Positive Discipline Helps Misbehaving Kids, Study Says

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By Amy Bracken

At a time when politicians are promoting harsher treatment of juvenile offenders, the U.S. Department of Education (DoE) is advocating an alternative: early intervention through positive reinforcement. A soon-to-be-completed DoE-funded study claims to show that positive discipline works.

Among the preschool toddlers (ages one to six) with severe behavioral problems whose parents underwent the Regional Intervention Program (RIP) training 25 years ago, 40 are being surveyed to determine their academic performance and general behavior.

In RIP training, parents are taught to carefully monitor their child's activities, ignore problem behavior and reward desired behavior, help the child set self-management goals, work with other adults that have meaning to the child to reinforce new positive styles of interaction, and enlist support from family and community for the child and for the parent.

The follow-up study's preliminary results show that when the parents of young children who exhibited problem behavior participated in RIP training, the children's risk of eventual psychiatric, criminal, drug and health problems were drastically reduced. Of the 40 profiled in the study, all but one completed high school; none were reported to have engaged in aggressive behavior toward parents, peers or teachers; and one was incarcerated. The study is funded by a $530,000 DoE grant to the University of Colorado-Denver.

For comparison purposes, researchers are also looking into outcomes among peers of the original 40 who did not have severe behavioral problems as children. There is no comparison study for children with behavioral problems whose parents did not participate in RIP. But such research already abounds, showing likely outcomes for disturbed toddlers to be loneliness, clinical depression, physical illness and early preventable death, says Phillip Strain, professor of educational psychology at the University of Colorado-Denver and co-principal researcher in the RIP study. "And of course there's a link between these early behavioral problems and incarceration," he says.

A 1993 study by Kenneth Dodge, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, found that after age eight the likelihood of future intervention being successful plummets. "I don't know that anyone has a precise answer why that's the case," says Strain, "but it's a very strong argument for getting to these kids as early as possible."

Started in Nashville, Tenn., in 1969, there are now 18 RIP sites in three states: 13 in Tennessee, three in Ohio and two in Washington.

"There are four points of resistence" to RIP, says Matthew Timm, director of the Early Childhood Intervention Study at Tennessee Voices for Children, and the other head researcher on the RIP study. "The single most is that it's extremely difficult for families to acknowledge publicly" that they are having problems dealing with their children." Other factors working against RIP: the erroneous reassurance by friends, families, pediatricians and others that violent behavior is typical of young kids and they'll grow out of it; the amount of commitment that the RIP approach demands (training for two to three hours, two to three times a week, for four to five months); and many people are "wary of an approach that relies upon positive discipline. ... A lot of people were raised with stronger forms of discipline" and have always known punishment to be part of it.

In order for RIP to spread, says Timm, "there has to be at least initial funding support at a federal level." Initial RIP funding was from the DoE, but only lasted from 1969 to 1971. In 1974, the Tennessee General Assembly resolved that the state would provide training and technical assistance for 12 RIPs. Today, all of RIP funding in Tennessee is provided by the state ($1.32 million annually), whereas programs in Washington and Ohio scramble to piece together funds from foundations, and county, state and the federal governments. "The goal has been met" in getting solid funding in Tennessee, "but we have not spread very widely outside of Tennessee," says Steve Kanies, RIP Expansion Project coordinator at the Nashville RIP.

Strain expresses guarded optimism: "Prevention is a hard sell, especially on a political level, because the benefits of a prevention program usually are not noticeable during the time that the politician is still in office." But Strain hopes that, given the recent increased attention toward violence among teenagers, "there may be a window of opportunity. ... Pressure may have never been greater than it is right now."

Contact: Steve Kanies (615) 963-1177.