Researchers track program's success in curbing aggressive behavior

February 16, 2005

Tampa, FL (Feb. 16, 2005) -- When Laura Bush visited an inner city Baltimore classroom earlier this month, she observed first-grade students playing a game that promotes good behavior as they worked on a reading assignment. The first lady's words of praise for the "Good Behavior Game" shined the national spotlight on a classroom management technique little known outside academic circles.

Turns out the game works -- keeping the students from violent behavior long into adolescence.

For more than a decade, researchers at the University of South Florida College of Public Health have tested this program's effectiveness in discouraging disruptive behaviors and increasing academic achievement. USF's C. Hendricks Brown, PhD, codirected the randomized study of the first-grade preventive intervention, collaborating with the American Institutes for Research (Sheppard Kellam), the City of Baltimore Public School System, and the Oregon Social Learning Center.

Dr. Brown and his colleagues found that the Good Behavior Game dramatically reduced aggressive behavior and helped children stay on task in the classroom, particularly boys who had begun first grade as highly aggressive.

In the "Good Behavior Game" students motivate their teammates to follow class rules and are rewarded with incentives like a little extra time at recess or verbal praise from the teacher. Rather than separating children who are disruptive from the rest of the class, Dr. Brown said, the teacher draws on the powerful influence of a students' peers to collectively reinforce positive behavior.

"The intervention also was effective over the long term for the boys at highest risk -- their rate of aggression was much lower in middle school, and even as far as young adulthood 14 years later," said Dr. Brown, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics whose research focuses on preventing mental health problems in youth. "Their rates of criminal activity, delinquency and antisocial behaviors were much lower compared to aggressive boys who did not receive the intervention ... The Good Behavior Game also increases the likelihood that these high-risk males will complete high school.

"The experiment is unique because its rigorous scientific design was developed in partnership with the Baltimore schools and communities, and it demonstrates long-term benefit into adulthood of an intervention begun in first grade. It shows helping all children in a classroom benefits those at most risk, without labeling or isolating the high-risk students." Dr. Brown said he hoped national attention drawn to the Good Behavior Game would spur other school districts across the country to adopt the program.

In the meantime, the USF team continues to develop advanced statistical methods to evaluate the long-term effects of other community-based prevention programs. Known as the Prevention Science and Methodology Group (PSMG), the researchers are currently testing several different approaches to reducing suicides in youth and examining the impact of school-based drug prevention programs in rural communities. The goal is to identify preventive strategies with a track record of improving the educational success and mental health of children and encourage wider use of these programs.
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Dr. Brown, who came to USF from Johns Hopkins in 1990, has been funded for 18 years by the National Institutes of Mental Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The other PSMG members are Getachew Dagne, Joe Brinales, Wei Wang, Sandeep Kasat, Rich Newel, Terri Singer, Peter Toyinbo, Sruthi Botha, Jing Guo and Frank Wang.

University of South Florida (USF Health)

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