Long-term Studies Can Narrow Solutions

November 21, 1998

by Diane Dietz of The Register-Guard

By studying large populations of children as they grow, researchers are beginning to describe how kids develop into violent teenagers. Their studies are rapidly becoming the foundation for steering violence- bound kids onto a more hopeful course. Here are some of the key studies.

Gerald Patterson, researcher at the Oregon Social Learning Center in Eugene, pioneered psychology’s explanation for how kids become aggressive and anti-social.

He developed his “coercion model” in a series of studies beginning in the 1960s and continuing through today.

He started by going into people’s homes and making minute-by-minute observations about how parents and children interacted. He took measurements in normal families and then in families with aggressive children. His coercion model grew out of a comparison of the two.

His important finding: In minute-by-minute interchanges, parents can inadvertently teach their children that coercion is an effective way to get what they want. An example: A parent asks a kid to do a chore. The kid yells, the parent caves in and the kid runs out to play. The kid learns that yelling pays off. The pattern, if established, can set a child on a bad course in life.

Patterson then articulated his ideas by following the lives of 206 Eugene-Springfield boys, beginning when they were in fourth grade. Patterson and his colleagues check in with the boys in the Oregon Youth Study every year. Every other year, the boys and their families undergo an assessment so involved it takes 20 hours.

Patterson’s fourth-graders are in their 20s now and still under the social Learning Center’s microscope. When they began choosing romantic partners, the researchers began studying the impact of their choices on the course of their lives. When the boys began having children, 136 in a recent count, researchers began to study a second generation of parenting practices.

Patterson recently published a study examining how the coercive exchanges he studied years earlier have affected the trajectory of the original boys’ lives.

  • Most of those who grew up to be criminals followed a pattern:
  • Before they got out of elementary school they were rated anti-social by parents, teachers and peers.
  • They were arrested by age 14.
  • They had been arrested more than three times before adulthood. Patterson believes property crimes, such as stealing, may be part of the pattern that leads to violence.

Rolf Loeber, on the other hand, zeroed in on milder forms of violence that get increasingly worse as a child ages and develops toward violence. The University of Pittsburgh psychology professor, who once worked in Eugene, studied how the lives of 1,517 boys unfolded, beginning when they were ages 7 to 13. His Pittsburgh Youth Study collected information from school and court records and interviewed the boys and their mothers every six months. Loeber’s theories were bolstered by independent researchers analyzing 44 previously completed studies involving 28,400 children and adolescents.

He discovered a progression of offense from less serious behaviors to more serious behaviors. He found that the pathway to violence begins when a kid bullies or annoys others, progresses to fist fights and then later to violent acts, such as rape or strong-arm robbery.

The oldest kids in the study, which began in 1987, are now 25 years old. Loeber continues to chart the developments in their lives.

“Understanding these progressions will help us to identify problem behaviors and intervene earlier and more effectively,” concluded a summary of his work published by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Patricia Chamberlain and John Reid , researchers at the Oregon Social Learning Center in Eugene, figured out how to reduce crime among 40 hard-to-dissuade teenage offenders.

With the cooperation of Lane County Juvenile Court, they took criminal teens, with an average of 14 previous arrests, out of their parents’ homes and placed them in a specialized form of foster care called “Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care.” In shorthand, they call it the Monitor program.

A single teen was placed with a foster family, usually for six or seven months. His overall behavior was strictly monitored, and his good behavior blanketed with praise. (Forty-five kids in a control group were placed in traditional group homes.) The foster care teens weren’t allowed to hang out with troubled friends.

The foster parents got 24-hour backup from case managers adept in solving behavior problems. They also met weekly with other foster parents to compare notes and invent strategies for problem behaviors.

The boys’ biological parents, meanwhile, were studying how to better supervise, encourage and discipline their kids. The kids then were returned to their parents in slow, progressive steps beginning with one- or two-hour visits. The 24-hour case manager support then switched to parents.

The program got backup from probation officers. If the kid got out of hand, he could be sent immediately to detention.

In the tough field of juvenile corrections, the results were good. After one year, 41 percent of the boys in the treatment group were free of arrests, compared with only 7 percent in the control group.

The Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado reviewed 450 programs nationwide, and found Chamberlain and Reid’s foster care among the 10 best. The researchers were tapped to help 10 other cities start similar programs, and the first may be in Baltimore.

Scott Henggeler , a psychiatry professor at Medical University of South Carolina, figured out how to reduce serious anti-social behavior in teenagers by changing their home, school and peer environment. His method is called Multisystemic Therapy, or MST.

Henggeler’s procedure is to send a team, in the Eugene version a probation officer, a therapist and a behavior support specialist, into a kid’s home to help a parent regain control, set up reasonable consequences for misbehavior, get kids out of deviant peer groups, and re-establish a relationship of affection and respect between parent and child.

The therapist teaches parents how to control kids, the probation officer lends the authority of the court to back the parent up and the behavior support specialist helps the troubled kid find new friends and activities to keep him out of trouble for the long haul. The team gives intense support in sessions at the family’s home for about four months.

MST has gotten positive results in more than dozen studies to date. A 1995 study compared the MST approach to traditional individual therapy with 176 violent offenders in Columbia, Mo. A four-year follow-up determined 22 percent of those in the MST group committed another crime, compared with 72 percent in the individual therapy (and 87 percent in a group of kids who refused either approach).

The Lane County Department of Youth Services began an MST-type program two years ago. The Violent Offender Rehabilitation and Treatment program enrolls kids after their first conviction for a violent offense.

A coin toss determines whether they get the family-based treatment or whether they’re placed in a control group.

Since the inception, 62 kids have been enrolled. Their rate of offense has dropped 72 percent, compared with 55 percent for the control group. MST was also named one of the 10 best violence prevention programs in the country.

Mary Wagner showed how kids with serious emotional disturbances struggle: 55 percent drop out of high school, 76 percent are unemployed or irregularly employed in the five years after high school, and 58 percent are arrested in the same time period. For those not finishing high school, the arrest rate soars to 73 percent.

Wagner is the director of education and human services research at SRI International, a nonprofit research institution in Menlo Park, Calif. The institute was commissioned by the federal government to create a database of 8,000 youths ages 13 to 21. The National Longitudinal Transitional Study of Special Education, which she helped create, included students from 300 school districts nationwide, and it was designed to be nationally representative.

“This substantial arrest rate carries with it significant social costs for the crimes committed and for processing and incarcerating offenders,” Wagner wrote.

Thomas Dishion and four colleagues at the Oregon Social Learning Center found that a teenager’s association with deviant friends predicts his eventual descent into violence.

Dishion and his colleagues invited 205 boys and their best friends, of the moment, into the laboratory to talk. The sessions, which were videotaped, were repeated three times at two-year intervals.

The researcher found that those boys who talked and also laughed about violence, for instance, beating a kid up, were far more likely to act out the violence later on. (The study also looked at the forms of anti-social talk and behavior.)

The researchers measured the violence by asking kids what they had done and by checking their arrest records.

Dishion’s work challenges the wisdom of grouping troubled kids in school and correctional programs even those programs meant to change their behavior. “We could have inadvertently made problems worse over the past 20 years,” he said.

Reprinted with permission. Copyright 1998, The Register-Guard, www.registerguard.com.