little criminals

Can a child change?
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 treat them.

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] early."

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 trouble begins.

"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 studies.

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 children.

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 treatment programs.

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 doing."

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 children.

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.

The Programs:
  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 supervision.

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 adolescents.

"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 children.

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 babies."

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 success.

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.

PBS Online troubled kids | psychiatrist interview | interviews | press reaction
readings | links | join the discussion | tapes & transcripts | wgbh | pbs

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation