytelling, or writing (as they get older), or by talking to a caring adult. It is through this work that a sense of equilibrium is achieved and learning and development are fostered (Garbarino et al., 1999; Groves, 2002). This may be why teachers, like the one described earlier, so often find young children of today sneaking around with pretend guns more than they did in the past. It also helps us understand Freud and Burlingham’s (1947) accounts of children playing out their experiences in World War II England as well as more recent descriptions of children on the West Bank in Palestine playing out scenarios of Israeli soldiers breaking into houses (Levin and Carlsson-Paige, 2006).

Children’s ability to engage in the kinds of activities that can help them work through their violent experiences can be seriously undermined by the violence in their lives (Terr, 1990). Their energy and resources are diverted into trying to cope with the violence and the lack of safety that it can bring. The increasing amounts of time they spend with media give them less time to engage in activities that would help them work it out. Then when they do play, it can be taken over by the violence, and at the same time, controlled by highly realistic media-linked toys of violence. When this happens they tend to use imitative, rather than creative, play to meet their needs and be ready to move on. Thus, as the need to work through violence increases, children’s ability to work it through can be seriously impaired (Levin and Carlsson-Paige, 2006).

Finally, what children see, hear, and do in their environment becomes the content they use for building ideas about the world. The ideas they build are then used for interpreting new experience and building new ideas. When society provides children with extensive violent content, it is hard for them not to come to see violence as central to how the world works and how they will fit into it. In this way, violence can become a powerful part of the foundation onto which later ideas are built (Levin 2004).


Professional Responses and Responsibilities to Violence in Children’s Lives

We now know enough about how seriously violence can threaten the healthy development of young children to conclude that as we work to reduce the violence, we must also consciously work to counteract the harm. Children need the help of adults to process what they have seen, to feel safe in spite of the violence, and to learn alternative lessons to the ones violence teaches. The following table suggests strategies that begin to address the harmful effects. And the more we can infuse them into everything we do with children, rather than seeing them as a series of isolated tasks or lessons, the more successful we will be at meeting children needs in these violent times (Levin, 2003; Rice and Groves, 2005; Silva et al., 2002).


Strategies for violence prevention with young children


How Violence Undermines Development

What Children Need to Counteract the Harm

• As children feel unsafe and see the world is dangerous and adults can’t keep them safe, energy goes to keeping selves safe and violence is one salient way to do it.

• A secure, predictable environment where they feel adults can keep them safe as they learn how to keep themselves and others safe.

• Sense of self as a separate person who can have a positive, meaningful effect on the world is undermined, so many children do not have many skills for feeling powerful and competent, getting their needs met or solving problems without violence.

• To learn how to take responsibility, positively affect what happens in their environment, and feel powerful and important and meet their individual needs without fighting.

• Sense of mutual respect and interdependence is undermined as violence becomes a central part of the behavioral repertoire children learn about how to treat others. Relying on others is associated with vulnerability.

• Many opportunities to experience and contribute to a caring community in which people learn how to help and rely on others and work out their problems in mutually respectful and agreeable ways.

• Narrowly defined and rigid gender division—where boys are violent and powerful and girls are sexy and weak—and racial, ethnic stereotyping often associated with violence undermine human development and relationships.

• Exposure to males, females, and diverse peoples with wide-ranging and overlapping behaviors, interests and skills who all treat each other with respect and work out problems without violence.

• Increased need to tell their stories and construct meaning of violence in their lives through such activities as discussions, creative play, art, and storytelling.

• Wide-ranging opportunities to work through and talk about violence issues, develop rich and meaningful art, stories, and play with open-ended play materials.

• It is harder for children to work through violence as tools for doing so are undermined by time and energy spent trying to cope and keep safe, time spent watching TV, toys that promote imitation of violence.

• Active facilitation of skills necessary to develop meanings, work through violence and feel safe—imagination, creativity, problem-solving ability, play and communication skills, and models for nonviolent behavior.

Adapted with permission from Teaching Young Children in Violent Times: Building a Peaceable Classroom, 2nd ed., by Diane E. Levin.


The global community must deal with the root causes of the increasing levels of violence in many children’s lives—including rising levels of poverty and inequality, domestic and community violence, global conflict, news violence on TV screens in so many young children’s homes, and marketing of entertainment violence to children by media and corporations. But in the meantime, there is much we can and must do in our work with children in group settings and their families to counteract the harmful effects of violence. By creating a safe and respectful environment where children can directly experience the alternatives to the violence in their lives, we will be helping them learn about peace and nonviolence in the way they learn best (Levin, 2006). See also Computer and Video Game Play in Early Childhood.

Further Readings: Erikson, E. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: W.W. Norton. Feerick, M., and G. Silverman (2006). Children exposed to violence. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes. Freud, A., and D. Burlingham (1943). War and children. New York: Ernst Willard. Garbarino, J. N. Dubrow, K. Kostelny, and C. Pardo (1999). Children in danger: Coping with the effects of community violence. New York: John Wiley & Sons. Groves, B. (2002). Children who see too much: Lessons from the child witness to violence project. Boston: Beacon Press. Levin, D. (2003). Teaching young children in violent times: Building a peaceable classroom. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Educators for Social Responsibility and Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children. Levin, D., and N. Carlsson-Paige (2006). The war play dilemma: What every parent and teacher needs to know. 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press. Rice, K., and B. Groves (2005). Hope and healing: A caregiver’s guide to helping children affected by trauma. Washington, DC: Zero to Three. Silva, J., M. Sterne, and M. Anderson (2002). Act aganst violence training program training manual. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association and National Association for the Education of Young Children. Terr, L. (1990). Too scared to cry: Psychic trauma in childhood. New York: Harper & Row.

Diane E. Levin