What’s the Best Way to Help Low-Income Mothers?

Robyn Wishna / Cornell Marketing Group

For 40 years, an intervention program called the Nurse-Family Partnership has been sending public health nurses to visit first-time, low-income mothers to encourage healthy behaviors and offer advice on child development. [Read more…]

Sex Education: Teens Teaching Teens

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There is clear evidence that risky sexual behavior harms young people. More than two million people ages 15 to 24 across the globe contract HIV each year, including more than 17,000 American young people.  Four million U.S. teens experience a sexually-transmitted infection each year. And between 750,000 and 900,000 teenage women in the U.S. become pregnant each year. [Read more…]

Can we help children to avoid sexual abuse?

child-abuseI received a shocking e-mail from my public school superintendent a few weeks ago. A substitute teacher who has worked at my son’s elementary school was arrested for possessing child pornography.

After my initial surprise at the e-mail, I gave some serious thought to how I should broach the issue with my son, or whether to mention anything at all.  At seven years old, I’ve never talked to him about the possibility of sexual abuse. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t even know what it is.  I wasn’t sure if a conversation would be helpful, or would make him feel anxious or uncomfortable. [Read more…]

New evidence on bullying

teenagersThe problem of bullying has received increased public attention in the U.S. and across the world over the past decade.  In response to being bullied by their peers,  adolescents have often  taken drastic measures – including committing suicide. [Read more…]

Mentoring works for troubled, but how?

Father_of_the_Teen__Growing_Up_With_Your_Kids_photoWhen young people are struggling – with school, addiction, criminal behavior or a number of other problems – help often comes through a mentor. Thousands of organizations across the country pair at-risk young people with a role model to help them get back on track. But does mentoring work?

[Read more…]

How to keep teen parents in school

pregnant teenThe evidence shows that high school dropouts earn less money, have poorer health outcomes and are more likely to get into legal trouble.  And teenagers who are pregnant or who are parents are especially vulnerable to dropping out of school.  There are hundreds of programs designed to keep teens in school. But how effective are they, especially for pregnant and parenting teens?

[Read more…]

Evaluating programs to promote teen sexual health

Teenagers and young adults represent only 25 percent of the sexually active population in the U.S., but they acquire nearly half of all new sexually transmitted infections, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. [Read more…]

The serious effects of physical discipline

There are many factors that influence how parents discipline their children: parents’ own upbringing, family customs and stress levels all factor in. But there is clear evidence that some forms of discipline – specifically physical punishment – have negative effects on children throughout their lives.

A new systematic review reveals a body of evidence demonstrating physical punishment may increase the chances of antisocial behavior and aggression, depression, anxiety, drug abuse and psychological problems later in life.

The review is especially interesting because it discusses intervention programs designed to reduce physical punishment and child abuse. It included a trial of one intervention that taught parents to reduce their use of physical punishment, which led to less difficult behavior by their children.

Another such program – called Triple P – originated in Australia was tested in a study funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The program uses a broad range of strategies to address physical abuse including consultations with parents, public seminars and public service announcements on local media. It led to significantly positive results that are encouraging if replicated in other areas of the U.S.  Counties that implemented the program had lower rates of substantiated child abuse cases, fewer instances of children removed from their homes and reductions in hospitalizations and emergency room visits for child injuries.

John Eckenrode, professor of human development and director of Cornell’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, is an expert in child abuse and maltreatment. He’s written a chapter about preventing child abuse in the book Violence against women and children, published by the American Psychological Association.

“We know that there are tested and effective ways to support parents so that they can better provide a safe and supportive environment for their children without resorting to physical punishment,” he said.   “But we must get the word out, provide those who interact with parents such as teachers and physicians with the tools they need to promote positive parenting strategies, and provide resources to states and localities to scale-up effective programs.”

The take-home message: Physical punishment and child abuse are serious problems that have life-long effects. But there is a growing body of evidence that intervention programs can help guide parents to other methods of discipline.

The evidence shows preschool matters!

We have heard educators and politicians alike tout the virtues of early childhood education, and how it prepares kids for a lifetime of learning. With one of my own children in preschool and another one headed there shortly, I’m always interested in the evidence on this stage learning. Do activities like playing with blocks and paints, sitting through circle time and learning to share really impact a child for the rest of his life?

So I was fascinated to follow a series of reports on National Public Radio that detail some interesting evidence about preschool programs. While these reports didn’t include a systematic review, they did include several different longitudinal studies that make an interesting case about the importance of preschool.

On the show This American Life, host Ira Glass talks with a range of experts – a journalist, an Nobel-prize winning economist and a pediatrician – about the evidence on what researchers call “non-cognitive skills” like self-discipline, curiosity and paying attention.

One of the leading experts in this field is an economist at the University of Chicago named James Heckman. His work has found that these soft skills are essential in succeeding in school, securing a good job, and even building a successful marriage. Heckman found that children learn these skills in preschool.

One well-known longitudinal study followed a group of low-income 3- and 4-year-olds in Ypsilanti, MichiganThese children were randomly assigned to attend preschool five days a week, or not attend any preschool.  After preschool, all of the children went to the Ypsilanti public school system.

The study found  that children who attend preschool were more successful adults. They were half as likely to be arrested and earned 50 percent more in salary. Girls who attended preschool were 50 percent more likely to have a savings account and 20 percent more likely to have a car.

Another similar project conducted in North Carolina found that comparable results: Individuals who had attended preschool as children were four times more likely to have earned college degrees, less likely to use public assistance, and more likely to delay child-bearing.

There is more evidence too.  NPR’s Planet Money aired a show  earlier this year demonstrating further evidence about the benefits of preschoolAnd researchers at the University of Texas in Austin found that preschool reduces the inequalities in early academic achievement.

The take-home message seems to be: Preschool matters!

Evidence-based Thanksgiving: Is giving thanks good for you?

I have talked to a lot of people who identify Thanksgiving as their favorite holiday. As reasons for this they note that it has the benefits of family, friends, and food without the consumerist insanity that surrounds Christmas. The symbolic importance of Thanksgiving is indicated by the fact that it creates the busiest travel time, with 42.2 million people taking a trip of at least 50 miles.

 But how often do we do what the name of the holiday implies: That is, actually give thanks for things? The emotion that encompasses that act is gratitude, which the dictionary defines as “a feeling of thankfulness or appreciation.” Science can’t tell us whether Thanksgiving is good for you, but we at Evidence-Based Living wondered: What about giving thanks? Is there evidence that gratitude itself has benefits?

 It turns out that there is a significant scientific literature on gratitude. A comprehensive review of the research was recently conducted by Alex Wood, Jeffrey Froh, and Adam Geraghty that helps answer the question: Is gratitude good for you? They look at how gratitude promotes well-being and then move beyond that question, examining intervention programs that attempt to achieve positive outcomes by promoting gratitude.

 The authors note that although we may feel grateful for specific events, gratitude can also be seen as “part of a wider life orientation towards noticing and appreciating the positive in the world.” (I’ve heard the expression an “attitude of gratitude.”) Some people are more likely to notice and appreciate the positive in life than others are. And this orientation seems to protect people from psychological distress.

Wood and colleagues’ review shows that gratitude is negatively related to depression. In one study, an attitude of “thankfulness” reduced the risk of such disorders as major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and drug abuse. Gratitude has also been found to help people adjust to traumatic life  events and their aftermath. On the positive side, a dozen studies have found a positive relationship between gratitude and feelings of well-being.

An important question is causality: It could be that less depressed people are more likely to be grateful,rather  than the opposite. To answer this question, scientists have developed intervention programs to promote feelings of gratitude and then looked at the effects in experiments. The authors review 12 studies that examined the effects of interventions such as daily listing of reasons to be grateful, grateful contemplation (thinking or writing more generally about gratitude), and behavioral expressions of gratitude (actually thanking another person).

The findings are very encouraging, with programs that promote gratefulness resulting in statistically significant increases in positive emotion, decreases in negative emotion, and reduced worry. A study of adolescents even found an increase in satisfaction with school after a gratitude intervention. More research of course needs to be done, but based on this review promoting gratitude seems to make sense to improve well-being.

An appealing part of the gratitude list idea is its simplicity. Anyone can do it – interventions are as straightforward as listing 3-5 things for which one is grateful before going to bed. Why not try it? Or get the turkey-sated crew around the Thanksgiving table to make a list before dozing off in front of the football game!


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