Dr. Ronald Stephens is the director of the National School Safety Center, based in Westlake, California. Although there is no official reporting mechanism for acts of violence committed by very young children, he told me that the anecdotal evidence is mounting—and showing that behavior problems are rising at a staggering rate. Stephens points to the dramatic increase in the number of alternative schools created for disruptive elementary students in just the past ten years. A decade ago, he says, such schools for the very early elementary grades were virtually unknown; today, at least one thousand of the fifteen thousand school districts in America have them. They are "commonplace and growing," he told me.
Stephens's organization conducts seminars and training for teachers across the country, and anecdotal evidence of kids out of control is common in their workshops. One petite teacher was attacked so viciously by a large six-and-a-half-year-old that she left her job for six months. Another woman, a first-grade teacher for twenty-five years, reported that she literally could not handle some of her current charges because their behavior was so extreme.
A study conducted by the National Association of School Resource Officers (primarily school law enforcement and safety personnel) and released in August 2003 found that more than two-thirds of school police officers believed that younger children were acting more and more aggressively. More than 70 percent of the officers reported an increase in aggressive behavior among elementary schoolchildren in the past five years. In June 2000, the journal Pediatrics released a study of pediatricians with twenty-one thousand patients collectively. The Associated Press summarized things this way: "The number of U.S. youngsters with emotional and behavioral problems has soared in the past two decades."
These increases cannot be dismissed as being due to changes in medical training and diagnosis, said Dr. Kelly Kelleher of the University of Pittsburgh and Children's Hospital, the study's lead author. In fact, according to the AP report, the highest problem-identification rates were by doctors who trained three decades ago and more. Instead, the findings suggest that most of the change was due to "an increase in problems and the kinds of patients they're seeing," Kelleher said. The largest changes were in attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which increased from 1.4 percent to 9.2 percent, and emotional problems such as anxiety and depression, which increased from negligible to 3.6 percent.
In 2003 alone, more than two million prescriptions were written for antidepressants for children, according to the Washington Post. Of course, the "older generation" has been complaining about "kids gone wild" since the beginning of time. From Socrates to the Puritans—to my own parents, who opposed my girlhood devotion to singer Rod Stewart—we've had laments about how the out-of-control younger generation is always, it seems, worse than ever. But these complaints have traditionally been about the generation coming of age—teenagers and very young adults, not about five- and six-year-olds.