A 25-YEAR American study of disruptive toddlers has provided further evidence that the carrot is mightier than the stick when it comes to improving children's behaviour.
The study, which followed 40 families in Nashville, Tennessee, suggests that parents and teachers should teach a child correct behaviour and then reward him for it rather than rely on
Less optimistically, the researchers have also concluded that there is little chance of "correcting" aggression and other anti-social behaviour after the age of nine.
The findings are being hailed by the United States department of education, which has long advocated positive methods of addressing behaviour problems. It is extremely concerned about the rising numbers of school students who have been labelled as emotionally and behaviourally disturbed. Between 1987-88 and 1996-97 their numbers rose from 372,000 to 447,000.
"This is a very important
subject - one that there should be more meetings, more
discussion, more research about," US education secretary Richard Riley said. "Traditional punishments are not as effective as positive, pro-active prevention."
Mr Riley was speaking at a Washington conference that was staged to showcase not only the Tennessee research but other programmes supported by the Center on Positive Behavioural Interventions and Supports at the University of Oregon.
The Nashville families had sought help from the federally-funded Regional Intervention Program (RIP) because their infants displayed extreme behaviour problems. The parents were taught to monitor their children's behaviour, state what their expectations were, and reward good behaviour. They also learned how to teach the children self-control and to interact with others.
By elementary school, the 40 children were responding as well as their peers to requests and instructions from parents and teachers. The researchers found that the earlier the child enrolled in the behaviour-modification programme, the better the results.
Twenty-five years on, all the RIP "graduates" had completed high school, and about half had attended college, including four who were working for doctorates. None had been placed in special education and only one had been in trouble with the law - for smoking marijuana. Equally significantly, none had shown aggressive behaviour patterns during adolescence.
Positive behaviour-support strategies were originally developed for highly-disturbed young people who were prone to extreme forms of self-injury and aggression. More recently, the approach has been applied
successfully in mainstream schools.
At the University of Oregon, two special education professors, Robert Honer and George Sugai have developed the Effective Behaviour Support system after studying more than 600 research papers on disruptive behaviour. "All the research shows that if you're only reactive and only punitive, you'll fail," Professor Horner said.
For a programme like theirs to work, Horner and Sugai say that a school's staff must agree that discipline is one of their top three goals. They must also be
unanimously committed to a whole-school approach to the problem.
The school must then create a data-collection system to establish precisely where the
discipline problems are occurring - in the playground,
corridors, canteen or the classroom. This may help to show up
architectural flaws that are contributing to the behaviour
Once those trends are identified a team of teachers, counsellors, administrators and other staff members draws up a short list of behavioural goals such as "Be respectful, be responsible, hands and feet to self, follow directions and be there - be ready."
They also specify what these goals mean in practice. For example, in the cafeteria "be responsible" might mean raising a hand to ask to be excused.
To date, more than 300 elementary and middle schools in
Oregon, Hawaii, Illinois and
British Columbia are following this model. In some of them, students who behave well are rewarded with tickets that can be redeemed for treats or privileges such as popcorn or a longer lunch-break.
Teachers receive training in how to reward the students and teach the school behaviour goals. Each student is required to memorise and recite the goals, and the behaviour policy is reinforced after holiday breaks.
The Oregon model usually costs schools only $2,000 to $3,000 a year but some decide not to take part once they realise how much time and commitment is involved. The first two days of the academic year sometimes have to be set aside for talks on the code of conduct, tours of the school and demonstrations of acceptable behaviour.
Horner and Sugai also acknowledge that their
programme does not always work, partly because teaching staff can change substantially within a relatively short time.
Nevertheless, the Department of Education is so convinced about the programme's value that it has given the university a five-year $3 million grant to help disseminate the researchers'
findings to schools.
Further information about the Oregon and Nashville programmes is
available from the website of
Education Week, the US education journal, www.edweek.org
Education researchers who wish to disseminate their findings in The TES should send summaries of no more than 750 words to David Budge, Research Editor, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London, E1 1BX. Tel: 020 7782 3276. Email: David.Budge@tes.co.uk