UA Psychologist Brings Behavior Program to Schools
by Chris Bryant
A University of Alabama psychologist with international success in modifying aggressive behavior in children is working with dozens of elementary schools to further gauge his program’s effectiveness in reducing substance abuse risks.
Dr. John Lochman, holder of the Saxon Chair of Clinical Psychology at UA, and staff at 60 Birmingham-area elementary schools are implementing Lochman’s “Coping Power” program among select 4th and 5th graders and their parents. Previous smaller-scale studies with children with aggressive behavior in two states and in the Netherlands indicate the program is effective in reducing delinquency and substance abuse rates among youth.
“The intervention kids have a lower rate of conduct disorder than do the comparison children,” Lochman said. “What we’re seeing is that, in fact, it does make a difference.” The years just before middle school are one of many points in a person’s life when intervention efforts can be especially needed and effective, he said.
Multiple studies, by Lochman and others, have repeatedly shown links between behavior problems in children and the increased risks of future substance abuse by those children. In one 1994 study, Lochman and a colleague found that 11-year-old boys who were described by their classmates as highly aggressive were using illegal substances and were engaged in crimes against persons at a significantly higher rate than were their non-aggressive peers, when all of the boys were followed up four years later, at age 15.
“We are most worried about a child who is having problems in both the school and the home setting,” Lochman said.
In addition to measuring the program’s initial effectiveness in the school systems, Lochman said he is measuring the economic feasibility of implementing such a program “to scale” and how long any positive outcomes last.
The program involves training the schools’ staff in techniques to assist the children and their parents.
During group and individual sessions, held before or after school and during non-academic homeroom periods, the school staffs teach children multiple Coping Power techniques, including an emphasis on seeing other people’s perspective, improving social skills, alternatives to dealing with conflict, and the use of self-statements and relaxation and distraction techniques to deal with anger, Lochman said.
In the program’s parental component, school staffs meet periodically with parents to discuss ways of improving parenting skills, including establishing age-appropriate rules and expectations for children, ways to reward children for displaying appropriate behavior, and discipline techniques. Parents also learn ways to support their children with their homework responsibilities and tips for solving conflict between siblings and within their families.
Certain parenting practices, including inappropriate discipline, particularly overly harsh discipline, are fundamentally linked to aggression in children, Lochman said.
“How parents discipline and how kids see their social world, affects their behavior,” Lochman said. “Kids learn strategies to use their aggressive behavior.” If a child learns that sometimes when they throw a tantrum they will get their way, it reinforces the disruptive behavior, he said.
“Some children have ‘terrible twos,’ but for some children the terrible twos don’t go away.”
The 18-month program with the Birmingham area schools is paid for with part of a $4.9 million National Institute for Drug Abuse grant awarded to Lochman.
Since 1990, Lochman has served as a member of the Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group and as a co-investigator with Fast Track prevention program, primarily funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health. Co-investigators involved with Lochman in the Fast Track program are located at Duke University, Penn State University, the University of Washington and Vanderbilt University.
Testing of Lochman’s Coping Power program is underway in a similar manner in select Tuscaloosa City and Tuscaloosa County schools. His behavior program has been published in English, Dutch and Spanish, and he has been recognized with an honorary doctorate awarded by Utrecht University in the Netherlands.