Questions about violence-prevention programs

In their concern about violence, schools have been adding violence prevention programs to their curricula. Most of these commercially prepared programs, however, have not been able to demonstrate their effectiveness. Daniel Webster, Johns Hopkins University, reviewed evaluations of three widely used programs: the Violence Prevention Curriculum for Adolescents, the Community Violence Prevention Program, and Positive Adolescent Choices Training. He found “no evidence that such programs produce long-term changes in violent behavior.”

Another survey by Renee Wilson-Brewer and colleagues at the Education Development Center, Newton, Massachusetts, found that fewer than half of the 51 programs they reviewed claimed to have succeeded in reducing violence. Most programs claimed only to work indirectly, by influencing factors related to violence.

In their review of existing research, Nancy Guerra and Patrick Tolan, University of Illinois, concluded that “well-intentioned efforts are being applied to many children and adolescents without indication of their effects,” and that some of the seemingly best ideas have actually worsened the behavior of certain children.

Though they acknowledge some promising strategies, Guerra and Tolan explain that identifying high-risk students is difficult and claim that students wrongly placed in violence prevention programs may become more violence-prone.

Advocates of violence prevention programs blame faulty evaluation studies for failing to recognize the positive effects of these programs. But Marc Posner, also of the Education Development Center, attributes the lack of evidence of success in violence prevention to flaws in the programs themselves. According to Posner, these programs often lump together a broad range of young people, ignoring the fact that people resort to violence for different reasons. Few school-based programs, he says, target the relatively small number of adolescents who commit acts of serious violence. Many violence prevention programs teach conflict resolution through negotiation, which has been shown useful for middle-class students whose disputes stem from competing interests. But for poor, high-risk youths such programs may be ineffective.

Programs must target specific student populations

To be effective, Posner insists, these programs must target specific student populations (by age and drug use, for example), and they must determine the influence of the community and carefully specify the selection and training of leaders. Violence, Posner stresses, results from a complex interaction of environmental, social and psychological factors. The absence of positive family relationships and adult supervision, combined with early exposure to violence, drug and alcohol use and the availability of weapons, are some of the factors that place students at risk for violent behavior. A comprehensive program that provides students with the skills, knowledge and motivation it takes to become responsible, healthy adults is needed. Posner emphasizes that educators alone have neither the resources nor the responsibility for mitigating all the social ills that lead students to violence.

Promising strategies

Students at high risk of violence, academic failure, drug abuse and dropping out often lack a connection to any positive social group ? family, youth organization or church. The most promising strategies involve family interventions that teach parenting skills and improve family relationships. There is also some evidence that school-based programs that focus not just on students but on the school itself can be effective. Schools that provide a positive social attachment for students appear to reduce those feelings of estrangement and hopelessness that lead kids to gangs and violence. Assigning teams of teachers to follow groups of students through several grades and keeping schools open for supervised extra-curricular activities on afternoons, evenings, weekends and during the summer can create more positive and lasting bonds between students and their school.

Naturally, the easy availability of guns, coupled with an unrealistic and often glorified depiction of violence in the media, contributes to this problem. Although researchers hope that classroom programs can help potentially violent students understand their behavior and learn alternative, non-violent solutions to conflict, they emphasize that it is unrealistic to expect that these programs alone can change habits of thought and behavior acquired early in life. Violence prevention curricula will prove most effective, Posner concludes, when they are part of a comprehensive program in a “full-service” school. A ten-session violence prevention course is simply not enough to overcome the deprivations of a lifetime or the pressures of a violent environment.

“Research Raises Troubling Questions About Violence Prevention Programs”, The Harvard Education Letter, Volume 10, Number 3, May/June 1994, pp.1-4.

Published in ERN, September/October 1994, Volume 7, Number 4.

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