• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Wednesday 11th August, 2010

Try counting on the fingers of one hand – and a gerbil

The 50,000 people in Birmingham UK who work with children and are part of the city’s Brighter Futures program workforce were shown a five-finger exercise for making the city’s ambitious prevention exercise a success – and given a cautionary hit-list of five things more that as certainly do not work – by a leading University of Washington prevention scientist at their annual conference yesterday.During his time as Professor of Prevention and Founding Director of the Social Development Research Group, David Hawkins has developed a Raising Healthy Children program that has been tested over 30 years with a cohort of more than 800 children in Seattle. The essence of it could be explained, he said, with the help of the fingers of one hand – and a gerbil. The first finger signified the value of encouraging all staff to create opportunities for children’s active involvement in social activity. "Asking a child in class to take responsibility to feed the gerbil is just one of many ways of achieving this goal," he said. “Remember that children are more than things into which we pour education.”Second finger was giving children the skills for successful involvement in a group. It was important to follow up the request to feed the gerbil by teaching the skills to do the job. The third finger stood for consistent recognition and reinforcement: saying thanks to the pupil for feeding the animals and telling them they had done a good job. “Making this praise appropriate to the child’s developmental stage, temperament and context is going to help a lot.”The last two fingers were to indicate the rewards of this effort. Involved, skilled and recognized children became bonded social units inside their classroom, youth club, neighborhood or family and were committed to success. That, in turn, produced children with healthy beliefs and clear standards.How did he come to be so confident about the message? In 1985 he began a study of 808 fifth grade students in 18 Seattle elementary schools, he explained. By good fortune and hard work he was still in touch with over 90% of them when they reached their thirtieth birthdays a few years ago.Some of the children received the Raising Healthy Children program with its five-finger message during their elementary school years. Some were given support only in their fifth and sixth grades. And a control group in a quasi experimental design got no support.The results were impressive for the children getting a full dose of the program. At end of second grade there was noticeable reduction of anti-social behavior among the boys. By the fifth grade students were better bonded to school. By the time they were 18 they were using less alcohol, had been convicted fewer times and were more likely to complete school. In adulthood, the effects translated into better mental health outcomes.Despite the fact that Raising Healthy Children was delivered in the first five years of school and never mentioned sexual behavior, in adulthood the recipients had fewer sexual partners, were more likely to use a condom and became pregnant less frequently than the control group. When Steve Aos from the Washington Institute for Public Policy analyzed the data he found the cost benefits of Raising Healthy Children to be in the region of $3.14 for each dollar invested.

The probation officer in recovery

David Hawkins described himself as a “recovering probation officer”, referring to his days as a practitioner in the late 1970s wondering if there was a way of stopping kids being ejected from school or families from breaking up.At the time there were just nine experimental tests of delinquency programs in the in US and none had proved effective. Much the same went for interventions to reduce drug misuse. Many strategies, such as providing young people with information on the effects of drugs, actually increased misuse.In stark contrast, in relation to the prevention of cardio-vascular disease for example, astonishing progress had been made by targeting known risks such as smoking, poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle. As he remarked, “Thirty years ago there would have been ashtrays in this conference room; today smoking is outlawed in the entire building. Prevention has won the day, and the incidence of disease has reduced by over 30 per cent.”At the heart of Hawkins’s work is identification of risk and protective factors in children’s lives. It became apparent early on that risk factors in the neighborhood, school, family and individual held at least part of the solution to the conundrum. He offered his Birmingham audience a few examples.“We know now that neighborhood attachment is incredibly important. In some poor communities, families are hidden away and frightened, but in others they are visible and in others still they are actively trying to make their environment a better place to live. So that's one part of the story.“We have also come to understand how negative school experiences, such as falling behind in grades, have adverse affects in many areas of children’s development. In too many schools, improved grades have been achieved at the cost of a lower commitment to lifelong learning.“In families, a failure to set clear boundaries and structure, or to monitor children in developmentally appropriate ways, or, worse, to use excessively severe discipline really sets children back.”The other side of risk is protective factors. Hawkins has done more than most to bring to policy makers’ and practitioners’ attention the value of what some refer to as promotive factors.“We find protection in all the same areas that we discover risk, but let’s take individual characteristics as an exemplar. High intelligence, a resilient temperament and social competence and skills all help in the context of a risky environment.”He acknowledged the problem of protection “drain” for children overwhelmed by risk. In a study of more than 70,000 children his team could not find 100 with more six or more protective factors going for them.All of this work had led him to conclusions similar to those driving the Birmingham Brighter Futures strategy [See The future’s bright, the future’s Birmingham]. Rooting out strategies that did nothing to reduce risk or boost protection was part of the answer, he said and he listed a range of ineffective approaches that somehow remained part of the portfolio of children’s services provision across the world.Frightening children about the consequences of crime, peer counseling programs, segregating problem students from the mainstream, after-school activities that provide limited supervision, summer jobs for at-risk youth… none of them worked.

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