Thursday, January 19, 2012

Moving Beyond “No”: Embracing the Positive in Prevention

When my daughter came home from school last year asking me to sign her up for STAR, I confess I knew very little about the social-development theory behind the program. What I did know was that parents whose children had been in STAR tended to rave about it.
They loved that their kids had a safe place to go after school where they could have fun learning a new skill while getting to know new friends. The word “prevention” didn’t come up in a single conversation. Instead, my fellow parents used words like “happy” and “engaged”, “focused” and “empowered” when talking about their kids’ experiences in STAR.
Compare this to the verbiage surrounding the Just Say No campaign, the national substance-abuse prevention effort from my late childhood days. Though there might very well have been associated positive taglines from that campaign, I simply don’t recall them. Only: Just. Say. No.
Now that I’m a Five Town CTC employee, it’s my job to know—and to spread the word about—how STAR (as well as other CTC programs and initiatives) fits into the big picture of promoting healthy youth in our five towns. From my relatively innocent perspective of a satisfied parent to a happy fifth-grader, I have come to see STAR through the lens of behavioral science.
My daughter was not, for example, just learning a skill while having a great time among friends (though she most certainly was doing so), she was learning skills in a “pro-social environment”—part of the STAR recipe for helping kids to “internalize healthy beliefs and clear standards.” Not a single negative in that description, yet as the data tells us, this model clearly serves to prevent trouble behaviors. Conversely, Just Say No, in all its bald negativity, proved ineffective, even possibly counter-productive.
Of course, it doesn’t take a scientist to understand how a program like STAR can play a crucial role in preventing kids from getting into drugs, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, skipping school, etc. This is not to skirt our obvious parental duty; it is crucial that we talk to our kids (explicitly) about the dangers of the behaviors we want them to avoid for their own good. But: Get them involved, give them positive feedback, and recognize them for their achievements. Do so (parents, teachers, coaches…) and you’ll foster their desire to make healthy choices for themselves.

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