Can you teach children to think before acting violently


NPR’s Morning Edition has a piece this morning on the problem of impulsive acts of violence by adolescents with guns and an attempt at a prevention plan. You can read and/or listen to the segment here. The researchers discovered that most of the violent gun crimes by teens were not premeditated. Instead, the shooters were in possession of a gun and when the problem became heated, they made the choice to use their gun to solve the problem–they failed to consider the consequences as they “solved the problem” with a weapon.

The intervention used in Chicago schools is a form of Cognitive Behavior Therapy to increase prosocial decision-making strategies. These interventions are not particularly new. The basis of this type of intervention assumes that if a person would pause before acting, step back and make an evaluation of the problem and consider alternatives, then the person would likely make a better decision. In previous research, these interventions are found not to generalize well from session to real life.

But, the research discussed in this piece seemed to point less to impulsive decision-making and more to the base assumptions they assumed others would make of them if they used polite speech to ask for something they wanted.

In one exercise, Ludwig says, the students were grouped into pairs, and one member of each pair was given a ball. The other was told to get the ball out of his partner’s hand. This invariably led to a fight, Ludwig says, as the kids brawled over the ball. After watching the fight, the program leader would ask the student who was trying to get the ball a question: “Why didn’t you ask the other kid to give you the rubber ball?”

None of the adolescents, Ludwig says, ever thought to ask their partners for the ball.

“The kids will say things like, ‘Oh, if I would have asked, he would have thought I was a punk,’ ” Ludwig says. “Then the group leader will turn to the partner and ask, ‘What would you have done had this other kid asked you to give him the rubber ball?’ And usually this other kid will say, ‘I would have just given him the rubber ball. What do I care?’ ”

The goal of such exercises, Ludwig explains, is to help the teens understand that their strong, negative reactions during confrontations are often based on what they falsely imagine is happening in other people’s minds.

Does it work?

You can read in the linked essay that those who received the intervention were FAR less likely to engage in violent crime. But notice that on 1 year follow-up after the intervention, the differences between those who received the intervention and those who didn’t were insignificant. In other words, the intervention works while it is being received, but is not a permanent change. So, one wonders what makes the program work at all. Is it the positive relationship between the students and those doing the teaching leading to more gracious responses to others?

In the past, I’ve read about stop-think-observe-plan interventions and assumed they were worthless since the students didn’t retain the skills to make better decisions after the intervention concludes. But note that the essay concludes with the researching noting that the benefits during the program are worth it in terms of cost-benefit. Maybe it would be good to see a 5 year program and whether the benefits really do continue during a longer program.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Cognitive biases, conflicts, news, Relationships

2 responses to “Can you teach children to think before acting violently

  1. Love these posts – so helpful to me as a counselor! Do you think that the program discussed here would be most effective if it were offered regularly, yearly perhaps, in a school setting? The specific interventions would have to be rotated so the students didn’t get bored and tune out.

  2. As a school counselor, it has also frustrated me when students only retain guidance lesson principles for a limited time. It seems to be more effective when the teachers also come on board with the various techniques, reinforcing them as behaviors crop up. Unfortunately, teachers often fall back into the reward-and-punishment system rather than behavior modifications that require changes in thought patterns. However, there are occasional glimmers of hope that some students have caught on. Such times keep a counselor persevering.

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