By Susan Farrer, NIDA NOTES Contributing Writer
Addressing a young student's classroom antics may do more than allow his teacher to get through a lesson. Comprehensive, school-based programs can reduce young children's antisocial behavior while boosting their social competency, academic performance, and commitment to school, recent NIDA-funded research suggests. Such programs hold promise for reducing risk factors for drug use, violence, school dropout, and other problem behaviors during adolescence, the researchers say.
Dr. Richard Catalano and colleagues at the University of Washington in Seattle evaluated initial 18-month results of the Raising Healthy Children (RHC) program, designed to reduce antisocial behaviors and academic failure while promoting prosocial behaviors by working closely with students and their teachers and parents. First implemented with NIDA funding in 1994, RHC offers children in grades 1 through 12 age-appropriate services at school and at home. This unique long-term intervention addresses key factors that affect a child's social development at each age and either protect against or increase the risk of drug use and other problems. The original RHC program participants, who were 1st- and 2nd-graders in 1994, are now in 11th and 12th grades and still participating in the program.
"Elementary school interventions are relatively rare but are potentially very powerful if we can determine exactly what the target risk and protective factors are and how to get to them early," notes Dr. Aria Crump of NIDA's Prevention Research Branch. "If we can intervene early--by addressing precursors to antisocial behaviors--then we're getting a head start on preventing problems."
RHC is founded on the social development model, which hypothesizes that elementary school children learn behavior patterns from teachers and peers at school as well as their families, with peer influence increasing as children age. The model also suggests that consistent patterns of socialization with prosocial individuals create social bonds that positively influence behavior. RHC strategies seek to engender consistent, positive socialization and prosocial development within children's classrooms, peer groups, and families.
Dr. Catalano, who with Dr. David Hawkins helped craft the social development model, notes that it emerged from a growing understanding of the developmental etiology of substance use and other problem behaviors. The model suggested that prevention interventions delivered to preadolescents might be effective.
"Longitudinal research has shown that risk and protective factors are present before adolescence and that we might set kids on a different developmental path if we can change these factors early in life," Dr. Catalano explains. "Building on this knowledge, our research focuses on incorporating a developmental approach into intervention efforts and addressing risk factors as they become salient."
The RHC program includes:
- Teacher workshops and booster sessions that support classroom instruction--proactive classroom management, cooperative learning methods, and techniques to improve children's interpersonal and problem-solving skills, for example--to reduce academic failure and early aggressive behaviors and enhance the protective factor of commitment to school.
- Parent training and involvement strategies implemented by school-home coordinators through parenting workshops and in-home family services to reduce family management problems, family conflict, and academic failure and enhance family bonding and clear standards for behavior.
- Summer camps and in-home services for students identified by teachers or parents as being at risk for academic failure or in need of enhanced social competence.
The Raising Healthy Children (RHC) program incorporates
strategies for teachers, parents, and students in grades 1-12. RHC seeks to develop students' prosocial behaviors, lessen antisocial behaviors, reduce academic failure, and prevent adolescent problem behaviors, such as drug use and violence.
The RHC study included 938 1st- and 2nd-graders enrolled in 10
suburban public schools in the Seattle area in 1994. After the schools were paired by socioeconomic status and attendance patterns, one school in each pair was randomly assigned to the RHC group and the other to a control group.
Data were collected from classroom teachers and parents just before the study was launched and at the 6-month, 1-year, and 18-month marks. Additional data were gathered from students through simple surveys they completed 6 and 18 months after the study began. Teachers and parents rated children's antisocial behavior, social competency, academic performance, and commitment to school. Students rated their own antisocial behavior and social competency.
For purposes of this study, examples of antisocial behavior include intentionally breaking things, taking others' things, lying extensively, and initiating fights. Social competency includes, among other behaviors, understanding others' feelings, cooperating with peers, sharing things, and accepting responsibility for one's actions.
Students appear to have benefited from the RHC program after only 18 months of participation. The teachers' reports revealed that the intervention students were significantly more committed to school and had higher academic performance than students in the control group. According to the teachers, RHC students also displayed significantly more social competency than did control students, with social competency levels increasing for participants as they decreased for those in the control group. The teachers' reports also indicated that program students exhibited less antisocial behavior than their control group peers. Further, the rate of new displays of antisocial behavior declined in RHC students, whereas the rate in control students increased.
Parent-reported data confirmed that program students had significantly higher levels of academic performance and commitment to school than did the control group. However, neither the parent-reported nor student-reported data showed significant differences between the two groups in social competency and antisocial behavior after researchers controlled for gender, low income, and baseline conditions.
The investigators say the lack of parent-teacher agreement on items assessing children's behavioral outcomes is not surprising because this result is consistent with previous research. "Generally, if you look at studies involving teacher and parent reports, parents are less able to discriminate differences in behavior," Dr. Catalano says.
The differences in teachers' and parents' reports on prosocial behavior may relate to several factors. First, parents may not have as many opportunities as teachers do to see their children interact in structured environments. Second, parents may have less exposure to children's social behaviors, and their comparisons may be limited to a small group of their children's friends.
The researchers suggest that data collection issues may account for child-reported data not showing significant differences between program participants and nonparticipants in social competency and antisocial behavior. For example, the children's young age precluded asking them a sufficient number of questions to measure all of the relevant dimensions. In addition, data were not collected from the children before the intervention began, so data provided by parents were used as baseline measures.
"The significant findings are that the intended targets for intervention have been changed," Dr. Catalano observes. "On the risk side, it appears that we've reduced antisocial behavior and academic failure. On the protective side, we appear to have increased kids' social competency and commitment to school."
The researchers observe that the study provides only preliminary results of the longitudinal RHC intervention, and a NIDA-funded study of long-term RHC outcomes in middle school and high school students is now underway. With its encouraging initial findings, this research appears to support other evidence of the effectiveness of social development interventions in young children. Dr. Catalano notes that the RHC program replicates and extends the Seattle Social Development Research Project (SSDP), but focuses on institutionalizing intervention practices school-wide. Evaluation of the SSDP showed short-term success in increasing academic performance and reducing violent behavior. It also showed long-term success in increasing academic performance and decreasing substance use, drug-selling, and other problem behaviors.
"Because we've tried to find ways to enhance implementation of the practices and update the practices, we really have a second generation of these studies," Dr. Catalano explains. "That makes it a stronger contribution than a single study. The message is that developmental prevention can work and can be replicated."
Catalano, R.F., et al. Raising healthy children through enhancing social development in elementary school: Results after 1.5 years. Journal of School Psychology 41:143-164, 2003.
Hawkins, J.D.; Catalano, R.F.; Kosterman, R.; Abbott, R.; and Hill, K.G. Preventing adolescent health-risk behaviors by strengthening protection during childhood. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 153(3):226-234, 1999.
Volume 18, Number 6 (February 2004)