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Study Skills Linked to Lower Risk for Violence

Study Skills Linked to Lower Risk for Violence

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Sixth-grade students with strong study skills tended to be less violent two years later than those with weak study skills, even if other factors in their lives put them at risk for violent behavior, a study by a University of Illinois at Chicago researcher and colleagues shows.

The research team examined factors in the lives of middle-school students that increased or decreased the risk of violence. The research identifies factors at the start of sixth grade that predict higher or lower levels of violent behavior by the spring of eighth grade. Strong study skills predicted lower levels of violence, a significant protective effect.

Lead author David Henry, a psychologist and professor of health policy and administration in the UIC School of Public Health, said these findings could have major implications for preventing violence.

“If we get into schools and work with higher-risk kids on tutoring and study skills and learning how to function better academically, we’re also protecting them from violence,” he said. “This study suggests there are things you can do directly that don’t involve waiting until somebody is exposed to risk -- such as living in a violent neighborhood, hanging out with gang members or having disengaged parents -- to take preventive action.”

The researchers' findings suggest that efforts to improve children's study skills and school attendance in sixth grade can help stem violent behavior in later middle-school years. Regardless of their gender or racial or ethnic background, youth who had good study skills were two-thirds as likely to engage in violence in seventh- and eighth-grade, whereas those with study skills rated as poor by their teachers were one-fifth more likely to engage in violence.

“Low academic achievement could put youth at risk for violence, and high academic achievement could protect youth from violence,” Henry said.

The study, which used study skills as a measurable proxy for academic achievement, was the first to look at this factor as both a protective factor and a risk factor. Good study skills in sixth graders protect them from being violent over the course of middle school, while bad study skills in sixth graders predict their risk of developing violent behavior, Henry said.

The study considered a broad range of factors, including individuals' depression, delinquency, alcohol and drug use, and attention problems; family involvement; school factors, such as study skills, attitudes toward school, and truancy; and having peers who were engaged in antisocial behavior.

Researchers surveyed 4,432 students in 37 schools in Chicago, Durham, N.C., and northeastern Georgia, and Richmond, Va., semiannually as they progressed through middle school. Teachers assessed the students’ behavior in the spring each year. About half of the students were from low-income families and qualified for federal lunch assistance (52 percent). About half the students were black (52 percent), 22 percent were Hispanic and the remainder were white or another ethnicity. A little less than half (49 percent) were boys.

The study included a diverse sample of urban and rural middle schools. Only data from students who attended the same school from sixth grade through eighth were included in the researchers’ analysis.

Henry was surprised that family involvement didn’t have a stronger effect on whether a middle-schooler engaged in violence.

“By itself, a good family was protective, but poor family functioning was not a risk factor for violence,” he said.

Similarly, peer groups didn’t increase students’ risk of violent behavior, typically defined as fighting and assault. More serious violence, such as gun or knife use, was not excluded from the study, but the numbers were too small to draw conclusions, Henry said.

“Having good peers reduced the risk of a child engaging in violence, but having delinquent friends did not increase risk,” he said. This finding helps to clarify and refine previous research that showed that peers are related to risk for violence, he added. 

Delinquent behavior, using alcohol or drugs and having delinquent friends were factors linked to violence in the study, but Henry said fostering good study skills and improving attitudes toward school is more easily done than addressing these other risks.

The impact that peers had, however, differed across racial and ethnic lines. White children seemed to be influenced more by negative peers than did African-American students. Henry suggested that the racial difference could be due to different parenting styles based on where a family lives. For example, he said urban parents might be more vigilant to keep their children safe based upon a perceived greater risk for dangerous situations in a city.

The researchers used study skills rather than grades as a measure because it is a more realistic target for prevention than academic achievement itself, Henry said.

The study was conducted as part of the Multisite Violence Prevention Project, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Henry conducted the research with faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Chicago and the University of Virginia. The article, "Risk and Direct Protective Factors for Youth Violence," was published in the August 2012 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Learn more about research on parent and school influences on violence among middle-school students, which Henry and colleagues published in the April 2011 issue of Child Development, and a study about how school policy and culture influence student violence in the October 2011 issue of the Journal of School Psychology.


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