Early Intervention Key to Helping Children, Study Finds

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An elementary school curriculum that emphasizes conflict resolution, negotiation, and decisionmaking skills can reduce the chances that students will commit violent acts, abuse alcohol, and engage in risky sexual relationships as teenagers, a study released last week says.

And students who participate in such a program are more likely than those who don't to behave better in school, achieve at higher levels, and have a more positive attitude toward school, it says.

Beginning in 1985, researchers evaluated the Seattle Social Development Project, which operated in 18 public schools that served high-crime neighborhoods in the city. More than half the students in the project qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.

The project offered a three-pronged approach: It focused on children in grades 1 through 6, involved teachers through annual in-service training, and included parents by offering voluntary classes on such topics as how to help their children succeed in school.

Results of the study, published in this month's issue of the journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, confirm what many early intervention advocates have been saying: Prevention works.

"These findings suggest that early and continued intervention in the elementary grades can help put children on a positive developmental course that is maintained through high school," the authors say in the study.

Such efforts also can save taxpayers money in the long run, according to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. The institute, in Olympia, identified several intervention programs, including the Seattle Social Development Project, and concluded that the program, with a five-year cost of close to $3,000 per student, would bring a positive return on the investment by heading off future criminal-justice and crime-victim costs.

Commitment Important

Led by J. David Hawkins, a professor of social work at the University of Washington in Seattle, the researchers followed the students until age 18 and found that those who participated in the program reported committing significantly fewer violent acts than those who didn't--48.3 percent compared with 59.7 percent.

While the program did not appear to have any effect on the use of cigarettes or illegal drugs such as marijuana, there was a significant difference between how often those in the control group and the intervention group drank alcohol. Control-group members were more likely--25 percent, compared with 15.4 percent--to report drinking alcohol 10 or more times in the past 12-month period.

What's unusual about this study, Mr. Hawkins said, is that it focuses on a program that targets children after they have entered school. Most of the research and recent discussion about prevention has focused on children who are preschool age or younger.

"The point is that it's not too late," Mr. Hawkins said about the elementary school years. But he added that teachers need to have the skills to help children form an attachment to school. "It only works for bonded kids."

Schools, however, shouldn't wait too long to implement such practices, the researchers said. Students who were in the program only in grades 5 and 6 did not benefit as much as those who were exposed to it beginning in 1st grade.

The Seattle project was also different from many prevention programs that seek to reduce crime and delinquency because of its focus on the elementary grades instead of later years. Programs that target older students are often found to be ineffective.

Another notable aspect of the program, the authors write, is that it didn't provide any follow-up activities in later grades. But it included the emphasis on "school bonding" and achievement instead of focusing just on skills to help students avoid future risky behaviors. Children from poor families seemed to benefit the most from that part of the program.

"Developing a strong commitment to schooling in the elementary grades," the authors write, "may set children on a developmental path toward school completion and success that is naturally reinforced both by teachers responsive to eager students and by the students' own commitment to schooling."

Programs without that element may require "booster sessions" as children reach adolescence, the authors conclude, adding that future studies should focus on implementing such a mix of interventions at the middle school level.

Researchers will continue to follow the sample to see if the differences between the groups at age 18 will continue into adulthood.

The project is no longer in place in the Seattle district, but it is being tried in the Edmonds, Wash., public schools with the goal of increasing parent participation.

Vol. 18, Issue 28, Page 6

Published in Print: March 24, 1999, as Early Intervention Key to Helping Children, Study Finds
Web Resources
  • Gang membership and the behavior of youth with delinquent and nondelinquent peers have been measured to determine the significant differences in the rates of offending. Examine the approach and results at the Seattle Social Development Project.
  • For those planning to improve the medical care of adolescents, these guidelines offer one view of necessary services such as prevention, health guidance, screening, and immunizations for those in the 11-21 age group. From Guidelines for Adolescent Preventive Services (GAPS).
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