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Early Intervention can Curb Violent Tendencies

Update Date: Sep 15, 2014 10:53 AM EDT

Violent tendencies in children can be treated via early intervention, a new study reported. According to more than 20 years of research, aggressive children are less likely to grow up and become violent criminals or mentally troubled adults if they receive help early on in life.

For this study, the researchers examined data from the Fast Track Project, which consisted of federally funded trials that examined violence-prevention programs. The project started in 1991 and screened nearly 10,000 children from multiple cities throughout the United States, such as Nashville and Seattle for aggressive behaviors. Nearly 900 five-year-old children were considered to be high risk of becoming violent and antisocial adults.

Half of these children were randomly placed in the Fast Track Intervention Group whereas the other half was enrolled in the placebo group. The intervention program lasted from first grade to 10th grade. It taught children how to improve their self-control and social-cognitive skills while parents learned different problem-solving techniques that they could use with their children. When the children grew up and turned 25, the researchers examined court records for each individual's history of convictions. The researchers also interviewed the participants and people who knew the participants well.

By the age of 25, the children who received early intervention had fewer convictions for violent and drug-linked crimes when compared to the rate calculated in the children from the placebo group. People from the intervention group also had lower rates of serious substance abuse, risky sexual behaviors and psychiatric issues.

"We can prevent serious violence and psychopathology among the group of children who are highest-risk," said Duke University's Kenneth Dodge, who is the William McDougall Professor of Public Policy at Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy and the director of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy. "That's the essential finding from this study. It provides the strongest evidence yet that, far from being doomed from an early age, at-risk children can be helped to live productive lives."

The team reported that the intervention program was effective in reducing violent behaviors and psychiatric illnesses in both male and female participants and in both white and African-American participants

"This study adds to the experimental evidence for the important role that environment plays. Genes do not write an inalterable script for a child's life. And not only does the environment matter greatly in a child's development, we've shown that you can intervene and help that child succeed in life," Dodge said reported in the press release. "Prevention takes a considerable investment, but that investment is worth it. Our policies and practices should reflect the fact that these children can have productive lives."

The study was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

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