Sending Kids on a Positive Trajectory

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A program for preventing drug use, violence, teen pregnancy, and other unhealthy behaviors among high-risk youth has been developed by the UW's Social Development Research Group, led by David Hawkins of the School of Social Work. Results have been so successful that they have been highlighted by the White House and widely disseminated in the Institute of Medicine's report, Reducing Risks for Mental Disorders. Their model for prevention research has been replicated widely in communities nationwide.

The research of Hawkins and his colleague Richard Catalano demonstrates that problems such as academic failure and misbehavior in school can be reduced by providing teachers and parents with specific training. Furthermore, the researchers have shown that these systematic improvements in teaching and parenting of children during elementary school years can pay off later on: Criminal behavior and sexual activity is reduced during the teenage years, through age 18.

The interventions developed by Hawkins, Catalano, and colleagues are grounded in a theory called the social development model. The model states that the degree to which people have an opportunity to be actively involved in social groups, plus the skills they have for this involvement and the recognition they receive for it, all combine to determine the degree to which people develop strong social bonds to family and school. In turn, strong bonds to family and school serve as protective factors against behaviors such as school misconduct or criminal activity. The social bond consists of feelings of attachment and commitment to the group and school, and a belief in the group's values.

The researchers identified methods of classroom management and instruction, and of parenting, that could enhance the processes that lead to social bonding. Then they designed a field experiment involving a group of multiethnic urban students from the Seattle Public Schools, who were tracked from childhood to adulthood. The initial sample consisted of students who entered first grade in eight Seattle schools serving high crime areas of Seattle in 1981. Participants were divided into control and "intervention" groups.

Teachers of children in the intervention groups were trained in three major instructional methods: proactive classroom management, interactive teaching, and cooperative learning. In addition, parent training classes were offered on a voluntary basis to adult caretakers of children in the intervention group. The parent training covered child behavior management skills based on a positive approach ("Catch 'Em Being Good") in addition to academic support techniques and skills to reduce the chance of children trying drugs ("Preparing For the Drug-Free Years").

"The results of this study show that intervention during the elementary grades can have enduring effects on the academic and social development of urban children," says Hawkins. The project produced greater commitment and attachment to school, fewer school problem behaviors, and better achievement six years after intervention. "Early and continued intervention in the elementary grades can put children on a more positive developmental trajectory that is maintained, without subsequent boosters or other interventions, through high school," he concludes.

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