June 22, 2009

Prevention Program Reduces Problem Behaviors in Fifth Graders

Photo of four young boys

A new study found that elementary school children in a character development program were more likely to steer clear of substance abuse, violent behavior or sexual activity by fifth grade than those who were not offered the program.

A research team led by Dr. Brian Flay of Oregon State University tested Positive Action (PA), a K-12 program designed to improve behavior and academic achievement. PA is a school-wide effort that involves teachers, parents and students. It takes a positive, holistic approach to social and emotional development rather than emphasizing the negative aspects of substance abuse and violence.

The program involves daily 15- to 20-minute lessons focusing on topics such as responsible self-management, getting along with others and self-improvement. The sessions encourage the exchange of ideas as well as feedback and constructive criticism. In total, the lessons last about an hour a week beginning in the first or second grade.

The researchers conducted their study in 20 public elementary schools in Hawaii. Ten schools were randomly assigned to implement PA, with 10 matched schools assigned to the control group. All the schools had below-average standardized test scores and diverse student populations, with an average of 55% of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches. The study was supported by NIH's National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

In fifth grade, 976 students (most aged 10 or 11) responded to a written questionnaire. It asked about their use of substances, including tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs; involvement in violent behaviors, such as carrying a knife or threatening someone; and voluntary sexual activity. The results were published on June 18, 2009, in the online edition of American Journal of Public Health.

The number of students reporting that they had engaged in any of these behaviors was small. However, those in the PA program were about half as likely to report engaging in them as the others. The students who had participated in the program for 3 or more years reported the lowest rates of problem behaviors.

"This study demonstrates that a comprehensive, school-wide social and character development program can have a substantial impact on reducing problem behaviors of public health importance in elementary-school-age youth," Flay says.

"The fact that an intervention beginning in the first grade produced a significant effect on children's behavior in the fifth grade strengthens the case for initiating prevention programs in elementary school, before most children have begun to engage in problem behaviors," says NIDA Director Dr. Nora Volkow.

Flay plans to conduct a follow-up study to see whether the effects of the PA program last as the children grow older.

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