• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Thursday 16th August, 2012

Are boosters worth a boast?

Programs that focus on improving family relationships and parenting behavior as a means to reducing later antisocial behavior in children have been shown to be effective, at least in the short term. But do the impacts last?Findings are mixed. Initially positive effects are sometimes sustained – but often they fade. Some effects emerge only with time. So the next question is: how can the long-term effects be improved?“Booster interventions” have been suggested as a solution. It is argued that they can maintain or even enhance initial effects, or realize effects that weren’t initially apparent.Yet the potential of booster interventions has not really been studied. To help rectify this, a team from the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago looked at the impact of a booster to the SAFEChildren (Schools and Families Educating Children) program. They found that a booster can indeed lead to some modest improvements for children and parents.SAFEChildren comprises a 22-session family intervention to help inner-city parents manage their children’s transition into elementary school, accompanied by 20 sessions of academic tutoring for the children.An earlier randomized trial of more than 400 families measured children’s academic attainment and parents’ school involvement a year after the end of the program. Families that participated did modestly better, on average, than the control group. Improvements were more substantial for families who were deemed high-risk at the outset.To test the impact of a booster, the Illinois team randomly assigned half of the initial SAFEChildren participants to a second version of the intervention. This was delivered during the fourth grade (about age 10), just before the age when delinquency and other related social problems usually emerge. The booster was similar to the initial version – family group sessions focused on parenting and encouraging children’s reading – but adjusted for the developmental stage.Of the 424 participants in the original study, 348 were retained for the second phase. Of these, 101 were randomly assigned to the booster intervention. Measures were taken for academic achievement (standardized test scores) and children’s attitudes towards teachers and school. Parents assessed children’s behavior and their own parenting practices as well as family relationships.And did the booster work? Overall, it led to modest improvements in child aggression and concentration in school. For high-risk groups, there were additional benefits for academic achievement, behavior, and aspects of family relationships. The researchers claim that the findings provide “modest support for the frequent contention that boosters are advantageous to consolidate or enhance initial impact of interventions.”However, they note that the booster’s effects were not large on any of the indicators, and only some of the indicators improved. Perhaps more important, the booster did not improve “theoretically important mediators of long-term child risk such as parental monitoring and school bonding.” That is, it may not be setting children and families on a track to long-term improvement.The research suffers from limitations “that may inevitably be part of booster comparisons: those in the booster are exposed to more intervention, and usually to more recent intervention.” A further limitation, at least as far as generalizing the results goes, is that the booster was as lengthy as the initial intervention. Some boosters are much shorter.Moreover, the process by which boosters enhance impact is not clear from this study, indicating the need for further research. This said, the study is an important step forward in the empirical analysis of booster interventions, being, as its authors claim, “one of the first random assignment tests of a booster interventions and one of the most extensive assessments of such effects to date.”*********ReferenceTolan, P. H., Gorman-Smith, D., Henry, D. & Schoeny, M. (2009). The benefits of booster interventions: evidence from a family-focused prevention program. Prevention Science, 10, 287-297.

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