The Oregon Social Learning Center At this nationally-recognized treatment center for some of the most troubled children, there are lessons in parenting for all of us....
by Eric Gran
When Gerry Patterson and John Reid founded the Oregon Social Learning
Center in 1977, they hoped that by studying parents' interaction with their
troubled children, they might understand some of the root causes of aggressive
behavior in those children. With that knowledge, they could create ways to
Twenty years later, even Reid and Patterson are surprised by the results of their research.
"When we started doing research," says Reid, "all the experts said these
problems [with juvenile violence] don't really start until age 10. So we started our studies on 9 and 10 year-olds. Now we've found there is a very strong relationship between the behavior of kids at 2 and 3 years old and delinquency later on. The adolescents who later hurt people and get into big-time trouble are the ones who start [being aggressive]
Tucked against the green hills of Eugene Oregon's historic district, the Social Learning Center seems an unlikely place to study and treat violence in
children. But Tom Dishion, a Center researcher who studies children's
relationships with family and friends, says such behavior is not unique to
America's biggest cities. The parenting problems that build aggressiveness in
young children cut across geographic and racial lines. When parents react to
normal temper tantrums or stubbornness the wrong way, he says, a cycle of
"If a parent says 'Pick up your toys, damnit! I said pick up your toys!', the
child says 'No!' and throws a temper tantrum. The parent shakes his or her
head and walks away. When those kids go to school and someone tells them to
sit down, they say 'No!'." If beaten at home, "they'll be more likely to hit
or be violent to solve a problem. They've found that those tactics work."
Much of the Center's work is focused on teaching parents how to effectively
discipline their children through a clear system of encouragement and
punishments. Many of these tactics are gleaned from the parents in the
Patricia Chamberlain, director of the innovative Treatment Foster Care program,
says that most of the parents and children who participate in the studies are
not having problems. The examples of successful parents are used to
help teach parents who are struggling to control their children.
The benefits of helping such children and their parents are enormous, says
Reid. Not all aggressive young children become violent criminals, but many
grow up to have problems with school, divorce, substance abuse and
unemployment. Those children, adds researcher,Dishion, also tend to have children of their own at very young ages, when they are ill-prepared for the challenges of being a parent. Ultimately, they pass the same set of behavioral problems onto a new generation of
Using the results of studies such as the Oregon Youth Study (which has been
following a group of 4th grade boys for 14 years), the Center runs programs to
help violent children and their families.
Parent Management Training and Treatment Foster Care target those already
having behavioral problems. The LIFT program (Linking the Interests of
Families and Teachers) brings the center's parent-training techniques to the
classroom to try and head off trouble early in young children.
What follows are a summary of the Oregon Study, and profiles of each of the
Oregon Youth Study:
Early childhood behavior leads to adolescent trouble
The Oregon Social Learning Center's first large-scale study began in 1983 with
two goals: observe the role of parenting on a child's conduct and see what
effect that conduct has on later problems in life. 206 fourth graders and
their families were paid a small fee to answer questionnaires, be interviewed,
and be observed at home.
Those boys are now 21 to 22 years old, and the results of the study are
dramatic. Gerry Patterson, says that of those having behavioral problems in
the fourth grade (such as fighting, stealing, or lying), nearly half were
arrested by age 14. Of those with early arrest records, 75 percent went on to
become chronic criminals, with at least 3 arrests by age 18.
"Future career adult criminals will move through this trajectory (of trouble) that starts in childhood way before they've first been arrested," says
Patterson. "It's almost like they're in training to be super athletes. You
can see it in their performance record."
In addition to crime, the same boys were far more likely to have trouble with
everything from drugs and personal relationships to school and unemployment.
Deborah Capaldi, manager of the study since its inception, says even teen
pregnancy can be traced back to their early problems. "If you know how
anti-social boys are in the fourth grade," she says, "you can basically predict
at what age they will start having sex."
That matters, says Capaldi, because those adolescent boys often father children
they are unprepared to raise. "They just don't know how to be parents," she
says. "Sometimes they're too rough with the children, sometimes they have
totally unrealistic expectations of what a child that age should be capable of
It's a pattern of child-rearing researchers observed in the boys' own childhoods. To discover why some boys were violent or troublesome, researchers studied how parents of the fourth graders disciplined their
Beverly Fagot, a Center researcher who studies families with young children, says problems often start at age two or three with a child who has a
"risk taking" or stubborn personality. Parents make a demand, then get angry
and back down when the child refuses. "[The child's] temperament is neither
good nor bad, but if a child pushes and a parent gets angry to keep control,
the relationship can become a battle." Parents who resort to physical
violence or simply give in, she says, just make matters worse. The child often
learns that getting angry helps him get his way, or that problems can be solved
through physical violence.
These parents, say Capaldi and Patterson, often face unemployment, divorce,
alcohol and drug addiction and criminal trouble--problems that make effective
parenting difficult. That poor parenting then leads their children into lives
troubled by the same problems.
But Patterson is optimistic. He says, "even parents living in high crime areas,
[where people are] depressed, divorced, stressed, and alcoholic, can be trained
to effectively change their own children. They don't need 49 years of
training. You can train ordinary healthy people to be super therapists."
The Center's largest treatment efforts, Parent Management Training and
Treatment Foster Care, try to do just that.
Parent Management Training
Treatment Foster Care
Parents, schools, pediatricians or judges refer children and adolescents to the
Center's treatment programs. The Director of the these programs, Patricia
Chamberlain, says that by the time the children are referred, they are nearly
out of options.
"These are kids who are a pain to other people--parents, school or community.
Most of the kids we get are having problems in all three settings."
Chamberlain and her staff of 18 try to teach parents better methods of
Most of the children developed difficult relationships with their parents at an
early age. Kevin Moore, a researcher and therapist who counsels families in
their homes says: "Kids learn that if they throw a big enough fit, their
parents will quit asking [them to behave]." The battle escalates until the
child "learns to throw a pretty big fit."
Often, says Chamberlain, the child's parents simply can't cope. "The typical scene is that the parents are so stressed out and involved with their
own problems they don't have the energy to work with their child."
For the less serious cases, Chamberlain and her staff enroll parents in "Parent Management Training" where staff members teach them how to supervise
their children using encouragement for good behavior, and punishments that
don't rely on beating or humiliation. "It's a very structured behavior program
to [encourage the child] to do what he is supposed to be doing; not doing good,
but doing the normal daily things he should be doing."
Clear limits are set so the child knows the consequences for not obeying. "We
don't want to get into an ongoing power struggle with the kid, but we do want
to make the point that if you choose not to obey, there's going to be a small
consequence. If a kid refuses to hang up a coat, he goes into 'time-out',
sitting alone in a room. Next time the kid has a choice to make, either hang
up the coat or get a 'time-out'." TV time, trips out and other privileges are
granted or revoked based on the child's performance.
However, Chamberlain says some children are so "out of control", or have
suffered such terrible abuse by their parents, they are removed from their
homes and placed in the Center's Treatment Foster Care program. It's an
intensive form of foster care employing the same parenting techniques.
But, unlike traditional foster care that places groups of children with a
single set of foster parents, Treatment Foster Care recruits and trains foster
parents specifically for each child. Foster parents, who come to the center
through newspaper ads and referrals, are paid between $700 and $1,200 a month
to serve as a surrogate family for that single child, using the same techniques
as biological parents in Parent Management Training.
The difference, says Chamberlain, is in the seriousness of the children's
problems. Many of the youngest children, some only 4 years old, have suffered
such "severe and prolonged" sexual and physical abuse they are unable to
control their emotions and throw wild temper tantrums.
While the youngest children are supported with county funds, state money pays
for chronic juvenile offenders (between 12 and 18 years of age) and mentally
retarded children. A new program for adolescent females with chronic mental
health problems and criminal histories is supported by a federal grant.
Chamberlain says a key ingrediant in the Treatment Foster Care's success is
that children and adolescents are kept away from other troubled children and
"It's a Beavis and Butthead process," says Tom Dishion, who studies relationships among adolescent peers. "They reinforce each other in their
idiocy." When around other children or adolescents with troubled backgrounds,
such as in traditional foster care, "there is a marked increase in the severity
and frequency of violence in children as young as 6 years old."
Such treatment is not cheap, costing $90 to $120 a day, but Chamberlain says
that is only 40 percent of what hospitals, group homes and other residential
treatment centers cost.
The benefits in terms of decreased arrests, she says, prove the program's
worth. In a 5 year study, 79 boys between the ages of 12 and 16 with an
average criminal record of 13 arrests were randomly assigned to either a
traditional group foster home or the Center's Treatment Foster Care for up to
nine months. A year after the treatment ended, the group in traditional foster
homes had an average of 5.4 arrests while those in the Treatment Foster Care program had an average of 2.6 arrests. The improvement, says
Chamberlain, is due to the increased adult supervision and decreased contact
with other "deviant" peers.
Despite such successes, Chamberlain admits the program cannot help all
children. In the most difficult cases, the child has no family. "They're
totally on their own. Their parents are dead, in jail or so drug-addicted they
can't be there for them. They're the hardest kids to raise a system of support
around. They're not the most lovable kids in the world [and] no one is raising
their hands to take these kids on."
"It's not a panacea," said Gerry Patterson, co-founder of the Social Learning Center. "It's possible to create environments that are so destructive even effective therapy isn't going to work. The more risk ariables you throw into [a child's life] like divorce, alcoholism, epression, and parental mental illness, the greater the likelihood you won't be able to help those children.
Heading off the most severe problems, says Chamberlain, requires a broader
approach, starting at a young age. "We know that if a child is being
aggressive in the first grade, they're not likely to grow out of it. You need
to get everyone who spends time with the kid on the same page." Parents need to
be taught better parenting techniques, teachers and coaches need to apply the
same techniques at school. Everyone coming in contact with the child, she
says, needs to be involved.
Five years ago, John Reid, co-founder of the Social Learning Center, began a
new program to bring the techniques of Parent Management Training to local
schools. As the first wave of child participants enter their teenage
years--when problems with criminal behavior and drug use increase
dramatically--the results will soon be known.
Linking the Interests of Families and Teachers (LIFT)
As researchers at the Social Learning Center began to understand the
childhood roots of violent behavior, says Center co-founder Reid, they also
began to recognize turning points in a child's life when the risks were
greatest. Studies conducted by the Center and other agencies, he says, "lay
out a birth to life course for the development of aggressive behavior" in
To head off and correct such violent behavior before children are out of
control, Reid and other researchers began a program in 1990 called Linking the
Interests of Families and Teachers with a grant from the National Institute of
Mental Health. Intended to bring the Center's parent training techniques to
the classroom, and into children's homes, the program was also designed to help
parents and teachers work together.
At around 18 months, Reid says, "kids start to say 'no" and run from their
parents." For the first time, parents must deal with discipline. If the child
has a difficult temperament or the parents are under stress, "they may form a
confrontational relationship that can start a pattern of aggressiveness and
delinquency" in the child.
When the child enters the first grade, says Reid, he or she may be pegged as a
troublemaker by teachers and classmates since "he just doesn't knowhow to
behave." Behavior problems usually remain bad until the 5th grade,when many
other children begin to misbehave for the first time. When children enter
junior high, says Reid, "there is a lot of action going on, and many people
stop supervising their kids".
Researchers identified 12 elementary schools in neighborhoods with high rates
of juvenile crime and recruited the families of every first and fifth grader.
671 families (about 90 percent of the total) agreed to participate in family
assessments, and were paid $10 an hour for their time. 75 percent of those
families also attended 6 weekly parent-training sessions on discipline, setting
up schedules for their children, solving disputes, monitoring homework and
getting to know the parents of their children's friends.
Schools were paid $2,000 to hold classroom sessions teaching children problem
solving and non-aggressive play. Monitors in the playgrounds gave awards for
good behavior and "stopped kids from hassling one another," says Reid. "Even
real tough kids don't like to bully other kids in front of adults."
Dedicated phone lines were hooked up to answering machines in each classroom,
allowing teachers to leave homework assignments and other information on the
outgoing message, and parents to leave messages for the teachers at night.
"A lot of parents are stressed out," says Reid. "They're single or both are working and they don't know what's going on at school. It's hard for
parents to know if they're child is doing something at school that needs to be
rectified." The phones, says Reid, helped parents and teachers communicate.
Two and a half years after the experiment ended, Reid and others continue to
interview the students and watch for signs of success. Although playground
fights and teacher reports of "anti-social behavior," smoking and the use of
alcohol have dropped, says Reid, it is still too early to judge the ultimate
success of the program.
"The 5th graders are about 13 now," says Reid, a year or two from the age when
rates of school dropouts, arrests, pregnancies and drug use begin to go up
quickly. "I'll bet this year we'll start to have some [students] with
The difficulty of just keeping track of these kids as their families move from
town to town is indicative of a deeper social issue, he says. The 671 original
children who attended the 12 schools in the study are now spread in 128 schools
across Oregon and elsewhere. "People are moving around like crazy," he said.
"Go to many neighborhoods and people are afraid to tell a kid's parents that he
was acting like an idiot. The parent might say 'Don't talk about my kid like that' because they don't know each other very well."
This constant moving, Reid adds, breaks apart extended families, removing yet
another important source of support for the parents.
Even if such school-based programs are successful in a medium-sized city of
mostly homogeneous (white) residents, there is no guarantee those techniques
will transfer to denser cities, or more diverse neighborhoods. Kate
Cavanaugh,who runs a similar program in Portland, Oregon based on the work of
Tom Dishion, says the answer is in the neighborhoods themselves. By profiling
120 "successful" families within the highly diverse, low-income neighborhoods,
staff members can show other families how their own neighbors have found that
Researchers at the Social Learning Center agree, however, that the more
difficulties a family faces in its environment--drugs, unemployment, gangs,
divorce, domestic abuse--the more difficult it is for parents and children to
lead normal lives, and the more likely children will begin to reflect the
violence and instability around them.
"We need a more comprehensive approach," says Reid. "It's not a good idea to
rely on just prisons or prevention. We need an integrated plan on what we're
going to do about the way kids behave and hurt each other."
"Eventually," said Dishion, "we'd like every middle school in the country to
have a family resource room that provides demonstrated, effective support for
parenting. That's the key issue."
For more about the Oregon Social Learning Center, visit their website.