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Program Found Curbing Children's Violent Behavior

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WASHINGTON--Most of the underprivileged, unruly children participating in a long-term, federally funded study aimed at preventing violent behavior have shown good progress after the project's first 18 months, a Vanderbilt University researcher told reporters here this week.

Seventy-five percent of the 480 students participating in the eight-year, $41 million study are showing fewer behavior problems in class and on the playground than those in a control group, said Kenneth A. Dodge, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt.

School records also show that 20 percent of those in the control group were retained in 1st grade, compared with 10 percent of those in the experiment.

The results are "encouraging,'' Mr. Dodge said at a press briefing.
But, he added, "by no means does it mean the problem is solved by this point.''

"The real test,'' he said, "will come when these children reach adolescence.''

The project, known as FAST Track--for Families and Schools Together--is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. It aims to prevent chronic aggressive behavior through early intervention.

The project selects children for participation as they enter 1st grade and makes parents--mostly single mothers--paid partners in the process.

'Modestly Successful'

The first group of youngsters for whom there are preliminary results are now finishing 2nd grade, Mr. Dodge said.

Not only are most of the children in the study showing better behavior, but peer interviews indicate the children are better liked by their classmates. Parents also report strong satisfaction.

"My gut feeling is that we are being modestly successful,'' Mr. Dodge told reporters.

If the types of gains the program has experienced so far continue, he said, "we will be very successful.''

FAST Track was jointly developed by researchers at Vanderbilt, Duke University, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Washington.

A total of 960 children are involved at four sites in Nashville; Durham, N.C.; Seattle; and a group of small towns and farming communities in rural central Pennsylvania.

One of the goals of FAST Track is to be able to disseminate the program nationally, using Head Start as a model, Mr. Dodge said.

All of the children chosen for the project live in poverty--as defined by eligibility for the federal free- or reduced-price lunch program--and have displayed aggressive behavior in school and at home, Mr. Dodge said.

Some of the children live in federally subsidized housing and come from homes where there is physical or drug abuse, he said.

Mr. Dodge said that the children frequently have not been taught such proper behavior as sitting still in class or not hitting their classmates.

While the children have been selected for the study without regard to gender or race, about three-quarters are boys. Half are African-American and about 45 percent are white.

More children will be added as the project progresses, Mr. Dodge said. Students will continue to participate at least through middle school.

Holistic Approach

In FAST Track's holistic approach, school administrators, social workers, counselors, researchers, and parents work together.

In addition to regular school attendance, the children receive social-cognitive skill training by playing highly scripted games in small groups.

Students also are provided with academic tutoring in reading, attending a phonics-based session three times a week for 30 minutes.

The children's mothers--who are usually the caretaking parent, Mr. Dodge said--are considered "partners'' and staff members who receive $15 a week to participate.

The mothers attend sessions designed to alter parenting behavior, especially the "harshness of discipline and warmth between parent and child,'' according to a paper by FAST Track researchers.

Parents may receive free transportation to and from the training and free child care for their other children.

The children's teachers are also trained in strategies for working with the at-risk students and all other children in their classes, Mr. Dodge explained.

As the children in the study grow older, the program's components will change, Mr. Dodge said.

For the typical child in the experiment, Mr. Dodge said the program is "not a miracle cure for him, but a constant struggle.''

The program costs about $15 a day per child, which Mr. Dodge said compares favorably with foster care at $40 a day and other interventions that could run as high as $100 a day.

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