Kindergarten killers

Violence Prevention

You've heard the grim litany: One American child is shot to death every two hours. Murder is the leading cause of death in all blacks. Males are seven times more likely to be murdered in the U.S. than in Canada. Yes, we've always been a violent country. But now there's a difference. Though the crime rate has been relatively stable since 1970, levels of violence are soaring. Just since 1986, the likelihood that a kid under 18 will be killed by gun has zoomed 244 percent.

Although crime now peaks at age 17, usually kids are troubled long before violence erupts. And levels of depravity are increasing. Kids are more and more disturbed.

While a small proportion of kids first become violent in adolescence, those kids who are most at risk for violence are antisocial and aggressive early in childhood, reports John Richters, Ph.D., of the National Institute of Mental Health. And they come from families with multiple problems--instability, parent psychopathology, or criminality. In fact, he told the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, only five percent of families are typically responsible for most violent crime.

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Such kids manifest impulsivity, inattentiveness, and difficult temperament--early. By middle school, the kids are failing, they have poor relations with peers and teachers, and they're hanging out with deviant kids. By early adolescence, they have terrible relationships with their parents and turn to drugs.

Treatments from medication to social-skills training have been applied with little success. What's really needed, Richters believes, is to identify aggression early, and intervene comprehensively "to prevent kids from developing an antisocial lifestyle." While few problem tots ever become violent, almost all those who are violent at 17 had problems early on.

At NIMH, Richters is overseeing a study of early intervention labeled FAST Track (Families and Schools Together). How early is early? Kindergartners are assessed for aggression and peer problems. And then a battery of interventions is brought to bear--parent training, home visits and child services, social skills training for the kids, and more.

A major goal: to ensure that kids have affective connections with other people. "If a kid doesn't care about others' feelings;' says Richters, "then we'll never have any leverage with a kid at all."

PHOTO: Two boys with guns

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