How to reduce youth violence

n this July 12, 2022, photo, Visitors walk past a makeshift memorial honoring those killed at Robb Elementary School, in Uvalde, Texas. Parents in Uvalde, Texas, are livid about the security lapses that contributed to the school shooting this spring. They’re terrified to send their kids back to school. Yet further securing schools — such as through additional lockdown drills — is controversial. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, FILE)

There’s a new violent tragedy seemingly every day in our communities, whether a mass murder in Sacramento, a school shooting in Highland Park or Uvalde, or a suicidal death of despair. Our children and young adults are struggling.

A tragedy within this tragedy is that we know how to prevent children from growing up to be violent, but we haven’t done enough about it. A Secret Service study found almost two-thirds of school shooters had problems getting along with peers — including being bullied — in the period prior to the shooting. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has invested heavily in research over the past 30 years and researchers now know a great deal. 

Our research group has learned that efforts to support children, families and schools can change children’s paths from school failure, early drug use and delinquency to a positive outcome. One program is Fast Track, an NIH-funded project that started in 1990 in four U.S. communities. Scientists worked with high-risk first-grade children to develop the skills, knowledge and attitudes to have healthy relationships with others and make smart decisions when faced with life’s challenges. The research revealed that children assigned to Fast Track grew up to spend less time in prison, have fewer problems of substance abuse and are less of a financial burden to society. Fast Track is just one example of carefully tested evidence-based programs to reduce violent and mental disorder as well as promote healthy functioning in children and youth. The Blueprints Program is other exemplar programs.

The development of social competence is like the development of literacy: It is not simply a matter of free will, but a lifelong process that involves learning specific component skills and attitudes accompanied by a love for social connectedness. As with literacy, we know the required skills: emotion understanding, self-control, social problem solving, self-awareness, executive function, delay of gratification and more. As with literacy, we know that a love for social connectedness begins at birth through caring interactions with parents and other caregivers and continues through interactions with peers and structured group experiences in school. As with literacy, this path can be tragically interrupted by abusive trauma or failure experiences.

We now have ways to build social competence in our children. The path to a peaceful and fulfilling social life begins at birth through a secure parent-infant bond, and we have resources to support this relationship. We now have peer coaching programs to help kids develop strong peer relationships. We know social competence gets legs with structured, social-emotional learning programs offered in elementary school and is buttressed by more intensive social skills training for those who need extra support. 

We need a coordinated, all-out effort to eliminate disparities in outcomes across race and income groups. We would not stand by idly until a child becomes 18 and then throw that child in prison because he or she cannot read. Instead, we have created universal public schools, classroom curricula enhanced by targeted special education programs, as well as a culture of literacy development that begins at birth with books in the home, computer-assisted skills learning and more. But with social competence, we do very little, and then, indeed, we will throw an 18-year-old child in prison for acting incompetently. 

Broad use of these programs to support children should be one part of a larger strategy that includes eliminating structural inequities, poor quality housing and other community resource limits experienced by many children and families. To make healthier communities, we need both effective programs for individual children and structural changes that reduce inequities. 

We propose an approach that supports children’s mental health and well-being from birth onward that focuses on the important aspects of a child’s life. The approach must help parents connect with their child in the first years of life. It must support high-quality universal early childcare and education experiences. It must re-craft schooling to incorporate social-emotional learning curricula and peer connections as central goals. It must include regular screening across the lifespan to identify those in greater need so that targeted interventions can support children. It must be integrated with traditional education to create synergies between learning to read and learning to get along. Engineering such a comprehensive approach requires collaboration across health and education sectors. The ball could get rolling through leadership from the executive branch and governors.

Maybe, just maybe, a coordinated all-out effort to make the next generation of children socially competent could prevent violent tragedies like those we see today and promote a generation of healthy, productive and engaged citizens.

Mark Greenberg is the founding director of the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center and is emeritus professor at Penn State.

Kenneth Dodge is the William McDougall distinguished professor of public policy and professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.

They are researchers representing the Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group.

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