SCMP Saturday, January 6, 2001

Five-year-olds on the fast track away from violence


Bullying exists in most societies, but in the United States, where children and youths have access to guns, violence is common.
Professor Kenneth Dodge, an expert on chronic youth violence and the founding director of Duke University's Centre for Child and Family Policy in Durham, North Carolina, has spent years studying aggression and has instigated a programme to prevent young children from becoming violent adults.
The Fast Track Programme starts with children aged five who show signs of social rejection and high aggression, and works with them and their parents. The children tend to have poor social skills, come from low socio-economic backgrounds with dysfunctional families, and some have been abused, he said. "They are not very good at understanding others' emotions, at talking about and identifying their own emotions, or solving social problems," Professor Dodge said during a recent visit to the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
The children tended to do poorly at school even though they had average intelligence, ending up in special education classes where they were even less likely to become part of the mainstream, he said. Segregation is also a feature of Hong Kong education, where children are banded according to academic ability, but Professor Dodge said this did not favour children who were doing badly.
"We're learning that kids learn social skills from other kids. However, what we do in the United States is to take them away from well-functioning peers and put them with low-functioning peers, where they will learn deviant behaviour," he said.
The American children in his study were at risk of becoming adults who had problems getting along with others. The programme involves counselling at-risk children and their parents in four American cities, visiting them in their homes, and working with schools. Intervention to prevent violence includes a teacher-led curricula focusing on emotional concepts, social understanding and self-control; social skills training, or 'friendship' groups; the enhancement of child friendships in the classroom; extra tutoring in reading; and parent training and home visits.
So far the children have been followed to about age 13 and their results have been compared with a control group. Half of the control group show psychiatric problems compared with 35 per cent of those in his programme. About 48 per cent of the control group are in special education classes, versus 36 per cent in his programme.
"That's a modest difference," he said, "but a one-quarter reduction might be economically significant because special education is expensive."