April 28, 2000 -- In a speech on the anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School, President Clinton resolved to make the U.S. a safer place for children. Tragically, four days later, a teen-ager allegedly shot seven children at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
Even one year after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold allegedly walked into Columbine High School and opened fire on their classmates, killing 13 students before killing themselves, the U.S. still recoils from the specter of violence among its youth.
Multiple-victim youth murder is on the rise and frequently occurs on school grounds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. However, a new program, featured in the April issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, seems to effectively reduce school violence and aggression in school children.
The new program, called Linking the Interests of Families and Teachers (LIFT), focuses on the two main aspects of a child's world, home and school, says study co-author Mark Eddy, PhD, a clinical psychologist and research scientist with the Oregon Social Learning Center.
The LIFT program is unique in that it applies its training principles broadly to an entire population, and not just the identified troublemakers. For example, LIFT trainers brought parents into the school for a series of parent education classes in which they learned discipline strategies, such as how to reduce their own anger by dealing with their children's behavioral problems immediately and by using short-term consequences like "grounding" them.
Parents also could call a hotline that had a daily message detailing what their children learned in school that day and what their homework assignments were, so parents were kept apprised of daily activities.
LIFT behavioral trainers also taught teachers how to better manage inappropriate behaviors in the classroom. And using role-playing with puppets, games, and a self-imposed "timeout" called the "turtle trick" -- in which an angry child learns how to withdraw from the activity and cool off -- LIFT instructors taught children how to manage their anger and solve problems. Even volunteer playground monitors were taught how to better supervise children at play.
Eddy and colleagues conducted a study of the LIFT program at 12 public elementary schools in a metropolitan area. Nearly 700 students in the first and fifth grades, plus parents, teachers, and school staff, participated in the study. Half of the students were enrolled in the LIFT program, and the other half served as a control group.
After the 10-week LIFT program, professional observers who did not know which children had been in the LIFT program were asked to evaluate the children by watching their behavior during normal recess period.
Based on the observers' reports, the researchers found that the LIFT program was effective in lowering rates of aggressive behavior in children. "The most aggressive children showed the biggest decline in hitting, kicking, and shoving," says Eddy. "In fact, they couldn't even be distinguished from the other kids."
Eddy tells WebMD that follow-up studies are underway to explore LIFT's impact on future crime and delinquency. "But even if there aren't any long-term effects, we've already demonstrated an effective strategy to provide children with a safer environment during the school day."
Parents say the LIFT program also improved home life. "All my kids are behaving better, but only my first grader got the LIFT training," says Maria Quinones, a 33-year-old single mother of three. "My son learned to listen better, and I learned how to use rewards."
The LIFT program has teachers give colored armbands as rewards for good playground behavior, and the class with the most armbands gets a pizza party. Quinones says she offers all her children ice cream on the days her first grader comes home with a reward, which may account for the better behavior among the ones not in the program, she says.
A similar program began in Boston last October. The Program for Social Literacy (PSL) uses techniques similar to the LIFT program to teach 10 "life skills" -- such as self-control, responsibility, conflict resolution, and community service -- to all children from kindergarten to sixth grade, according to program director Deborah Prothrow-Stith, MD, a professor of public health at Harvard University.
Although the program involves parents, PSL focuses primarily on students and teachers. For example, the program instructors teach the children PSL terms such as "pantomime," which means that the children should withdraw into their "own space," and quietly line up, without the teachers having to blow whistles or yell.
"Everybody, from 'lunch mothers' to custodians, uses program terms to help reinforce the message," says pilot school principal Jean Dorcus. "I've overheard kids using PSL terms with other kids, and already, the school seems to be more welcoming."
Next year, the PSL program will be implemented in seven Boston schools. But until violence prevention programs like LIFT and PSL become core curriculum, doctors say there are ways to reduce aggression at home.
"Aggressive behavior often stems from a sense of helplessness in solving problems and meeting needs," says Robert Hunt, MD, director of the Center for Attention and associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University.
Hunt, who specializes in child psychiatry, tells WebMD that parents can teach children to resolve differences by rewarding cooperation. "Rather than settling disputes, parents should encourage kids to reach their own solutions and praise them for it," says Hunt. "This creates competence and a gives children a sense of mastery."
But first, it may be necessary to take some time out. "Sometimes kids have to calm down and get focused before they can handle instruction," Hunt adds. "So it's often a good idea to take some deep breaths or a short break before revisiting the problem."
Parents also need to be good role models. "Kids mimic the tones and attitudes expressed by their parents," says Hunt. "So caring, affectionate behavior between mother and dad is an excellent foundation."
For more information about LIFT, please visit www.oslc.org.For more information about PSL, please call Marci Feldman at (617) 496-0507. For more information about the Center for Attention, go towww.centerforattention.com.
- Violence prevention programs for students, parents, and teachers reduce aggressive behavior among grade-school children; the most aggressive kids show the most drastic improvement in aggressive behavior.
- Parents should praise siblings for settling disputes cooperatively and serve as role models for caring, affectionate behavior.
- Upset children often need a short break in order to focus on problem-solving.