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Study: Kindergarten behavior can predict later drug abuse — but early intervention can help

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Kids walking to school.

A new study by Canadian social scientists finds boys who display anti-social behavior in kindergarten will likely abuse drugs later in life — unless they receive intensive intervention in their "tween" years.

The study began in 1984, in Montreal. Some kindergarten teachers selected boys in their class who came from low-income households and showed anti-social behavior for a longitudinal study by the University of Montreal.

Of the 172 disruptive 5-year-olds chosen, 46 were channeled into an intensive intervention program over two years, starting when they were 7.

The boys were given social skills training to learn how to control emotions and build healthy friendships. They were also taught to use problem solving and communication instead of anti-social behaviors. Their families were involved in parts of the program, with parents learning skills to help their sons through difficulties.

Researchers studied two control groups: 42 boys got no intervention at all, and the remaining 84 received only a home visit. All the boys were followed until they were 17, with specific attention paid to their use of drugs or alcohol.

Results published recently in the British Journal of Psychiatry indicate that the boys who received this intensive therapy were less likely than the rest to use drugs as teens.  

Researcher Natalie Castellanos-Ryan, of the psychiatry department of the University of Montreal, said the boys who received the intensive interventions had much lower levels of anti-social behavior. They never caught up with the level of drug or alcohol use of the other boys in the study, who began substance use from early adolescence. Even the boys who received periodic in-home visits, but not intensive intervention, had a high rate of substance misuse during teenage years.

The study authors concluded that “adolescent substance use may be indirectly prevented by selectively targeting childhood risk factors that disrupt the developmental cascade of adolescent risk factors for substance use.”

Castellanos-Ryan said her team hopes to follow up with the same cohort of boys who are now 30 years old, to see if the intervention is still paying dividends.

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