Decades after school program to promote social development, adults report healthier, more successful lives

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July 25, 2019

A University of Washington study found that adults who were taught as children to bond with their parents, teachers, and classmates reported living healthier, happier lives.

What defines a “good life” in your thirties?

The exact answer probably depends on the person, but most people could agree on some general themes: good physical and mental health, strong relationships, and a stable job or education. Being financially responsible and getting involved in your community or civic life also helps make life better.

Now, researchers at the University of Washington have found that this ‘good life’ as an adult can start in elementary school, teaching parents and teachers how to bond better with their children and to help children become more attached to family and school. In a study of more than 800 adults in their thirties — a group researchers have followed since they were fifth graders in Seattle elementary schools in 1985 — people who reported better health and status socio-economic were, consistently, those whose parents and teachers had received lessons in bonding with their children decades ago.

The researchers are not aware of any other study of a program offered in elementary school that has followed participants for this long. Participants in the longitudinal study, known as the Seattle Social Development Project, have answered surveys over the years about their own children’s health, lifestyle and even parenting. Such research requires participants who will stick with a study for much of their lives, and almost 90% of them have done so. The sample has roughly equal numbers of men and women, half are racial minorities and about half experienced poverty as children.

The final study involved providing general measures of adult health and functioning, asking participants about specific questions related to these measures, and comparing participants whose teachers and parents received the bridging interventions. in primary school with those who did not.

“These early interventions in elementary schools aim to improve children’s current lives in and out of school,” said Rick Kosterman, principal investigator of the Social Development Research Group, part of the UW School of Social Work. “But can we really get kids on a different life trajectory that lasts beyond primary school? In fact, we found long-lasting effects, where they have a better overall experience in adulthood.

The prevention program, called Raise healthy children, was created by UW social work professors J. David Hawkins and Richard Catalano. The lessons, aimed at parents and teachers, focused on improving opportunities for children to form healthy bonds in grades 1-6 and providing them with social skills and reinforcements. Teachers and parents of children in some classes at the 18 participating Seattle elementary schools used the program in the 1980s, while those in other classes did not have access.

Many concepts are well-known educational tools and parenting tips today: reinforce positive behaviors; setting expectations for making responsible choices; and promoting positive social interactions at school through group projects and seating arrangements. Table groups in the classroom facilitate cooperation and learning from each other, for example, while at home parents can “surprise” their child being good and praise them. . With older children, parents can discuss issues such as smoking so that standards of healthy behavior are established before adolescence.

For the new follow-up study, published in late spring in Prevention Science, Kosterman listed nine measurable aspects of the lives of 30-somethings: physical health; Mental Health; health-maintaining behaviors (such as exercise and sleep); low-risk sexual behavior; low rates of substance abuse; friendships and relationships; socio-economic status (income, education, home ownership); accountability (employment, financial management); and civic engagement. The team then used surveys and in-person physical assessments to determine participants’ health and functioning in adult life.

In a comprehensive test of effects that combined the nine indicators of a healthy and successful adult life, those in the intervention classes when they were in elementary school reported significantly better results than those in the comparison classes until thirties. Specific areas of significant improvement included fewer symptoms of mental health disorders, more engagement in health maintenance behaviors, and better overall health and socioeconomic success. On the remaining measures, the intervention group performed better on all of them, though not as dramatically, compared to the control group.

It’s hard to attribute results that show up decades later directly to the program, said Hawkins, co-author of the new study. But the behavioral changes of their teachers and parents during the elementary years likely had a snowball effect, leading to positive relationships and responsible decision-making in adulthood.

“We have worked to build healthier relationships – we call it social connections – between teachers and students, and parents and children. The larger question was, if we do all of these things, will it turn into a prosocial, healthy lifestyle? Hawkins said. “We had no idea we would see these results so late in life.”

In analyzing the data, the researchers looked at factors that tend to negatively affect health outcomes: whether a child grew up in poverty, was raised by a single parent, or was born a teenager. Participants born to mothers under 20 were found to have significantly lower quality of life on several of the measures, particularly in the areas of socioeconomic status, physical health, and substance abuse. The effects of the intervention that the researchers found persisted even after controlling for these effects of being born to a teenage mother.

“The most important thing we’ve learned is to provide children with opportunities for positive social involvement,” Hawkins said. “Make sure your kids have the opportunity to engage with you as a parent. Play with them, hold them; don’t sit on your phone when you’re with them.

“When kids feel connected to you, they’re less likely to violate your expectations. And you’re likely to set them up for a better life long into the future.

Kosterman and his team applied for funding to conduct further research on the group, now in their mid-40s. “More studies are needed to test childhood interventions and follow participants through their thirties and beyond,” Kosterman added, “but we are encouraged that these results suggest that lasting change for significant results is possible”.

The study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In addition to Catalano, other co-authors of the study have been Jennifer Bailey the UW Social Development Research Group; Robert Abbott, professor emeritus at the UW College of Education; and Karl Hill from the University of Colorado, Boulder.

For more information, contact Kosterman at [email protected] or 206-543-4546.

License numbers: R01DA033956, 1R01DA024411, 1R01DA09679

Tag(s): David Hawkins • Richard Catalano • Rick Kosterman • School of Social Work • Social Development Research Group


Joel C. Hicks