Letters & Opinion

Preventing Behaviour Problems: What works

By Sylvestre Phillip
Image: Two boys pictured in full secondary school uniform with what appears to be firearms (a hand gun and shot gun).

A philosophy of Education has established that man was born good; that it is as he or she perceives of his or her environment and gains knowledge of the real world that a set of habitual behaviours, cognitions, and emotional patterns evolve.

The truth is, an unborn child can respond to stimulus from the womb where it is growing and developing. With that said, the prevention of behaviour problems should begin as early as possible. These efforts should begin with prenatal care, and continue throughout the school years.

Early intervention should address prenatal care and social and economic adjustment of mothers after a child is born.

As our population includes a large proportion of young people, we find that this figure includes a significant number of poor teenage mothers, and other young people who are unemployed, and also otherwise underprivileged. There lies the beginning of our social problems!

I now wish to highlight a study in the United States of America where nurses visited poor, unmarried teenage mothers before and after the birth of their children. Their visits focused on improving the mother’s physical and psychological health, educational and family planning, childcare and support from family and friends. The study showed that the visits met the objective. Long term, the results also showed less delinquency as relates to smoking, drug and alcohol use and sexual activities at age 15, compared to children whose mothers did not receive the programme.

In St Lucia, our Health and Wellness Centres provide prenatal care to pregnant mothers, including teenagers. In relation to those teenagers who present themselves for that service, I also know that nursing aids visit homes in several communities. However, I cannot attest to the fact that nurses themselves make visits to pregnant teenage mothers. If they don’t then this is an area of support which requires some attention. The Human Services Department can provide physical and psychological support. In St Lucia, we have the St Lucia Social Development Fund, SSDF which should be active in our communities.

The big issue here is whether these governmental agencies are collaborating sufficiently to allow positive outcomes in the prevention of behavioural problems in our families, and by extension, our communities. By that I mean, are there exchanges of data or information about poor families amongst the Health and Wellness centres, the Human Services Department and the St Lucia Social Development Fund, all agencies of government? If there are not, then our data management systems in St Lucia need to focus on that area. A system of that nature would redound to the benefit of our poor teenage mothers and their children.

Another very import principle is to provide positive rewards to increase desirable behaviours. In fact, one of the best-established principles of learning is that appropriate, immediate positive consequences can make positive behaviour more frequent. That process is commonly called positive reinforcement. Providing positive incentives both at home and at school to our children as an alternative to problematic behaviours could lead to positive changes in children. I will go further to say that when parents provide incentives for a child’s cooperative behaviour, this often provides a stimulus for children to use non-violent ways to handle conflict among their peers. Today, our country is yearning for our young people to settle their differences in a non-violent way.

Adults need positive consequences, too. Parents should provide support, praise and acknowledge school administrators, principals, and teachers who provide opportunities for their children to prevent and reduce child and adolescent behaviour problems.

Now we have to be careful, because positive consequences can inadvertently encourage problem behaviour. A teen who can earn needed money by selling drugs may sell or use drugs; a boy who routinely gains the attention from his peers for breaking the law may continue this criminal behaviour.

In this regard, parents need to observe their children’s behaviour very closely. They should know who their friends are and whether they could provide positive incentives which would make a difference in preventing and reducing child and adolescent behaviour problems.

Another very important principle is for parents and teachers to provide opportunities for children to observe and practice interpersonal and academic skills .Now, what are interpersonal skills? Interpersonal skills are the qualities and behaviours a person uses to interact with others properly. Some examples of interpersonal skills are: Active listening, teamwork, responsibility, dependability, good leadership, motivation, flexibility, and patience.

Some academic skills include time management, reading proficiency, oral communication, written communication, critical thinking, research abilities, analytical thinking, and problem solving. In addition, students also need organizational and interpersonal skills to excel in an academic setting.

Now, while parents may possess many of the interpersonal skills which their children need, they may lack many of the academic skills necessary for passing on to their children. It is the responsibility of the school to provide those skills. Whether interpersonal or academic, children should be taught skills that are likely to be effective in real life situations.

In conclusion, I wish to state that many of our children and students have difficulty getting along with others; at home, in class and in the communities. And if you find out the petty reasons why they can’t, you would be amazed!

In my next article we shall continue to investigate the issue of preventing behaviour problems. It is my hope that these articles will stimulate positive thoughts and actions.

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