Early childhood intervention programs may reap benefits across generations


Young boy coloring at a classroom table

A study by researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Colorado shows the long-term benefits of an elementary school intervention program for parents, children and teachers.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Youth programs designed to prevent drug use and delinquency and support healthy development can reap lasting benefits not only for participants, but also for their future kids, according to a decades-long study by the University of Colorado and the University of Washington.

The research focuses on a program called Raising Healthy Children, which the UW’s Social Development Research Group monitored in several Seattle elementary schools in the 1980s. The program was among the first to test the idea that problem behaviors could be prevented with specialized training for teachers, parents and young children.

Lead author Karl Hill, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU Boulder and director of the Problem Behavior and Positive Youth Development Program, first got involved with the study while a professor at the UW.

“This is the first published study to show that a broadly implemented, early childhood prevention program can have positive effects on the next generation,” said Hill. “Previous studies have shown that childhood interventions can demonstrate benefits well into adulthood. These results show that benefits may extend into the next generation as well.”

The new paper, part of a longitudinal study known as the Seattle Social Development Project, is published June 8 in JAMA Pediatrics.

For the study, researchers assessed children whose parents had participated in Raising Healthy Children, created by UW social work professors J. David Hawkins and Richard Catalano, founders of the Social Development Research Group. The lessons, for use by parents and teachers, focused on enhancing children’s opportunities for forming healthy bonds in grades 1 through 6 and providing them with social skills and reinforcements. Set in 18 public elementary schools in Seattle, the program was among the first to test the idea that problem behaviors could be prevented with specialized training for teachers, parents and young children.

“Teachers were taught how to better manage their classrooms, parents were taught to better manage their families, and kids were taught how to better manage their emotions and decision making,” said Hill.

Previous studies have shown that by age 18 those who had gone through the program demonstrated better academic achievement than non-participants and were less likely to engage in violence, substance use or unsafe sex. By their 30s, they had gone further in school, tended to be better off financially, and scored better on mental health assessments.

Beginning in 2002, the researchers started following the first-born children of program participants via questionnaires for their teachers and parents. Beginning when the children were 6 years old, they also conducted annual interviews.

A total of 182 kids were studied for the new paper, including 72 whose parents had gone through the program and 110 whose parents had not.

Those whose parents had participated in Raising Healthy Children had fewer developmental delays in the first five years of life, fewer behavior problems, fewer symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – or ADHD – and better cognitive, academic and emotional maturity in the classroom. They were also significantly less likely to report using drugs or alcohol as a teenager.

“We already know that if you can prevent kids from getting involved in the criminal justice system, engaging in underage drinking and drug use, and experiencing depression and anxiety, you can save governments and families a lot of money,” said co-author Jen Bailey, assistant director of the Social Development Research Group at the UW. “Our results suggest these programs, by delivering cross-generational effects, may be working even better than we thought.”

Children whose parents had gone through the program in the 1980s also showed less “oppositional defiance” and “externalizing behaviors” – two common precursors to serious violence later in life – said Hill. This suggests such interventions could play a role in stemming the tide of school violence.

The researchers caution that the study was a non-randomized controlled trial conducted in only one region of the country, and needs to be replicated before broad conclusions can be drawn. But amid a pandemic, when youth depression and anxiety are on the rise while budgets are being slashed and lawmakers may have a tendency to place prevention at a lower priority, Hill hopes the findings send a message.

“By investing in kids now and continuing to invest in them, we could be making generations to come more resilient for when the next national emergency comes around,” said Hill.

The study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In addition to Hawkins and Catalano, co-authors from the UW Social Development Research Group are principal investigator Rick Kosterman and project director Marina Epstein. Additional authors were Robert Abbott, an emeritus professor in the UW College of Education, and Christine Steeger of the University of Colorado.

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