Gang abatement? Is it possible that school climate and the conditions for learning could reduce violence?

1 Comment | Posted

Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Kevin Dwyer

Is it possible that teaching social skills – combined with the other conditions for learning (CFL) such as connection and caring - could reduce juvenile delinquency, violence, gang membership and even radical affiliations with groups like white supremacists and jihadists? As yet we don’t know but this may be a logical hypothesis worth testing.  We know from long term research that SEL skills have life-long preventive and positive outcomes.  

A well publicized research article (see: Washington Post, July 17th, also highlighted on the PBS Newshour July 16th, and the NY Times July 24th.) one (Washington Post) titled, “Kindergartners” social skills may predict success” may give credence to looking at such potential longitudinal research outcomes. The researcher, Damon E. Jones[1] of Pennsylvania State University lists the social skills of kindergarteners as a good predictor of very long-term academic and social success. Kindergartners who demonstrated skills (as reported in ratings by teachers) such as empathy, listening, problem solving, cooperation and sharing in kindergarten - and the lack thereof, were followed for two decades looking at graduation rates, police records, reports from parents and self reports. Findings for the 753 subjects, controlling for numerous social/economic, ethnic variables, resulted in findings such as, “children who scored well (high) in social skills were four times as likely to get a college degree…”  These highly social skilled children also were more likely to be full-time employed and less likely to be arrested, whereas those with low social skill ratings were more likely to have lower employment and higher chances of being arrested. This study looked at naturally developed social skill mastery rather than a longitudinal study that involved SEL instruction.  The study does confirm the critical importance of social skill mastery for success. The authors of the study also suggest that the findings can identify early (kindergarten/preschool) students who could benefit from interventions to remediate their social skill deficits and reduce negative long-term outcomes for those children.

Outcome measures for social skill instruction have been shown to be positive in academic and behavioral results, including improved attention span, reading scores, attendance and, yes social skills (see the website).  

So, can SEL instruction and other resilience building CFL methods reduce gang affinity and violence? I don’t know, but there are some studies that imply “Yes.” Take lowered juvenile arrest rates of identified at risk students being lowered by participating a first grade classroom positive behavior game.  The decades long study of the “Good Behavior Game” [2](GBG) showed that this first grade classroom behavior management activity reduced the teenage arrest rate of participating students, who were already identified as having problem behaviors, when compared to similarly identified  students who did not experience this preventative intervention. In other words a simple classroom team structure that enabled first graders to compete at being “good” had a life-long positive impact! The boys in the study identified as behaviorally at risk in first grade were followed throughout their schooling and into adulthood. As young adults, they (males in the study) had significantly fewer arrests for violence than the matched control group that did not participate in the GBG or received added reading support. Further research showed that their drug use was also lower. One might suppose that they were less likely to be violent gang members as well but this was not measured. Other programs build on this strategy and replicated the positive outcomes, particularly for behaviorally troubled males. The GBG is an example of positive discipline and social skill development, and a components of the conditions for learning. The GBG study was a one-year, first grade intervention. Imagine the GBG combined with SEL instruction and other preventive, resilient-building interventions such as those that enhance connection and caring.  

Connection and caring are another condition that frequently is thought of as components of a “safe and effective schools.” Positive, active connection to school through participation in extracurricular activities has been known to significantly improve attendance, graduation and positive behavior.  Class meetings, advisories have also helped ensure connection and caring.

I am unsure if lowered gang membership or radical group affiliation have been outcomes measured in that research. Caring and connection have what we call “face validity” in that it makes sense that students who are known and are cared for (treated with respect and valued) are less likely to seek out affiliation with such radical groups.

Maybe someone is already doing this research. If not the federal government should be funding such important gang, violence and security measures. I would love to hear that we are looking at the long-term impact of connecting with our children and youth and giving them life-long social/emotional success!


[1] Damon E. Jones, Mark Greenberg, and Max Crowley.  (2015). Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health: The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness. American Journal of Public Health. e-View Ahead of Print. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2015.302630   

[2] The Good Behavior Game and the Future of Prevention and Treatment  Sheppard G. Kellam, M.D.,1 Amelia C. L. Mackenzie, B.S.,1 C. Hendricks Brown, Ph.D.,2 Jeanne M. Poduska, Sc.D.,3 Wei Wang, Ph.D.,4 Hanno Petras, Ph.D.,5 and Holly C. Wilcox, Ph.D.

*   *   *   *   *   *    *   *   *

dwyerKevin P. Dwyer, M.A., a Nationally Certified School Psychologist, is an education and child mental health consultant. He recently served as a principal research associate for the American Institutes for Research. For over 30 years he practiced school psychology in public schools and held several local, state and national leadership positions in the fields of mental health and education, being responsible for the design, development, implementation and evaluation of programs and practices, for improving school climate, safety, and well being for the education, and mental health of children. He has helped school staff in many districts use data to inform decisions on improving caring and connectedness with students and professional peers.  His work, publications, presentations, and practices have influenced public policy and the development of efficient, family-focused collaborative child service systems. During his 30 years as a public school psychologist, he worked directly with over 10,000 children and their families as well as trained over 6000 educators. He provided psychological services to children, including those with disabilities and those whose anxiety and mental health problems blocked learning and adjustment. He assisted teachers and staff in supporting a caring, inclusive school climate for all children. In 2007, the Maryland Coalition of Families awarded Mr. Dwyer and his wife for their work in making schools more family friendly. He served as president of the National Association of School Psychologist and was given its highest honor, the Life-time Achievement Award. In 2000, he received the Tipper Gore “Advocacy award for improving the lives and mental health of America’s children” from the National Mental Health Association.


  1. Selena Webster-Bass's avatar
    Selena Webster-Bass
    | Permalink
    The longitudinal study showing the benefits of empathy training and long term impact of caring and connections is critical for human relations in our society. Now if we could also add cultural competency to ensure that we are inclusive of all people from all backgrounds and walks of life.
    1. Leave a Comment