Elementary School Intervention Can Improve Kids' Behavior Across Multiple Generations

By Lisa Rapaport

June 17, 2020

(Reuters Health) - An intervention designed to train both teachers and parents how to foster better behavior in elementary school children may improve outcomes for not only these students but also for their offspring, a new study suggests.

Researchers examined data collected from 1980 to 2011 from the Raising Healthy Children (RHC) intervention, a program at elementary schools in high-crime Seattle neighborhoods that gave teachers classroom management and instruction training and taught parents skills to help support children's active participation in school. The current study followed 72 offspring of 156 students at schools participating in the RHC program and a control group of 110 offspring of 220 students at nonparticipating schools.

Offspring of students at participating schools had improved child development functioning at ages 1 to 5 years compared to offspring of students at nonparticipating schools, the study found. And, from ages 6 to 18, offspring of students at participating schools also had lower teacher-rated behavior problems, higher teacher-rated academic skills, and lower child-reported risky behaviors.

"It is the first published study, to our knowledge, that reports outcome differences in the next generation, in the children of those who were in a prevention program when they were children," said lead author Karl Hill, director of the Problem Behavior and Positive Youth Development Program and a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder.

In 1980, no prevention program showed strong evidence to suggest it could help curb drug use and violence, Hill said by email. Since then, however, numerous family, school, and community programs have been proven effective at reducing these problems, with effects of childhood outreach lasting well into adulthood.

The current study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, suggests the effects can span generations.

Early on, offspring of students from participating schools had fewer developmental delays in communications skills, gross motor skills, fine motor skills, and overall by the time they were five years old compared to offspring of students from nonparticipating schools.

From ages 6 to 18, offspring of students from participating schools were also less likely to have oppositional defiance, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and overall externalizing behavior problems. They also had better cognitive skills, academic skills, and emotional skills.

In addition, offspring of students at participating schools were less likely to use any drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, or marijuana (OR 0.27) than offspring of students at nonparticipating schools.

"The intervention taught parents and teachers how to provide positive opportunities to their kids in the family and classroom, taught them how to recognize and reward good behavior, and taught the kids how to manage their emotions and impulses, and how to work cooperatively with other kids," Hill said. "This then prepares both the parents and their kids as they enter adolescent risk years and beyond."

The trial wasn't randomized, and it's possible that results from the intervention in Seattle schools might not be generalizable to other communities. In addition, very few eligible students and offspring participated in the study.

Even so, the results suggest that the cost of interventions aimed at school aged children should be measured against potential benefits that extend far beyond graduation, said Arthur Reynolds, director of the Human Capital Research Collaborative at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

The results reinforce the importance of teacher professional development in classroom management and socio-emotional skill development, supporting children's interpersonal problem-solving skills, and parent training to support children's development and learning at home, Reynolds, who wasn't involved in the study, said by email.

"The study also indicates that the field has underestimated the economic returns of effective prevention programs, given that intergenerational and offspring impacts are routinely ignored in cost-benefit studies," Reynolds said. "The study reinforces the need to more comprehensively assess program impacts over time and especially for multicomponent, ecologically-based programs."

SOURCE: https://bit.ly/2N4qUpn JAMA Pediatrics, online June 8, 2020.