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Prevention Begins with Screening

By Hill M. Walker, Elizabeth Ramsey, and Frank M. Gresham

Early intervention is critical for preventing antisocial behavior. The longer children go without intervention, the more bridges (to adults and peers) they burn and the more committed to acting out they become. And if they reach just 8 years old without such intervention, their bad behavior is likely to be a lifelong condition—infecting the climate of dozens of classrooms along the way.

Researchers have done extensive work in identifying predictors of future antisocial behavior; and they've used those predictors to develop screening devices for schools. Here we describe one such device, the Systematic Screening for Behavior Disorders (SSBD), that has three "gates" for identifying the most troubled children in grades one to six. (For more on the "multiple gating" approach to screening, see the main article.)

In SSBD's first gate, teachers are asked to nominate three students in their classes who match each of two patterns of behavior (for a total of six students nominated). The first behavior pattern is known as externalizing, which refers to behavior problems that are directed outward by the child toward the social environment. Examples include defying teachers, being aggressive toward others, failing to comply with teacher directions, and arguing (Walker and Severson, 1990). Although many children behave this way from time to time, such behavior is problematic when it occurs too often; that's why externalizing patterns are known as behavioral excesses. The second pattern, known as internalizing, refers to behavior problems that are directed inward. Internalizing behavior problems include depression, anxiety, and social withdrawal. These problems are known as behavior deficits since they involve a lack of required skills in coping successfully with daily tasks and challenges. Although internalizing students very rarely disrupt the classroom, they do indirectly influence teaching time because they are frequently the victims of externalizing students' aggression. Their submissiveness in the face of aggression not only damages their self image, it also reinforces the antisocial aggressors.

In Gate 2 of the SSBD, teachers rate the externalizing and internalizing behavior patterns of the six students identified in Gate 1. Teachers use two brief rating scales that measure the frequency of these students' "adaptive" and "maladaptive" behaviors. Teachers also rate these children on the Critical Events Index, which assesses whether a student has exhibited any of 35 externalizing or internalizing behavior problems within the past six months. (Sample items from these rating scales are provided below.) If students score well above average (i.e., exceed the normative cutoff point), they move on to Gate 3 in which professionally trained observers record their classroom and playground behavior.

In Gate 3, a school psychologist, guidance counselor, or social worker assesses the students on two measures of school adjustment that estimate the amount of time a target behavior occurs during a specified observation session. The first measure, known as Academic Engaged Time, is used during independent seatwork periods. The second measure, the Peer Social Behavior Observation Code, assesses the quality, distribution, and level of students' social behavior during recess periods on the playground. Students who exceed predetermined criteria on these two measures are then considered to "pass" Gate 3. These students are referred for a more comprehensive assessment, the results of which help determine the right intensive intervention to meet their needs.

Hill M. Walker is founder and co-director of the Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior at the University of Oregon, where he has been a professor since 1967. Walker has published hundreds of articles; in 1993 he received the Outstanding Research Award from the Council for Exceptional Children and in 2000 he became the only faculty member to receive the University of Oregon's Presidential Medal. Elizabeth Ramsey is a school counselor at Kopachuck Middle School in Gig Harbor, Wash., and a co-author of the Second Step program. Frank M. Gresham is distinguished professor and director of the School Psychology Program at the University of California-Riverside. He is co-author of the Social Skills Rating System and co-principal investigator for Project REACH. The Division of School Psychology in the American Psychological Association selected him for the Senior Scientist Award. Together, Walker, Ramsey, and Gresham wrote Antisocial Behavior in School: Evidence-Based Practices, on which this article is based.