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Reducing the Risk of Violent Behavior in Our Children

parenting Clinicparenting ClinicDr. Carolyn Webster-Stratton is a licensed clinical psychologist and nurse practitioner who founded the Parenting Clinic 20 years ago as a means of helping parents deal with defiant and aggressive children who may be society’s future violent offenders. Its success spawned The Dinosaur School, offering direct therapy to the children themselves, and from this grew Head Start interventions and training programs for teachers.

What is the Parenting Clinic?
We started out in the ’80’s developing programs for parents that we have shown to be effective in preventing and reducing conduct problems and increasing social skills in children. Then we realized that it would also be helpful to be working more directly with the children, and so for the last ten years we have been developing training programs for children that can be used by therapists and teachers.

Is that what you call The Dinosaur School?
Yes. We meet with children as a group after school and in the early evenings. So the parents are in a group at the same time their children are in a Dinosaur group and the two programs dovetail with one another. Our research has shown good results, not only in reducing aggressive behavior but also in helping children learn to share, to take turns, and to be more respectful with their parents. We also developed a teacher training program, and have completed two randomized studies of that. And so now the parents, teachers and children all get training. Parents and teachers feel like they have worked together as a team to help the child and there is consistency from home to school.

What kind of child do you work with?
At first we were only working with kids four to eight who were diagnosed as having conduct problems or oppositional defiance disorders or hyperactivity, because the research suggests that those are the children who are at greatest risk for violence and drug abuse in later life. But then about ten years ago we decided to be more proactive and to try to reach at-risk kids before they developed diagnosed problems. We started working in Head Start with preschool age children, and that has been a fantastic experience. Children living in poverty and stressful situations are more vulnerable to these kinds of problems.

How do parents enter your programs?
At the Parenting Clinic, parents come to us. They have already identified a problem or they have been referred to us. There is no charge for our services. In Head Start we offered the program to all parents who were enrolled, including parents whose children were developing normally. We also offered workshops for the parents and workshops for the head start teachers and assistants on classroom management strategies and how to promote social and emotional competence in children. So now we are again working with children, parents and teachers. Recently we were funded to evaluate offering the Dinosaur School to all children enrolled in Head Start classrooms in the Seattle area.

Why focus on young children?
If you get them early, their behavior has not cemented yet. Their self-esteem is not based on negative acts. We have excellent results, and have the data to show it.

How many children have you helped with conduct problems?
In the diagnosis stage, probably about 800-1000. In our prevention studies, about 600. Our programs have been used in over 25 states as well as in Canada, UK, Australia and Norway. Recently we were selected as a "blueprints program" by the Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention, which means that the government will offer training to deliver our interventions in schools and mental health centers. We have also conducted follow-ups on children that went through just the parenting program and found that two-thirds of them were within the normal range five years later. I hope that emotional literacy training will eventually be a part of mainstream teaching for all children.

Why do you think violence is on the upswing in our society?
I think it has increased partly because of the increase in violence in the media, especially TV and video games. Additionally, many parents work and have less time to supervise their children so that many spend large amounts of time on the computer or watching TV. Some of the kids we work with have been exposed to violence at home as well. And some just seem to be "wired" differently, from a biological standpoint, and therefore are more difficult to parent or to teach. Whatever the reasons, parents need support to know that they are doing the right thing and to know that it might take longer for some kids to respond to the message than others. You just have to hang in there being positive and encouraging and try to teach children that there is more "pay off" for being prosocial than antisocial. In the end, all society benefits from a child who has developed strong social skills and positive self-esteem.

CREDiT:  
Carolyn Webster-Stratton talks with children at the Parenting Clinic.