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School-Based Program Can Change Kids' Lives

A Seattle project was linked to better education, mental health 15 years later

WEDNESDAY, Dec. 3 HealthDay News) -- Urban kids who took part in a social development program in elementary school had improved mental health, sexual health, and educational and economic success as young adults, a new study finds.

Crime, drug use, teen pregnancy, school dropouts and mental health problems are among the challenges faced by many children and families who live in cities, noted study author J. David Hawkins and colleagues at the University of Washington, Seattle.

"Public schools, available to all children in the United States beginning at age 5 or 6 years, are a potentially powerful setting for preventive intervention," wrote the researchers. They examined the long-term impact of a prevention program, called the Seattle Social Development Project.

When the project was launched in 1981, it included some first-grade students in elementary schools. It eventually expanded to 15 elementary schools in diverse neighborhoods. Parents, teachers and students received special instruction in areas such as behavior management, refusal, social skills, and academic development.

"The objective of the intervention was to improve the skills of teachers, parents and children to increase positive functioning in school and decrease problems related to mental health, risky sexual behavior, substance abuse and criminal behavior," the team explained.

The study included 598 individuals who at age 27 completed a 15-year follow-up on the success (or not) of the program. The participants -- including 146 who began the program in grade one, 251 who started it in grades five or six, and 201 in a control group who didn't take part in the program -- filled out a self-assessment of their school, work and community life, mental health, sexual behavior, substance use and crime.

Those who received the full intervention reported improved functioning in almost all areas assessed by the study, but there were no differences in rates of substance abuse or crime. Compared with the control group, those who took part in the program:

  • were more likely to be at or above the median in educational attainment and household income;
  • were more likely to have more than a high school education;
  • had higher levels of community involvement and volunteerism;
  • had fewer symptoms of mental health disorders;
  • had a lower incidence of sexually transmitted diseases.

The study was published in the December issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics has more about children's mental and behavioral health.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: JAMA/Archives journals, news release, Dec. 1, 2008

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