In 1990, in the midst of Congress’ urgings for the National Institute of Mental Health to do something to prevent youth violence, child psychologist Kenneth Dodge of Duke University persuaded the institute to fund a 10-year study. The study would compare adult fates of children undergoing a program of therapy and tutoring aimed towards improving social and cognitive skills, to similar children not participating in the program.
Dodge’s team of researchers screened nearly 10,000 children from nearby elementary schools and crime-ridden communities, eventually identifying 891 kindergartners who displayed aggressive behavioral problems both in school and at home.
Results, recently published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, show there were modest improvements to psychological markers that can predict long-term antisocial behavior as well as criminality. Compared to the nonparticipants in the study, the likelihood of psychological, criminal, sexual, and behavioral problems dropped overall by about 9 percentage points. Substance abuse data was mixed – a drop in alcohol abuse, but only slightly less binge drinking. Program graduates had less serious drug abuse problems, but heavy marijuana use was prevalent amongst both graduates and non-graduates. Risky sexual behavior also dropped significantly with graduates. But there was a more modest drop in violence against partners.
“It’s not miracles; it’s not huge impacts,” said Dodge. “We weren’t successful with every child, but on average we have been able to prevent some of those [negative] outcomes.” The data suggest intervention can work and have long-lasting effects.
The cost of the program was $58,000 per child over 10 years. And participants were no more likely to have graduated from high school, or gained full employment. Additionally, incarceration rates between participants and non-participants differed by only 1.3 percentage points. “It’s a hefty sum, making it daunting to finance a program like this nationwide, or even school district-wide,” Dodge said. “On the other hand, we know that the kids otherwise are going to grow up to cost society an awful lot.” The study noted that a career criminal fraught with a variety of additional behavioral problems can cost society upward of $2.6 million over a lifetime.
Source: Los Angeles Times, Intervention lowers drug, crime and behavior problems, but not by much, September 16, 2014
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