Guidance program promising


POSTED: Friday, June 19, 2009

A new study shows that fifth-graders in Hawaii who took part in a schoolwide behavioral program called “;Positive Action”; were about half as likely to try drugs, alcohol, weapons or sex as their peers in other schools.

“;This study provides compelling evidence that intervening with young children is a promising approach to preventing drug use and other problem behaviors,”; said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which helped fund the study. “;Intervention beginning in the first grade produced a significant effect on children's behavior in the fifth grade.”;

The results of the five-year experiment will be published in the August edition of the American Journal of Public Health, and a version was posted online yesterday. Twenty public elementary schools in Hawaii took part, 10 that adopted the program and 10 similar schools that served as controls.

Unlike programs that focus simply on avoiding risky behaviors, Positive Action gives students a comprehensive framework to guide their behavior, with daily 15-minute interactive lessons. Ala Wai Elementary Principal Charlotte Unni said yesterday that initially she was reluctant to try the program, but now is a convert.

“;I wasn't into this program, I didn't believe in it,”; she said. “;When I saw what happened after five years, I was blown away. I am totally sold on it. It changes the way you look at the world.”;

“;The character-building concepts layer upon each other as the students go up by grade,”; she added, so students learn to make the right choices.

Positive Action, a kindergarten-to-12th-grade curriculum, was created more than two decades ago, but this was the first randomized, scientific trial of its efficacy, according to Brian Flay, principal investigator in the study. “;The philosophy of the program is focused on teaching what behaviors are positive,”; said Flay, a professor of public health at Oregon State University.

His study showed that half as many fifth-graders surveyed in Positive Action schools reported trying alcohol or tobacco as their counterparts in other schools. Just a quarter as many said they had used an illegal drug or cut or stabbed someone on purpose. The number of fifth-graders who said they had engaged in sex was 1 percent among the Positive Action schools and 7 percent on the control campuses.

Those results contrast with studies of DARE, the most widely implemented program on preventing drug abuse in the country, which takes place in fifth or sixth grades. In 2001, the U.S. Surgeon General concluded that DARE does not deter substance abuse.

The General Accounting Office reached the same conclusion after reviewing six long-term evaluations of DARE in 2003.

Unni said Positive Action's benefits extend beyond reducing risky behavior. She believes it helped Ala Wai become a Blue Ribbon School, with steadily rising academic achievement, as teachers and students were better able to focus on learning, with fewer disciplinary incidents.

The program costs about $300 to $400 per classroom up front, plus 10 to 15 percent of that per year, Flay said. “;It's very cost-effective, because the costs to society of a kid who becomes a drug user or engages in violence are very high,”; he said.

He said the longer kids are exposed to the program, the fewer risky behaviors they try. He hopes to continue the study to examine whether the results are sustained as children grow older.

“;It's easy to make the argument that the earlier you start, the better,”; he said.

Jeannie Sugimoto, principal of Aliamanu Elementary, said the Positive Action program incorporates music and art to reinforce the lessons on character development. “;It's a really easy program to implement,”; she said. She added that she's already paid to continue the program next year, “;because it really does have results.”;