UW News

August 3, 2015

UW-developed program boosts community-wide prevention, study finds

News and Information

Almost 30 years ago, two University of Washington researchers developed a program that aimed to reduce problem behaviors among young people by implementing preventive measures at the community level.

That program, Communities That Care, is now being used in states across the nation and has been shown to reduce risk factors that lead to problems such as substance abuse and juvenile crime. But whether it was primarily the reduction of risk factors — or also the strengthening of protective ones — that helped prevent those issues was less clear.

New research seeking to address that question has found that there were significantly higher levels of protective factors, such as healthy friendships and good social skills, in communities that adopted the program versus ones that didn’t.

Published in Prevention Science in July, the research is based on a randomized trial of the program between 2003 and 2008 in 24 communities across seven states. Twelve pairs of communities were matched on various characteristics and half were randomly assigned to use the program. More than 4,400 youth aged 10 to 14 were surveyed from grades five through eight to assess the program’s impact.

The study found that all 15 protective factors measured were higher in participating than control communities at the end of eighth grade. Those factors ranged from academic success to opportunities for positive social involvement and were assessed across four environments: community, family, school and peer groups.

Protective factors were higher in all areas except family, possibly because of the challenge of getting parents involved; just 10 percent of eligible parents participated in family programs offered during the five-year study, the paper found.

Overall, lead author Elizabeth Kim said, the findings affirm that targeting risk factors and increasing protections are equally important in preventing problem behavior.

“They are both potent indicators of having effects on behavior,” she said. “Little research has been done to show the effect of prevention programs on increasing protective factors, so the findings are exciting.”

Communities That Care is based on a social development model in which young people are provided with opportunities, skills instruction and recognition in various areas of their lives. Those three ingredients promote a sense of attachment and belonging, the theory goes, that encourage young people to adopt healthy behaviors and avoid risky ones.

Under the program, communities first conduct a youth survey to determine their area’s risks and strengths. UW staff provide training and help choose evidence-based prevention programs.

David Hawkins, founding director of the UW-based Social Development Research Group and co-creator of Communities That Care, said that by providing young people with opportunities for positive social involvement, protective factors both steer them away from bad choices and set them on a positive trajectory.

“They enhance the likelihood of success in life for those kids,” said Hawkins, a co-author of the paper. “It’s not just preventing risk. It’s also promoting success.”