A behavioral intervention program developed under a federal grant in the mid-1990s at the University of Oregon, already in widespread use, now has shown real value on a complex stage, scoring robust improvements among at-risk elementary students in the predominantly minority Albuquerque, N.M., school district.

U. OREGON (US)—A school-based intervention program for young children who display an antisocial behavior pattern or show clear signs of developing one has proven effective at encouraging positive interactions with teachers, parents, and peers, according to a new study.

Behavior improvements were found across several measures, including in-class responsiveness, peer interactions, referrals to the principal’s office and teacher, and parental ratings of the children in the Albuquerque Public Schools.

First Step to Success was developed at the University of Oregon in the mid-1990s to target kindergarten through third-grade students. Some $22 million in federal grants have been invested in the program, which is used in schools across the United States and internationally. A goal of First Step is to prepare students for success at the middle and high school levels.

Results of the four-year, $4.5 million Albuquerque study—funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences—appear in the December issue of the Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders. The study targeted first-through-third-grade students over a three-year intervention and follow-up period. The school district’s approximately 90,000-student body is 72 percent minority, including Hispanic (57 percent), black, Native American, Asian, multiracial, and Pacific Islanders.

A nine-member research team led by Hill Walker, a University of Oregon education professor who developed First Step, reported effect-size measures ranging from .54 to .87. Effect size is a complex computational analysis used in social sciences to test the strength of an apparent relationship. A measure above .80 is considered robust. Below .50 means things didn’t work out.

The study was a cooperative effort that, in addition to Walker, included researchers from the Eugene-based Oregon Research Institute, a nonprofit institution that studies human behavior, the University of New Mexico, and the University of California, Los Angeles.

In the March issue of the journal School Mental Health, the researchers also reported that the First Step intervention in Albuquerque led to a significant impact for a small subset of 42 participating students identified with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. ADHD affects 5 to 10 percent of school-age children in the United States. Effect sizes for ADHD kids who received First Step attention was .96 for reducing disruptive behavioral symptoms and .91 for social functioning. For academic functioning, the effect size was a moderate .67.

“Albuquerque was the first opportunity we had to mount a large-scale study of the program using a randomized control group, the gold standard for research,” says Walker, codirector of the Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior and a researcher at the Oregon Research Institute. “First Step has been implemented widely, but not in this way.”

In the study, 200 at-risk students were randomly divided into an experimental group that received intervention or a control group receiving normal care. Researchers were able to identify, with help from school officials, at-risk students who were entering early elementary grades unprepared for a school culture where sharing, cooperation, discipline, paying attention to and respecting teachers, and following instructions are vital. These students, Walker says, often come from environments where escalation, coercion, and violence are often used to get things done.

“Research shows that if you can put together a comprehensive intervention that involves a partnership among the three social agencies most important in a child’s life—parents, teachers and peers—then you have a chance to get them off this path,” says Walker. “If we can get these kids engaged in school, then school success serves almost like a vaccine. Students who make school a big part of their lives have many fewer incidents of drinking, drug use, violence, delinquency, and sexually transmitted diseases both in and out of school.”

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