Feature

Like many young people in the 1960s, John Coie, PhD, wanted to make a difference in society. But after two years in the Army and several more studying mathematics and philosophy in graduate school, he realized he needed something more.

That's when he found psychology. Under the tutelage of Philip Cowan, PhD--then a new faculty member in clinical psychology at the University of California, Berkeley--Coie became sold on the idea that the only way to understand psychopathology was to first understand normal human development.

In addition, Cowan introduced him to the idea of preventing mental illness by working in community settings, an idea newly described by Seymour Sarason, PhD.

"I realized," recalls Coie, "that not only was I really interested in understanding human behavior, but I wanted to apply this knowledge to preventing mental health problems in children."

Lucky for psychology he did, say his colleagues on the eve of his retirement from a 32-year tenure at Duke University. By most accounts, Coie is a pioneer of research on peer relations--in particular, how a child's status among peers affects his or her development.

The work grew out of his early realization that he couldn't help children avoid delinquency and related psychological problems until he understood what caused them. And his focus on peer relations--when most other researchers were concerned with the influence parents had on child development--emerged from hands-on work in schools.

"When I met John in 1979, there were probably 20 investigators working in the area of peer relations," says Duke University psychologist Steven Asher, PhD. "Today there are probably 200, in part because John's studies did a lot to excite people about the area and draw people in."

Coie built his career on basic research, but he never strayed far from his goal of applying what he learned to prevention. Indeed, he used his research to help develop Fast Track--a school-based prevention program being tested in four communities around the country, designed to help prevent conduct disorders, delinquency and other serious problems in high-risk children. Though research on Fast Track is ongoing, preliminary results look promising and Coie hopes it will be a model for schools around the nation.

And as he prepared to retire this spring, former students and colleagues joined him at Duke for a Festschrift in his honor, March 24­25, sponsored in part by APA's Scientific Conferences Program and organized by Coie's former students Janis Kupersmidt, PhD, and Ken Dodge, PhD. Speakers represented the varied aspects of Coie's career--giving talks on peer relations, peer status and prevention research--but the overarching theme was appreciation for the many contributions Coie made to developmental research.

From clinician to researcher

As part of his quest to do something socially relevant, Coie accepted a faculty position at Duke after graduating from Berkeley's clinical psychology program in 1968. He was attracted to Duke because it had a large, well-developed community psychology program that provided mental health services to a rural community north of Durham, N.C. Through the program, mental health workers interacted with the people on the front lines of childhood problems--teachers, police, social workers--where Coie believed real changes could be made.

"The program was exciting to me because it fit a lot of the ideas I'd seen in graduate school about working at the community level to initiate change," says Coie.

He soon realized, however, that psychologists and other clinicians faced an obstacle of trying to solve mental health-related problems, such as teen delinquency, without understanding what underlies them. If he was ever going to make a dent in helping children, he reasoned, he would have to understand what childhood risk factors were most predictive of long-term serious mental health problems. To do this, he used many of the research skills he acquired while working with his colleague Phil Costanzo, PhD, in their early faculty years at Duke. While Costanzo showed Coie how to look at problems creatively, Coie brought a logic and desire for empirical rigor to the table.

"John would hold my counterintuitive notions to an empirical test," says Costanzo. "And he anchored his own theoretical movements in the results of his latest research."

Identifying a cycle of rejection

By the late 1970s, Coie became well known for designing elegant studies that addressed difficult questions.

"Many of his studies were clever, addressing a question from the heart of its meaning," says Costanzo.

For example, his early work on peer status--basically how well liked or disliked children are among their peers--identified a subgroup of children who were aggressive and disruptive at school and rejected by their peers. The big question for Coie was whether the children become aggressive and disruptive after their peers rejected them, or whether they were aggressive and disruptive first. To answer that, he designed a paradigm to examine children's first-time interactions with each other.

In a series of breakthrough studies, Coie and Kupersmidt brought groups of children together into playgroups. Some groups consisted of children from the same class in school, while others involved children who had never met. After each play session, the researchers asked the children how much they liked and disliked the other children in the group. Not surprisingly, among children who already knew each other, peer status was clear from the first play session: Children held the same status within the playgroup as they did at school.

What startled Coie was that it took only three sessions for children in the unfamiliar groups to fall into the same social status they held at school. It also became clear, says Coie, that aggressive and disruptive behaviors distinguished many children who were rejected from those who were not rejected.

"That study was not only creative, it was influential," says Asher. "Before, you could have argued that rejected children were victims of negative perceptions by their peers. But in a brand new group, within a couple of sessions, they end up with the same status. It implies that there's something these kids do to make other kids not like them."

Through studies such as this and longitudinal studies that followed children for up to 10 years, Coie and his students gradually pieced together a model of peer rejection and how it might lead to conduct disorders and other mental health problems in adolescence and adulthood.

For one, Coie showed that peer rejection was fairly stable through childhood. And a subgroup of children who were both rejected and aggressive got stuck in a downward spiral starting with poor social skills, including aggression and disruptive behavior, leading to rejection by one's peers and often resulting in even more aggression and disruptive behavior. In addition, the friends the rejected, aggressive children managed to maintain had similarly poor social skills.

Coie's work was pioneering in its emphasis on the role that peer relationships can have on child development, say his colleagues. His findings and those of his students have made it clear that treatment and acceptance by peers can be a critical factor in long-term development, along with parenting and biology.

"John wasn't alone in the discussion of rejected children," says Asher. "But, more than anyone else, he did the kind of groundbreaking work that made people take this population of children seriously."

Toward a model of prevention

Convincing other developmental psycho-logists to take peer status seriously was a tough sell at first, says Coie. When he started his work in the late 1970s, most psychologists focused on parenting as the primary predictor of childhood problems.

But during a sabbatical at Berkeley in 1974, he found hints in the literature that peer social status in childhood might help predict problems in adolescence. He planned the next 10 years of his career around proving it and applying what he learned to help design Fast Track.

The multifaceted program, in place in schools in Durham, N.C., Seattle, Nashville and rural central Pennsylvania, is run by a group of researchers, including Coie, who call themselves the Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group. Through tutoring and social skills training, the program seeks to improve academic performance and combat problematic child behaviors, such as angry aggression and coercive interactions with peers and adults. It also works directly with parents on ways to discipline and support their children, and works with children and their peers to improve peer relations and, in particular, alleviate peer rejection.

Results from the first three years of the project--which has worked with almost 900 children--indicate that high-risk children in the program are improving their social, emotional and academic skills, are interacting better with their peers and are improving their social status. They also show fewer signs of conduct problems.

Chances of continuing the program once the research phase is over are good, at least in Durham. Coie's former students Dodge, director of the center for Child and Family Policy at Duke, and David Rabiner, PhD, senior research scientist at Duke, have proposed an expanded version of Fast Track that would also include interventions for preschool-age children. They'll know if they get funded about the same time Coie and his wife Lynne retire to Santa Barbara, Calif., to be closer to family.

That would make a great end to a career aimed at helping children, says Coie, who still plans to work on Fast Track, including writing up the huge number of findings still coming in.

Even if it doesn't, he hopes Fast Track will serve as a model to the field.

"I hope it will encourage people to take these kinds of big steps into intervention," he says. "When I came into the field there were a lot of lone rangers trying to prove themselves as single academics. But to answer the really big questions, and address big problems, you have to collaborate and combine knowledge."

Further Reading

For more information about APA's Scientific Conferences program visit  APA's Science Directorate or call (202) 336-6000.