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September 1998

Stop the Violence

AG00041_.gif (503 bytes) September's
Front Page

Programs That Help
Violent Kids

The effects of universal programs in schools are small but apply to a large number of children. Parents and teachers alike reported decreases in disruptive behaviour.

By Johanna Brand

Making children better readers will help keep them out of teenage gangs.

Research sponsored by the prestigious Canadian Institute for Advanced Research – profiled in the last issue of Professionally Speaking – has shown that the best place to control teen violence is in JK to Grade 4. Now a six-year research study recently completed by researchers at McMaster University, Helping Children Adjust, has produced some answers about what program, or combination of programs, would best help young children with identified behaviour problems.

The study targets were two groups of children – those who are antisocial and too aggressive, and those who are too compliant and submissive and at risk of becoming victims of abuse.

Of the two groups, overly-aggressive children have been more widely studied. Research has shown that their poor social skills can eclipse other talents these children may have and turn potential stars into dropouts. Children who are unable to control their aggression are likely to do poorly academically. They will be shunned by other children and become caught in a downward spiral of diminished self-esteem, poor academic performance and loneliness.


To combat their social isolation, aggressive children often seek out other like-minded outcasts and begin to form gangs. These gangs are evident as early as kindergarten and they persist into adolescence where they can become a significant social problem.

While less is known about submissive children, it is thought that they too suffer from poor social skills and the negative effects of isolation from their peer group.

The best time to intervene and attempt to break this cycle is in early childhood, researchers say. They believe that the best results will be obtained by an intervention that tackles both social and academic skills.

Also known as the Tri-Ministry Study, Helping Children Adjust was funded jointly by the ministries of Education and Training, Health, and Community and Social Services. The research team was based at the McMaster Chedoke Centre for the Study of Children at Risk. Additional funding was provided by the 10 Ontario school boards that took part. In all, 50 schools across the province were involved.

Helping Children Adjust provided the schools with a program to teach children in kindergarten and the primary grades, social skills. Another focused on literacy, but also had a social skills component. A third intervention, a program aimed specifically at parents, was later dropped because of the difficulty of keeping parents involved.


Schools are the ideal place for this kind of intervention, says Joel Hundert, a psychologist and Director of Behaviour Therapy Consultation Service at Chedoke-McMaster Hospital. Hundert also teaches at McMaster University and was one of the lead researchers in the study. "There’s no better place than schools to reach all kids," he says.

With cutbacks in many areas, individual help for maladjusted children is not easily available. There are long waiting lists at clinics and fewer back-up resources available to classroom teachers, says Hundert. As well, individual programs do not address the dynamic of peer group interaction, an important component in shaping children’s behaviour.

The programs tested in the study were incorporated into the daily classroom routine and involved all children in a classroom, so they could potentially benefit not only seriously maladjusted children, but also those with less severe problems who might not otherwise be eligible for help.

Teachers can play an important role in helping poorly adjusted children change their behaviour, according to Hundert. But he adds that "teachers don’t see the potential they can have."


"My impression is that teachers are now overloaded with managing kids’ behaviour. They report spending one-third of their time on classroom management. It’s something they may not be trained to do and they often feel frustrated and overwhelmed."

The study provided a practical way of addressing this dynamic by giving teachers a structured program to deliver in their classrooms.

The two school-based programs had a number of things in common. In each case teachers involved received extensive training before the program began. They also received support from a facilitator for the duration of the study. Teachers had regular meetings to discuss implementation and problem-solving strategies.

The programs fostered increased teamwork and sharing of ideas, not only between teachers but between schools and boards. As part of the program, staff at the schools involved were asked to examine and assess how they dealt with social skills and literacy in their schools.

The programs were structured so that children learned social and reading skills in the same way they might learn a sport. They learned the steps involved in developing each skill and received rewards and praise when they used and demonstrated what they were learning.


As well, both programs established a link with parents. Research shows that parent involvement is crucial. If children’s behaviour is to change, the message from home and school has to be consistent. Parents were either invited to meetings to learn about the program and/or they received written materials explaining what was happening in school. Parents were also asked to observe their children’s behaviour and reward learning.

The social skills program focused on teaching children skills such as listening to others, staying out of fights and sharing. Each skill was featured for two weeks to a month.

The class day started with a social skills lesson. This might be a role play and a discussion of the steps involved in a particular skill – the components that make up sharing, for example. These role plays were first performed by a teacher and a facilitator and subsequently involved the children themselves acting out the skill of the week. In JK and SK classes, puppets replaced the role plays.

The class day also ended with time spent on social skills. Teachers and children discussed when and how they used the skill and how it worked.

Teachers had at their disposal a number of visual aids, such as cue cards with words and pictures, and a "sunshine" badge of honour. Each day the badge was given to five children who became the focus of the teacher’s attention for that day and were heaped with praise when they were seen practising the skill. In this way, every child systematically became the focus of their teacher’s attention.


A similar structured approach was used in the reading program, Connections. Jan McDonald, a resource teacher with the Halton Board, said the program used The Little Engine That Could as its theme. The program encouraged an ‘I think I can’ attitude. "There was an emphasis on helping children problem solve, make decisions and take responsibility for the decisions they made," McDonald says. As in the social skills program, skills were broken down and demonstrated in various ways – in this case, children learned the strategies that good readers use. Children were encouraged to ask themselves, "What can I do to be an effective reader?"

Parental involvement was encouraged in a variety of ways. Parents learned about reading theory and how to work with their children. Videotapes were available to augment these sessions. Families received monthly planners so they could develop routines that would support reading activities. When at home, children were encouraged to practice strategies they had learned at school.

An important aspect of the program had children working with partners, so that they were also learning social skills. They were encouraged to ask themselves, "What can I do to work with my partner?" and apply problem solving skills to the interaction. This kind of pairing also allowed children with poor social skills to learn from their more well-adjusted classmates. "We had partner reading for years, but this brought a framework and a focus to that activity that wasn’t there before," says McDonald.

A separate phase of the program emphasized story-telling techniques. This was an especially valuable element for children from other cultures, says McDonald. It gave them a chance to bring something of their culture to the classroom.

She says that in assessing the program, researchers were looking not only at changes in reading skills, but also "the changes in children’s proficiency, in their ability to make choices and in how they felt about themselves as a reader."

The results of the study were shared with the boards and participating schools in the late spring. The researchers found that universal programs in schools can have a positive impact on children’s behaviour. They state that the "effects of universal programs are small but apply to a large number of children" and, therefore, will require more study to find if there are lasting long-term benefits.


Researchers found that in almost all schools there was a general improvement in all the attributes under study that occurred in the first 18 to 24 months. Hundert says that, "there was a general demonstrated behaviour improvement in all the kids. It made all the kids more hearty. All the kids were less aggressive. The change happened right away, then reached a plateau. It got no better but stayed the same."

Statistically significant improvements in playground behaviour occurred in all participating schools but was more pronounced in schools that ran the social skills program or the combined reading and social skills programs.

As well, reading skills improved in all schools. There was an observed, but not statistically significant, gain in social skills and a decrease in disruptive behaviour.

Interestingly, parents found more improvements in children than did teachers. Parents reported a greater decrease in disruptive behaviour and a greater increase in social skills. This underscored the importance of including both home and school in programs and in assessing the outcomes.

An important aspect for the researchers was the positive feed back from the teachers involved. "Ninety per cent said they liked it. It was practical and they would continue the program," says Hundert. He noted that the social skills program was a relatively minor addition to the curriculum.

The researchers say that the impact on the most high-risk children is still being analyzed.

For further information about research study results, contact Yvonne Racine, research co-ordinator at the McMaster Centre for Children at Risk, Patterson Building, Chedoke McMaster Hospitals Box 2000, Station A, Hamilton ON L8N 3Z5; telephone (905) 521-2100. The boards that participated in the study were Dufferin-Peel RCSSB, Durham, Halton, Lakehead, Lambton County, Lambton County RCSSB, City of York, Ottawa-Carlton RCSSB, City of Toronto and Waterloo Regional RCSSB.