Are persistently aggressive children doomed to lives of crime? Not necessarily. Developmental scientists now have a better understanding of the factors that trigger childhood aggression and say that a significant number of kids can be turned around with early and long-term interventions, said Kenneth Dodge, PhD, who presented preliminary findings of the Fast Track Prevention Program at APA's 2002 Annual Convention in Chicago.

"It should not come as a surprise that we have so few solutions for this problem, given how little our nation has invested in research and development on education and children," said Dodge, director of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University. "Fortunately, the [Fast Track study] is an exception. It is a program of research that has been supported by federal research dollars, and it has led to positive results in preventing chronic violence among our highest-risk youth."

Why has the Fast Track study worked when other interventions haven't? The program's holistic approach is based on 20 years of scientific evidence that "has led to a consensus model of how chronic violence develops across childhood," posited Dodge.

Children in elementary school identified as high risk tend to be poor and show aggression in kindergarten and at home, he continued. But among these children, chronic violence usually develops when they do poorly in school, don't get along with peers, have abusive parents and attend schools that cannot control disruptive and violent behavior. The Fast Track program launched in 1990, with funding primarily from the National Institute of Mental Health, as well as the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention and the U.S. Department of Education.

Funding went to research colleagues at Duke University, Pennsylvania State University, Vanderbilt University and the University of Washington. In 1991, they began screening more than 10,000 kindergarten boys and girls attending high-risk schools near their universities. Of those children, 891 were randomly chosen--or not--to receive the 10-year Fast Track intervention, which began when the children reached first grade.

The program's interventions sought to improve areas of the children's lives that research has shown affect the development of a child's aggressive behavior. They included academic achievement, social-information processing, relations with peers, home-school partnership, classroom atmosphere, and parenting and socialization. Parent involvement was a crucial element in the intervention's success.

"One of the lessons that we learned is that no matter how difficult are the circumstances of the families of these children, the parents genuinely want their [kids] to grow up to graduate from high school, get satisfying jobs, and stay out of jail and off drugs," said Dodge. "We relied on those dreams to get parents to let us in the door."

As a result, 99 percent of 445 families agreed to participate in the intervention, and more than 75 percent of the parents and 88 percent of the children attended more than half of the sessions offered. The researchers' ongoing analysis of Fast Track data found that the intervention:

  • Improved competencies in targeted children and parents. Relative to the control group, for example, parents reduced their use of harsh discipline, and their children improved their social-cognitive and academic skills.

  • Reduced children's aggressive behavior in the classroom and the home, compared with children in the control group.

  • Reduced the number of children who needed to be placed in special education classrooms: By fourth grade, 48 percent of the control group were placed in special education, contrasted with 36 percent of the intervention group.

  • Lowered the number of children arrested: By eighth grade, 42 percent of the control group had been arrested, contrasted with 38 percent of the intervention group.

  • Reduced serious conduct disorder by more than one-third among children in the ninth grade, from 21 percent to 13 percent.

In addition, the Fast-Track investigating team is applying for more funding to track criminal behavior through the high-crime years of early adulthood. Analyzing future data would provide important insights into how the intervention affects participants as they continue schooling, find work and form families.

While Dodge acknowledged that these gains are "modest," he contended that implementing the program in public schools nationwide would be cost-beneficial.

"If each career criminal costs society $1.3 million and the Fast Track Program costs $40,000 per child, the program will prove to be a wise economic investment if just 3 percent of the children are saved from careers of violent crime," he concluded.