Young people are important to us. Forget the moral and ethical reasons; that’s a whole other article in itself. They are important to our communities and to our social infrastructure, to family and most importantly to our economy. There is evidence that those young people living in socially deprived areas do not have equal, positive outcomes in life. Lifestyles usually vary quite radically from community to community and even more so from country to country, where the parameters of acceptable behaviour can be different, as can the consequences.
Many societies consider smoking, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, smoking and early patterns of sexual behaviours as a catalyst for serious problems which can lead to youth offending and a lack of reasonable behaviour. Anti-social behaviour, both within and out with schools is now common place, the barrier between the two less obvious as external issues become apparent within the school environment; bullying, substance misuse, truancy, low attainment, lack of achievement and devaluing of learning and teaching.
These behaviours, more so in adolescent and adult years, are costly to society. These fiscal costs are demonstrated in our health care, justice and law enforcement services and there is growing pressure to reform education; culture, structure and process as a means of dealing with these issues.
Research indicates that early intervention to reduce these risk factors may prevent a whole range of problems. For some societies, these are new problems and they may require new approaches to prevent them. Fortunately, evidence suggests that interventions, particularly interventions that occur when children are young, that address risk factors for these behaviors can reduce the chances that children will develop these serious problems as they reach adolescence. Indeed, in Scotland we know that investing in the Early Years will increase the chances that a young person will leave school and enter a positive and sustained destination; that is employment, higher or further education or training.
Schools have a role to play here, in working across a multi-agency partnership to deliver joined up services which support young people. Getting It Right For Every Child and Every Child Matters are classic examples. Here, I have provided a summary of approaches to encourage positive behavior. The list is not exhaustive and each component deserves an article in its own right.
Start prevention early – prevention efforts should start with pre-natal care and continue throughout the school years (broadly 3 – 18). In Scotland, this starts during pregnancy and continues through NHS and social services, the Broad General Education and the Senior Phase Curriculum.
Positive consequences matter – this can increase desirable behaviors. Using restorative practices (or restorative justice) can place the ‘offender’ into the shoes of the ‘victim’ and there is evidence that this works. Likewise, consequences can come in many forms: positive attention, praise, privileges, access to desirable activities, prizes and money all act as positive consequences.
Effective negative consequences matter – clear and immediate sanctions can reduce problem behaviors; Teachers should communicate classroom rules clearly so children understand which behaviors will result in negative consequences. Examples include short, private reprimands that label the problem behavior clearly; brief loss of privileges; or brief isolation from an activity the child enjoys. Avoid negative consequences that have the potential to harm the child either physically or psychologically (e.g. insulting children publicly).
Build skills through practice – create opportunities for children and young people to observe and practice interpersonal as well as academic skills. Teachers and parents should act in ways that show children how to handle problems well. Children imitate the behavior of those who are important to them. Teach young children interpersonal skills for handling conflict non-violently and co-operating with others. Children can also benefit from learning cognitive skills for recognizing problem situations, stopping to think rather than responding impulsively, generating ways of solving problems, and evaluating the consequences of different solutions.
Monitor a child’s behavior – know where children and young people are, what they are doing and with whom, and provide appropriate supervision. Encourage parents and carers to ask where their children are, what they are doing and with whom using a non-interrogatory manner. These questions are especially important during the teenage years, when youth become more independent and spend more time away from home. Avoid creating unsupervised groups of children with behavior problems. Children may learn problem behavior from each other and encourage each other to behave inappropriately. When these groups exist, monitor them closely to prevent youths from encouraging problem behavior in their peers.
Limit opportunities for misbehavior – reduce access to situations in which problem behavior is likely to occur. Create clear rules in schools and laws in communities that prohibit supplying or selling tobacco, alcohol, illegal drugs or weapons to children and adolescents. Create clear school policies that state that the school does not permit students to use illegal substances or to engage in aggressive behavior.
Reduce environmental stressors – reduce exposure to negative influences which can act as a trigger for poor behavior. Provide children with opportunities and pro-social skills that allow them some control over their environment, especially during particularly stressful periods in their lives. Examples include opportunities to master new skills (e.g. in sports or the arts), to work with others on creative projects, and academic situations in which they can make choices for themselves.
Limit biological risks – encourage positive behavior and discourage substance misuse through consequence of action. Provide safe environments for children to play and study in. Minimize exposure to harmful substances and other biological risk factors.
Discourage aggression – reducing aggressive behavior can prevent many problems later on.
Create appropriate norms – establishing the normal pattern of behavior through example is essential, this could include strategies for dealing with certain situations. Identify children who have problems with aggressive behavior and make specific plans to reduce their aggression. Look for children who harm others by fighting, hitting, bullying, calling names or excluding peers.
Needless to say, using a single approach is not likely to work. Most of these principles are probably being used in schools already, but where there are particular issues with poor behavior, that acts as an indicator that one of these elements is either missing or needs developing. A number of approaches are useful for reducing aggressive behavior and preventing later problems with delinquency, substance use and risky sexual activity. Many of these involve school programmes and teacher training as important components. Many also involve parents and community efforts to reduce youth problems and increase children’s involvement in positive activities that will improve their skills and competencies. Certainly, other professional services are required to tackle disaffection and related behaviors.