September 1985. Barely 7 years old, 69 boys showing signs of aggression and from underprivileged backgrounds in Montreal are undergoing training to improve their social skills and self-control. Now, 37 years later, these men are less likely to end up in prison, to be isolated and on average earn more than those who were in the same situation as them but did not take the training. , according to a recent study.
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“We are constantly being told about the problems of violence, delinquency and killings. But solutions to these problems begin with high-quality education given to children who are most at risk. We have to intervene early to help them,” says Richard Ernest Tremblay, author of the Université de Montréal study published this week in the scientific journal American Economic Review.
In the early 1980s, this professor of psychology from the University of Montreal recruited 53 underprivileged primary schools on the island of Montreal to take part in his study. Kindergarten teachers first administered a behavioral questionnaire to male students to determine which showed signs of aggression.
The at-risk boys were then randomly assigned to either a treatment group, whose members were invited to participate in a two-year training program in social skills and self-control, or to a control group, whose members did not have access to training, but still had access to the usual resources offered in Montreal public schools.
Decades later, the results are striking. “The boys who received the intervention program did better in school, had fewer crime problems and had higher incomes as adults,” explains Mr. Tremblay. They also used fewer drugs and alcohol as teenagers and are more likely to have graduated from high school.
The intervention program was implemented over a two-year period, from age 7 to 9, i.e. in 2e and 3e primary years. The training sessions took place at school, once a week for 45 minutes, during lunch or after school, with groups of four to seven children.
In each group, one or two children were the intervention participants, and the others were boys identified by their teachers as being prosocial. “They served as models to learn how to behave well with others,” explains Mr. Tremblay.
The sessions covered topics such as how to invite another child to play, how to ask “why”, how to react to teasing, how to react when angry and how to react if others children refuse to play with them.
“There were also regular home visits for parents to learn how to manage their child’s behaviors. Psychoeducators and psychologists also met with teachers,” adds the researcher.
By late adolescence, students who had taken the training had had better grades, fewer grades, and fewer assignments to special education classes. “We were pleasantly surprised to see that the effects were fairly long-term,” rejoices Mr. Tremblay.
The impact of the training has continued with participants now in their 40s.
The researchers found large and significant positive effects on marriage, contributions to employment insurance and occupational groups.
Training also increased average annual employment income by $5,708 per year between ages 20 and 39, a difference of 20%.
According to the researchers, these positive results could be linked in particular to the role models they met or the friendships made during the training that persisted throughout their lives.
When he looks at today’s society, Mr. Tremblay is saddened to see that young people in difficulty are often taken care of too late and hopes that his study can help change things. “It is clear that we would have a substantial gain for our communities if we put more resources into kindergarten and during the first years of elementary school,” he concludes.