Look for Signs of 'Problem Behavior' Early, Educators Told

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Washington--Clues to the likelihood of "problem behavior" in adolescents may emerge as early as the first grade. But the behavior itself--drinking, use of drugs, and smoking--may simply be a natural part of a young person's transition to adulthood.

These findings of recent studies on the subject of adolescent behavior hold several implications for educators, according to the two investigators who conducted the research. They discussed both the findings and the implications at a special symposium on adolescence at the annual meeting of the American School Health Association (asha), held here last week.

Early Intervention Useful

For educators, the speakers said, it may be more useful to concentrate on intervening early, finding ways to "delay onset" of the troublesome practices, and trying to minimize the6damage that can result when students do smoke, drink, use drugs, and engage in early sexual activity.

But trying to prevent such practices altogether among teenagers may be unrealistic, said one researcher, because they may be a necessary part of growing up. "Engaging in problem behavior plays a major role in the normal transition process," said Richard Jessor, a University of Colorado psychologist. "It isn't useful to consider adolescent problem behavior as arbitrary, or irrational, or as merely perverse." On the contrary, these activities, like all other forms of behavior, are ''functional, goal-oriented, and meaningful," he said.

Whether or not it is preventable, some of that teenage behavior, a University of Chicago psychiatrist told the health officials, may be predictable at an earlier age than was previously believed--and its predictability may help educators better plan strategies to cope.

In a 12-year study of schoolchildren on Chicago's south side, Sheppard G. Kellam and colleagues found, he told the health group, that some aspects of a child's behavior and performance in the first grade were "predictors" of certain kinds of problem behavior in the 10th grade.

Early Signs

The first-grade classroom, Dr. Kellam said, is an "overwhelmingly important arena in long-term development." A child's behavior and performance in the first grade may provide school officials with clues that he or she is likely to use drugs and alcohol, and to experience depression and other psychiatric symptoms in high school," he said.

In the study, which began in 1966, the Kellam team surveyed 1,200 first-graders in Woodlawn, a low-income area on the south side of Chicago. The researchers looked at children's behavior, as evaluated by their teachers, as well as at test scores indicating I.Q., readiness for school, and other predictors
of academic success. In 1976, they tracked down and reassessed 705 of the students, then in the 10th grade, and evaluated their psychological well-being, as well as their use of drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes.

While they were able to link variations in the children's home life with their performance in the first grade, the researchers found, Dr. Kellam said, that "from the first grade on, the classroom itself becomes predominantly important, particularly for males, in the long-term outcomes of the children."

The first-graders were tested on the "social tasks" demanded of them, and were scored for such things as shyness, aggressiveness, and ability to master the first-grade material.

Ten years later, they compared that information with information gathered from the same students, then in 10th grade. Their analysis, Dr. Kellam said, showed at least two separate sets of predictors in the first grade.

'Readiness Tests'

The first-graders who scored high on "readiness tests" as well as on I.Q. tests, were, ten years later, as likely as the less bright, eager students to have tried alcohol and marijuana.

Subsequent analysis showed that the greater frequency of use among bright children occurred because they experimented earlier than their less bright classmates, Dr. Kellam said.

A distinction based on whether a first-grader was shy or aggressive--or both--provided the researchers with another, independent measure of future use of drugs or alcohol, but only among boys.

Shy first-grade boys were less likely than aggressive boys to use drugs or alcohol, but the greatest users were the "shy-aggressive" boys, the solitary rule-breakers, Dr. Kellam said.

The study also revealed that3learning problems in the first grade, especially among boys, tended to presage later psychiatric symptoms, Dr. Kellam said. Those 10th-grade students who had not experienced learning problems in the first grade reported fewer feelings of depression and other symptoms.

Other researchers who have conducted long-term studies of the same phenomena have reached similar conclusions, Dr. Kellam said.

"The first-grade classroom," Dr. Kellam said, "is an enormously powerful contest for the mastery of the basic first-grade tasks, which has important implications not only for further mastery, but also for psychiatric symptoms.

"As we learn more about it, we can see that interventions in the first grade will be crucial, and that they will be more specificially tailored," he said.

Educators may also be better able to deal with adolescents' behavior problems if they understand the students' motives for behaving in ways that are socially unacceptable and sometimes illegal, said Richard Jessor, who, together with his wife, has studied problem behavior for 20 years.

Mr. Jessor described six "goals" that, consciously or unconsciously, motivate students who use drugs or alcohol, smoke, run away from home, or engage in other forms of behavior regarded as problematic. For such students, the behavior:

Is a way of effectively achieving unattainable goals;

Gives them a way of coping with frustration or failure--for example, drinking provides an escape from problems;

Allows them to express rebellious feelings;

Is a way of establishing solidarity with peers--for example, smoking in the school parking lot;

Allows them to express and confirm their own identities;

Is an affirmation of maturity, and a way of "negotiating" with soci6ety for the privileges accorded adults.

Adolescents who engage in one form of behavior unacceptable to parents and teachers are likely to try others as well, Mr. Jessor said. For example, students who have used marijuana are more likely to engage in early sexual activity than those who have not used marijuana.

Girls Joining Boys

Moreover, he said, students are beginning to engage in problematic behaviors at a younger age, and girls, who once refrained from many of these activities, are now joining the boys. "All of these behaviors are strongly interrelated," Mr. Jessor said. "They go together in the same young people."

The Jessors' research findings also indicate that conventional behavior--involvement in school and church activities--decreases as the student engages in more unacceptable activities.

In a study that followed the lives of a group of seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-graders over a period of four years, the Jessors found that the students became more prone to "problem behavior" as they became older. "Normal development," Mr. Jessor said, "is a process of increasing proneness to problem behavior."

The traditional approach to problem behavior has been to try to prevent it, but Mr. Jessor suggested a different approach.

"Obviously, there is no way we can prevent young people from doing most of these things. The real issue has to be thought of differently. It has to be, I think, thought of as a recognition that sooner or later, they will get into most of these things."

The role of educators, he said, becomes one of minimizing students' involvement in possibly harmful activities, with the goal of insulating them against the negative consequences of "exploration," which, he said, is what problem behavior is all about.

Delaying, rather than trying to prevent, such activities may be a more useful approach.

For example, if students wait even one year before engaging in sexual activity, he said, they will be better able to handle it emotionally.

The schools have a "key role" to play in this process, Mr. Jessor said. Programs that inculcate students with a positive sense of self, and give students a stake in the larger society, may prevent some of the problems.

Vol. 01, Issue 08

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories