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May 13, 2002

Pregnancy, birth rates fall among young women exposed to intervention program in elementary school

An elementary school intervention program that promotes social competency, academic success and bonding to school also has the long-term effect of cutting pregnancy and birth rates among young women before age 21, according to a new University of Washington study. In addition, the program reduced levels of risky sexual behavior and sexually transmitted diseases among blacks who received the intervention.

The results, published in tomorrow’s issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, found that by age 21 the pregnancy rate among young women in the multi-ethnic sample who received the intervention was 38 percent, compared to 56 percent of women not in the program. The birth rate showed a similar drop, with just 23 percent of those in the intervention group giving birth compared to 40 percent of those not in the program.

The study, headed by J. David Hawkins, director of the UW’s Social Development Research Group and a professor of social work, and Heather Lonczak, a research analyst with the group, is particularly noteworthy because the intervention program does not have a sex education component.

“These results fit with our theory that if children become bonded to school and committed to achieving in school during the elementary grades, they are less likely to risk that bond by engaging in behavior that puts their future success at risk,” said Hawkins. “But I was surprised by the findings. We never predicted such a big drop in the teen pregnancy or birth rate in our sample.”

Lonczak said the intervention appears to have long-term benefits because it “gets to the guts of issues” and offers hope.

“It fosters a commitment to schools and communities and it gets parents involved in schools,” she said. “It teaches children that they that they are competent, can succeed and can go on to college, get a job and have a future. This is not to say that sex education is not important. It is, and children need this kind of information.”

The study also found that by age 21 those exposed to the intervention program had significantly fewer lifetime sexual partners and single people were also more likely to have used a condom the last time they had sexual intercourse than those who did not participate in the intervention.

The intervention was found to be particularly effective among blacks, who made up 26 percent of the participants in the study. The UW researchers found that the rate for sexually transmitted diseases by age 21 among blacks who had the intervention was only 7 percent vs. 34 percent for those who didn’t receive the intervention. Condom use also was significantly higher. Seventy-nine percent of single blacks who had the intervention reported they used a condom the last time they had sexual intercourse vs. 36 percent among blacks who didn’t get the intervention.

The intervention program was designed as part of a larger ongoing UW study of more than 800 Seattle school children by Hawkins’ Social Development Research Group.

The program worked with teachers, students and their parents. Teachers were given five days of special training each year to learn a variety of specialized skills in classroom management and instruction. Children, meanwhile, were taught impulse control, how to get what they want without aggressive behavior and how to recognize the feelings of other people. Parents were taught a number of skills including family management skills, positive reinforcement, monitoring their children and how to reduce their children’s risk of early alcohol and drug use.

Children were drawn from 18 urban schools and divided into three groups. One group received the intervention throughout elementary school. A second received an abbreviated intervention only in the fifth and sixth grades. The third, or control group, did not receive either of the interventions. Only the 349 students in the full intervention and control groups were included in the current paper.

“We are not doing enough in this country to produce committed, productive citizens who can have a full life,” Hawkins said. “To do that we have to make sure that children get off to a good start in elementary school. What is amazing is that without ever saying the word ‘sex,’ we can have this kind of effect on the pregnancy rate. The cost-benefit to society is significant.”

Lonczak added: “I was surprised that at age 21 an elementary school intervention is still having an effect. It could have a permanent effect on their lives, but we’ll just have to see as we collect and analyze more data.”

Other members of the research team included Robert Abbott, UW professor of educational psychology; Rick Kosterman, a research scientist with the Social Development Research Group, and Richard Catalano, UW professor of social work.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded the research.

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For more information, contact Hawkins at (206) 543-7655 or jdh@u.washington.edu or Lonczak at dhzak@email.msn.com or (206) 543-7655.