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Elementary school intervention boosts positive functioning in early adulthood


An elementary school intervention program that taught children impulse control and gave their teachers and parents better management skills has long-lasting effects extending into early adulthood, showing that the children are more productive and well-adjusted members of society at age 21, according to a new study.

More children who received the intervention graduated from high school and had completed at least two years of college compared to children who did not receive the intervention or only got an abbreviated form of it. The results, being published tomorrow in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, also show that students receiving the intervention reported higher levels of employment, being employed at their present job for a longer period of time and having better emotional and mental health.

"What this study shows is we can do more in public elementary schools to ensure that all children get on a track to greater success. The benefits of this program transfer to greater success in education, getting a good job with a future and having a more positive view of life in young adulthood," said J. David Hawkins, lead author of the study and founding director of the University of Washington’s Social Development Research Group that tested the intervention. Hawkins is a UW social work professor and a former probation officer.

The study involved more than 600 children from 18 Seattle public schools serving high-crime neighborhoods. The children were divided into three groups. One group of 144 children received the intervention for at least one semester in grades 1 through 4 and at least one semester in grades 5 or 6. A second group of 256 children received the program for at least one semester but only in grades 5 or 6, while the third group of 205 children was not exposed to the program.

Children in the study were evenly divided among girls (303) and boys (302). Forty-five percent identified themselves as white, 25 percent as black, 22 percent as Asian American, 6 percent Indian and 2 percent as from another ethnic group.

The intervention involved teachers, students and their parents. Teachers were given special training to learn specialized skills in classroom management and instruction. Children were taught impulse control, how to get what they want without aggressive behavior and how to recognize the feelings of other people. Parents were taught family management skills, positive reinforcement and how to better monitor their children.

Hawkins said the intervention had wide-ranging beneficial effects on functioning in early adulthood particularly in school and work, as well as on emotional and mental health. While the program reduced levels of crime and substance use, fewer statistically significant effects were found in these areas. He said there was a consistent "dose" effect from the program. Those who received the full intervention showed the strongest effects, and the most positive functioning. Children who received the late intervention showed lesser effects, but performed at a higher level than children who did not receive the intervention.

Children who received the full intervention were significantly more likely to have graduated from high school than those who did not get the intervention (91 percent vs. 81 percent) and to have completed two or more years of college (14 percent vs. 6 percent). Among those currently employed, the intervention group had significantly more longevity on the job (4.96 years vs. 3.85 years). They also reported spending more time per week in school or on the job (32 hours vs. 28).

Data also showed those in the intervention group were significantly less likely to have sold drugs in the past year and to have a court record at age 21. However, there was little difference in rates of using alcohol or tobacco in the past month or in using marijuana or other illegal drugs in the past year. In addition, children in the full-intervention group reported significantly better emotional regulation, fewer thoughts about suicide and fewer symptoms of social phobia, an anxiety disorder involving social situations.

"Seeing the effects of this intervention convinces me that we can do more to help children succeed during the elementary grades. We need to ensure that teachers in our public schools are equipped with the skills to manage diverse classrooms and parents of elementary school children have the tools to promote their children’s success outside the classroom," said Hawkins. "We can help teachers and parents to be more effective so that more children will succeed as adults." Co-authors of the study are Richard Catalano, director of the UW’s Social Development Research Group; Rick Kosterman, a research scientist with the group; Karl Hill, a UW research associate professor of social work; and Robert Abbott, a UW professor of educational psychology.

Joel Schwarz | EurekAlert!
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