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Baltimore Study Seeks To Identify, Curb Early Behavioral Problems

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Baltimore--Public-school officials here have launched a five-year effort to identify and curb learning and behavioral problems in young children that could lead to depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and delinquency.

The program, thought to be the first of its kind in the nation, will be launched in 15 elementary schools this fall. The National Institute of Mental Health, terming the project a top priority, has provided $1.4 million for it. The Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health will coordinate the effort, which is based on the research of Sheppard G. Kellam, a psychiatrist who is chairman of the school's department of mental hygiene and director of a new research center there. (See accompanying story.)

Gender Differences

Dr. Kellam and others have found that male children with early behavioral and learning problems--such as extreme aggressiveness or outbursts of aggressive behavior combined with shyness--are two to three times as likely as other children to display academic difficulties, delinquency, substance abuse, or psychiatric distress as teen-agers.

Girls who exhibit emotional problems in the 1st grade--such as habitual fears and worries, anxiety, and frequent depressive moods--are likely to develop more severe signs of depression as they grow older, Dr. Kellam's work has found.

The new project is based on research Dr. Kellam conducted from 1963 to 1983 in Woodlawn, Ill., a predominantly low-income neighborhood near Chicago. There, Dr. Kellam studied some 12,000 students as they advanced from 1st grade to age 16 or 17.


He discovered, among other things, that about 5 percent of the male 1st graders who were extremely shy were regular smokers 10 years later, compared with 40 percent of the males who were aggressive as 1st graders and 59 percent of the males who were both habitually shy and aggressive--loners who frequently lashed out at other children. The same findings held true for the heavy use of marijuana, liquor, beer, and wine, as well as for delinquent behavior.

Children who had trouble learning reading, writing, or arithmetic, or who performed poorly on iq and achievement tests, had a very high risk of later psychiatric symptoms, particularly depression, Dr. Kellam found.

But he cautioned that the early behavior problems--shyness, aggression, and antisocial behavior--were found only in a small proportion of the population. "We're talking about kids who get unsatisfactory grades for conduct, for example, or who are more than rarely truant or tardy. And these are easily identified by teachers," he said.

In the Woodlawn study, he found that about 10 to 12 percent of the children were moderately or severely aggressive; another 10 to 12 percent were habitually shy; and about 10 percent were both aggressive and shy. This latter group, he said, had the highest chance of developing problems later on.

The Baltimore Public Schools pro-ject will assess children's learning and behavioral problems in 1st grade by obtaining teachers' assessments of each child's progress on specific tasks, such as obeying rules, being on time, participating in social activities, and not fighting with other children. In addition, trained researchers will periodically observe the children's behavior in the classroom. Additional assessments will be undertaken of those who show symptoms of possible emotional disorders.

Working with three different groups of children--one that will receive special attention in 1st grade, a second that will receive the attention in both 1st and 2nd grade, and a third that will receive no special attention at all--the researchers will train teachers to provide two kinds of help.

'Mastery Learning'

One group of teachers will learn to use the "mastery-learning" technique developed by Benjamin S. Bloom at the University of Chicago to improve the teaching of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Those teachers, Dr. Kellam said, will emphasize group and individual instruction, define clear goals for students, and give them the time and assistance to reach those goals.

A second group of teachers will learn classroom-management strategies that are aimed specifically at reducing aggression and alleviating extreme shyness.

"One technique that we're interested in," said Dr. Kellam, "is to divide the classroom into teams of children and give each team points for social participation and for obeying classroom rules." Those points would lead to such rewards as gold stars, additional recess, or the chance to do certain coveted jobs, such as passing out papers or cleaning the blackboard.

Dr. Kellam said he hoped that approach would prompt teachers to be specific about what they want from children and would allow them to help particular children without labeling them or setting them apart from the group.

In a third group, teachers will continue to use their current teaching methods.

The researchers will follow the school performance, behavioral3problems, and emotional well-being of all three groups of children over time. Dr. Kellam said he hoped to garner additional funds to study the children's progress through high school.

"This period of prevention research is very exciting," he added, "because it's built on the identification of subgroups of children who are at very high risk compared to their classmates, and that kind of knowledge is new to us. It is part of the payoff from the national investment in research over the last 35 years."

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