Youth Violence Interventions

Teaching Problem-Solving Skills

Research has shown that youth who engage in delinquent activity and violent behavior score lower on cognitive tests than peers who do not engage in such activity. (Henggeler 1989). A variety of reasons contribute to this pattern of development: individual variation, lack of cognitive stimulation due to inadequate parenting, poverty, and social isolation.

The ability to observe situations, collect and analyze information, identify consequences and choose alternative courses of action are learned skills that children must acquire to grow into competent adults. Social competence curricula aim to counteract antisocial behavior by teaching these skills in school or at home (Hawkins 1992).

Two lines of thought about the causes and development of adolescent delinquent behavior are prevalent in the literature. One is that youth who engage in violence and delinquency have not developed appropriate skills and engage in violence out of an inability (and resulting frustration) to solve problems and satisfy their needs in a more socially-acceptable way (Richards and Dodge 1982, Platt 1973, Platt 1974, Kennedy 1984). The second holds that delinquent youth are very good at analyzing and interpreting behavior, but they employ skills in a non-socially sanctioned way. According to this view, delinquent youth live in a violent environment and have adapted to survive. In the views of these youth, crime and violence are justified if it helps them accomplish their goals (acquire goods, make money, get attention or "respect").

Research findings can be cited to support either position. In a study of the reasoning skills of delinquents, Hains and Ryan concluded that "delinquents did not evidence deficits in their knowledge of viable solutions to problems. Rather, they were less likely to recognize the need to consider these solutions fully" (Hains 1983). Dodge and collaborators (Richards and Dodge 1982) completed a series of studies that address attribution bias on the part of aggressive youth. Their findings suggest that aggressive youth who are socially rejected are less skilled at interpreting the intentions of others and will attribute hostile intent where it does not exist. Aggressive tendencies may develop after youth experience violent treatment or witness violence against a family member (Widom 1992).

Examples of programs that address these issues include Interpersonal Cognitive Problem-Solving (ICPS) and Providing Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS). Both attempt to counter early antisocial behavior by encouraging cognitive development and teaching social skills. Short-term evaluations of both programs suggest that program participants have reduced behavior problems and improved problem-solving skills (Howell and Bilchik 1995, Shure 1988).