But a new study indicates that schools adopting programs that target antisocial behavior are also likely to boost their students' academic performance.
The study of nearly 600 children by the University of Washington's Social Development Research Group found that risk factors such as substance use, delinquency and violence that can be identified and counteracted in elementary school also are good predictors of later academic achievement.
"The implications are that prevention programs that address specific risk factors, curb antisocial behavior such as alcohol and cigarette use, stress a greater connection to school and promote social and emotional skills also contribute to academic achievement," said Kevin Haggerty, a co-author of the study.
Haggerty also is director of the Raising Healthy Children Project, an intervention program that is following the progress of two groups of students in the Edmonds School District, a suburban area north of Seattle. One group received the intervention while the other did not.
The new study indicated that higher levels of school attachment and better social, emotional and decision-making skills in the seventh grade were related to higher grades and test scores on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), given to 10th graders in 2002 and 2003. The WASL is a standardized test administered to students to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act.
The study, being published in the November issue of the Journal of School Health, also found that lower student test scores and grades were predicted by higher levels of attention problems, disruptive and aggressive behavior and negative behavior by peers. In addition, early use of alcohol and cigarettes predicted lower test scores.
"There is no stronger predictor of future problems than past ones," said Charles Fleming, lead author of the study and a research analyst with the Social Development Research Group, which is part of the UW's School of Social Work. "These findings show that if you make some difference in correcting negative behavior you can have a positive effect on school performance. This provides support, for instance, for programs being implemented in many elementary and middle schools to curb bullying behavior."
Fleming noted that the researchers collected data from multiple sources - from the students and their parents and teachers - and that they got the same predictive outcomes from all of them. The researchers controlled for the students' scores on a standardized test given in the fourth grade, parents' level of education and socioeconomic level.
"We wanted to see if the different behaviors that our prevention programs target also predict academic achievement, and they do," he said.
The Raising Healthy Children program ran from the first or second grade through the 12th grade. The intervention included instructional workshops to help teachers become more effective in the classroom, workshops to teach parents better family management and monitoring skills and summer camps and study clubs for students.
"Targeted school-based prevention programs can contribute to student academic achievement," Haggerty said. "We can't eliminate these programs because of claims that 'we don't have time for them during the academic day in the classroom.' These programs are important and they teach skills that children need to negotiate in the classroom and the school environment. When we teach them to children they are more successful academically."
Co-authors of the paper are Richard Catalano, director of the Social Development Research Group, and professor of social work; Tracy Harachi, UW associate professor of social work; James Mazza, UW associate professor of educational psychology, and Diana Gruman, an assistant professor of psychology at Western Washington University. The National Institute on Drug Abuse funded the research.