• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 01st May, 2007

When togetherness can do more harm than good

“First, do no harm,” a common precept among physicians since ancient times, might well apply to educators, youth workers, policy-makers, and others who run or support programs that aim to reform deviant youth in group settings. Based on their review of 19 randomized control-trial studies of group-based programs, researchers from the Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University conclude that such programs can actually aggravate behavior problems.There are several familiar rationales for putting young people with behavior problems together, according to the authors, Kenneth A. Dodge, Thomas J. Dishion, and Jennifer E. Lansford. Perhaps foremost, group interventions are more financially and logistically efficient than those that provide one-on-one support. There is also the concern that anti-social youth should be quarantined in group settings to reduce their potential harm to other youth and society at large. Finally, some believe that deviant youth are likely empathize with and support one another when they are coralled. So why do group interventions often do more harm than good? The authors review a variety of explanations. Research, particularly education research, has shown that labeling children and segregating them can negatively affect their self perceptions, and the labels can become self-fulfilling prophesies. Grouping young people with behavior problems might also increase their opportunities to misbehave; peers might offer drugs or weapons, for example. Still another explanation focuses on group norms. Based on his own and others’ research, Dishion has proposed the general theory of deviancy training that describes how peers verbally reinforce each other’s antisocial behavior. “The fact that contagion occurs will not likely surprise parents of deviant youth or program staff or caseworkers,” notes Lonnie Sherrod, editor for the Social Policy Report, “but it has yet to capture the attention of policymakers and program directors.” Indeed, Dodge and colleagues describe a myriad of group interventions in the realms of education (e.g. tracking and alternative schools), juvenile justice (e.g. secure detention facilities), and various community-based programs for at-risk youth. They also note the magnitude of resources that support such programs:$4.65 billion is spent each year on juvenile justice programs that aggregate deviant youth in the U.S.The authors recommend that policymakers consider alternative approaches, including: universal, prevention-oriented programs (such as whole-school bullying interventions which are common in Europe), family-centered and parenting-support interventions, and group programs that minimize the unstructured, unsupervised time during which young people influence one another. They also note, however, that more rigorous evaluation of group interventions is needed to isolate the influences of various factors that might promote deviance. They recommend an analysis that weighs the costs and benefits to the public of aggregating or group interventions on the one hand and individualized approaches on the other. Educators, youth workers, policy-makers, and others who run or support programs that aim to reform deviant youth in group settings might well use the results of this review to consider how the physician’s ancient dictum 'first do no harm' applies to their work:(See “Deviant Peer Influences in Intervention and Public Policy for Youth” by Kenneth A. Dodge, Thomas J. Dishion, and Jennifer E. Lansford in Social Policy Report, Volume XX, Issue 1, 2006.)

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