Clinical and Research News
Social-Skills Training Makes Dent in Later Criminal Behavior Rates
Psychiatric News
Volume 43 Number 1 page 16-16

In 1985 the future for "Robert," a 7-year-old boy in Montreal, Canada, hardly looked auspicious. He came from a lower socioeconomic milieu and was hyperactive, aggressive, and oppositional. Today, however, at age 29, he is doing just fine, working in an aeronautics company. He says that he is glad that he stayed away from trouble.

One reason why Robert has been able to pursue a positive path in life may be because he participated in an experimental program from age 7 to 9 called the Montreal Longitudinal Experimental Study. It was launched in 1984 by Richard Tremblay, Ph.D., chair of child development at the University of Montreal. The purpose of the project was to see whether an early intervention to help disruptive boys from a lower socioeconomic background could make a difference in their lives over the long run.

Tremblay and his colleagues had kindergarten teachers in Montreal fill out the Social Behavior Questionnaire on boys in their classes who came from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The purpose of the questionnaire was to identify boys who were hyperactive, aggressive, and oppositional—in short," disruptive"—and potentially on the fast track to do poorly in school and get involved in antisocial behavior.

Out of the 900 boys assessed by the teachers, 250 had a score above the 70th percentile and thus were considered disruptive. Tremblay and his colleagues then enrolled these 250 boys in their study. A total of 181 were designated as controls; the remaining 69 were offered an experimental intervention during two school years, from September 1985 to June 1987. The latter were age 7 when the intervention started.

Those in the intervention group were taught social skills by psychologists and social workers. During the first year, for example, they learned how to control their emotions, and during the second year, how to be accepted in a group and how to help others. The parents of the boys in the intervention group were also taught how best to respond to them, such as providing positive reinforcement and nonabusive types of punishment. Their teachers were given guidance as well in how to deal with the boys.

The researchers then followed the subjects until age 24 to see whether there was any difference in outcome between the control and intervention groups. Their findings were reported in the November 2007 British Journal of Psychiatry.

They found that significantly more boys in the intervention group graduated from high school than boys in the control group did and that boys in the intervention group had a marginally (not quite statistically significant) lower number of criminal offenses. Criminal records were obtained for all 250 subjects as of 2003 and included crimes against persons, property crime, prostitution, drug and narcotics offenses, and motor-vehicle offenses.

"The results suggest that early preventive intervention for those at high risk of antisocial behavior is likely to benefit both the individuals concerned and society," Tremblay and his group concluded.

Although the researchers do not know whether any particular aspect of the intervention was more effective than others, Rachel Boisjoli, a doctoral candidate and lead investigator for the study, suspects that improving the boys' social skills was a key factor. (Tremblay was the senior investigator.)

Even though the Montreal Longitudinal Experimental Study seems to have helped Robert and some other boys, it is not a panacea, Tremblay, Boisjoli, and their colleagues acknowledged in their study report. True, the rate of high-school graduation for the intervention group was significantly greater than that for the control group, but it was still only 46 percent. And while the intervention subjects engaged in somewhat less antisocial behavior than the controls did, 22 percent still had a criminal record. "It is thus important to acknowledge that a preventive intervention program, albeit intensive, multimodel, and long term, has only a limited protective effect under the conditions of chronic sociofamilial adversity and environmental risk," the researchers said.

Nonetheless, the intervention "has been implemented in hundreds of kindergarten classrooms at the request of teachers and school principals in the province of Quebec," Tremblay said.

In addition, Boisjoli noted, "There is a program used by several school boards in Quebec since the beginning of the 1990s that was started after the Montreal Longitudinal Experimental Study, following the positive results and based on the same and additional social-skills training for kids. This program is currently being assessed, and articles should come out shortly about the effects of the program."

The study was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

An abstract of "Impact and Clinical Significance of a Preventive Intervention for Disruptive Boys" is posted at<http://bjp.rcpsych.org/cgi/content/abstract/191/5/415>.

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