• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Wednesday 19th September, 2012

Disrupting the pathways of disruptive children

strong>What are the best ways to prevent disruptive, at-risk children from becoming tomorrow’s offenders? Even modest childhood interventions can prevent some disruptive kids from growing into adult criminals. These programs work – but how do they work?Keeping kids out of trouble as teens is one route to success, a Canadian study finds. A two-year intervention with seven- to nine-year-old boys from relatively low-income families reduced their antisocial behavior in early and middle adolescence, which, in turn, decreased the rate of criminal convictions by age 24.The results cut against theories that insist that adult criminal behavior will be prevented only when social factors – children’s school engagement, parental supervision, and friends’ deviancy – improve. In this study, only changes in the boys’ adolescent antisocial behaviors affected their adult criminal outcomes.By age 24, the improvements from the intervention were modest: of the children who did not take part in the program, 33% had a criminal record, compared to 22% of the boys who were randomly assigned to the program. But the authors argue that this improvement is “clinically significant in light of the difficulty to prevent this kind of outcome” among children living in a difficult environment.Testing four pathwaysThese are the findings from a study by the University of Montreal’s Frank Vitaro and colleagues. The researchers were interested in exploring the contribution of four factors on the likelihood of having a criminal record by age 24. They suspected that levels of antisocial behavior, school engagement, parental supervision and peer behavior would directly or indirectly affect this outcome. Data came from the Montréal Longitudinal Experimental Study (MLES). In 1984, when the study started, kindergarten teachers in low-income areas rated the disruptiveness levels of almost 1,000 six-year old boys. Of these, 250 scored highly enough to be included in the protective program. They were split randomly into two groups, one that took part in the protective program and one that did not. The MLES program had three parts. The first focused on improving the boys’ social skills and behavior towards classmates. The second trained the boys’ parents to better monitor and encourage their sons. The third trained teachers to develop better plans for poorly behaved children. All the training was completed over a two-year period when the boys were 7-9 years old. Boys from both groups were rated for levels of antisocial behavior, school engagement, parental supervision, and deviant friends every year until they reached age 17. Reducing criminal records by 11 percentage points – but how?The participants’ criminal records were checked in 2003, when they were 24 years old. Of the young men who had not taken part in the MLES program, 33% had a criminal record. This compared to 22% of those who had participated. A reduction of 11 percentage points is good, but because of the relatively small sample size, it was not statistically significant. However, Vitaro and colleagues argue that the result is still clinically important.If this is so, then the next question is: what did the program change in these boys’ lives that reduced their criminal engagement? When the authors looked more deeply at the pathways that linked the program to the results, they found that “only a reduction in antisocial behavior operated as a mediator… linking program participation to reduced criminal records.”Although the program improved school engagement and reduced the boys’ association with deviant peers, neither of these pathways affected their criminal record. More to be doneThese findings are promising but not conclusive. The authors acknowledge that there is still a high rate of criminality among the boys who were part of the MLES program. The program was limited and relatively short, and participation was an issue: many of the families and teachers assigned to the program decided not to participate or dropped out.It seems fair to guess that if the intervention were longer and covered at least more of the period of childhood considered especially important, and if participants could be encouraged to stick with the program, then there would be an increased effect. Caveats and conclusionsAt this point a few weakness in the study should be noted. First, other influences may have affected the likelihood of a criminal record, which were not included in the analysis. Second, each factor was only measured in one way. Using multiple tests would help corroborate the self-report measurements used and produce more trustworthy results. Finally, while a criminal record is an objective measure, the study did not break this down into crime categories. It is difficult to know whether the MLES program would have had the same effect on those convicted for violence as opposed to vandalism.What then should we take away from this study? Certainly, parenting is not the only factor involved in preventing disruptive children from becoming criminal adults. But an important question remains: what was it about the MLES program that caused some of the boys to reduce their antisocial behavior as teens? The search for pathways goes on. **********References:Vitaro, F., Barker, E.D., Brendgen, M., & Tremblay, R.E. (2012). Pathways explaining the reduction of adult criminal behaviour by a randomized preventive intervention for disruptive kindergarten children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 53(7), 748-756.

Back to Archives