Youth Violence Interventions

Innovative Teaching and Classroom Organization

Schools have an enormous influence on the child’s development and potential for success or for violence. Poor achievement in school is one of the best predictors of later delinquency and criminal behavior (Farrington 1993). Antisocial behavior on the part of a youth and the lack of willingness to comply with adult direction can lead to enormous problems in school, and is a key component of academic failure (Patterson 1992, Tremblay 1992, Utting 1993).

The educational milieu of a school can exert a significant effect on violent behavior. Some schools in high crime neighborhoods have relatively low delinquency rates, while others in low-crime areas have disproportionately high levels of delinquency. Various characteristics of a school, such as consistent discipline and shared standards or values, interact in a cumulative fashion to produce an "ethos" or set of expectations within a school. This ethos can either increase or decrease the risk of school failure, violence, and delinquency (Rutter 1979).

Educational strategies have been found to have measurable effects on subsequent behavior. Smaller classroom size, for example, has been found to have a modest impact on student reading achievement in kindergarten and first grade (Slavin 1990). However, beneficial effects have not been consistently identified in higher grades. Introduction of teacher’s aides has also been found to produce modest effects (Slavin 1994). School systems should balance the costs of these interventions against their potential benefits (OJJDP 1995).

Ability grouping of students may improve academic achievement to a modest degree based on evaluations of these programs in early grades. However, ability grouping has not been shown to improve academic achievement in later grades (Slavin 1990). Grouping students by ability can have negative effects as well, such as attaching a stigma and lowering self-expectations among students in lower groups. Non-promotion is a traditional response to students who have failed to make sufficient progress at a given grade level. Unfortunately, non-promotion has been found to have a negative effect on subsequent academic achievement, attendance, behavior, and attitudes towards school, above and beyond what would be predicted on the basis of lower intelligence and prior academic achievement (Holmes 1984).

A variety of classroom instructional strategies have been tried in the classroom in an attempt to directly influence behavior. In the "Good Behavior Game," teachers monitor groups of children who compete to see which group can achieve the best score by reducing episodes of disruptive behavior. Tangible rewards are provided to the group with the best score. The game is initially played for brief periods of time, then progressively lengthened. At one year follow-up, students randomly selected for the game had fewer behavior problems and were less shy than control students. Boys in the experimental group who were rated as aggressive in the first grade improved more than aggressive boys in the control group, even after controlling for first grade behavior (Kellam 1992).

The Seattle Social Development Project was designed to prevent delinquency and used a variety of proactive strategies for classroom management (Hawkins 1987). Using a school-based experimental design, the program was implemented in grades 1 through 6 in experimental schools and selected periods of grade 7 in participating middle schools. Although initial effects appeared to be modest, students randomized to the intervention reported more socially acceptable behavior and had higher levels of academic achievement by the end of the sixth grade (Howell and Bilchik 1995).

A comprehensive school organization intervention developed by Cauce and colleagues has had striking success in fostering positive behavior and improving learning; it appears to work not because of the content of its curriculum, but because it changes the school climate from one of failure to one of success. Implemented in two poor, inner-city elementary schools in New Haven, Connecticut, the program integrated a planning and management team, a parent participation program, and a mental health team to create a sense of community responsibility for parents, teachers, and students. Arts and athletics were integrated into school activities. A quasi-experimental comparison to nonequivalent control schools suggests that the program improved parent involvement, test scores and student behavior (Cauce 1987). This program design should be implemented elsewhere to determine if the results are reproducible.