Being pushed against a locker, tripped in the hallway, or blamed by a teacher for something you didn’t do would be enough to make anyone angry.
But according to Dr. John Lochman’s Coping Power program, feeling anger isn’t necessarily the problem—acting out because of anger is.
“In the past, psychology clinicians often saw aggressive conduct problems as willfulness or defiance,” said Dr. Nicole Powell, an associate research scientist in the Department of Psychology who does research with the Coping Power program. “But we are starting to recognize that these behaviors are actually skills deficits.
“The children we work with don’t necessarily want to be getting into fights; they just don’t always have the skills to cope with their everyday problems.”
The Coping Power program, which teaches skills like goal setting, problem solving, and perspective taking to children, has become a national and international standard for helping children and youth reduce their aggressive behaviors—including everything from hitting and yelling to rule breaking and lying.
Even in places like Pakistan, where violence has become an increasingly serious social problem, adaptations of the Coping Power program have been shown to reduce aggression among 9- to 11-year-old boys.
Initially, the program was conceived in the late 1970s when Lochman, a professor and Doddridge Saxon Chair in Clinical Psychology at The University of Alabama, was a new psychologist working for the Children and Youth Project, a federally funded program that provided comprehensive pediatric health care clinics in low-income areas of west Dallas.
At the Texas clinics, Lochman received such high numbers of referrals for children who struggled with aggression and acting out that he decided to create an intervention group with his friend and colleague Dr. Mike Nelson. At the time, they focused their intervention on problem solving and controlling emotions, but over the next 25 years, the program grew into a consistent and powerful research tool for helping kids and parents of various backgrounds, cultures, nationalities, and ages.
Within the last four years, UA’s Center for the Prevention of Youth Behavior Problems has received more than $2.2 million to expand the Coping Power program, and currently more than 10 countries across the globe are using adaptations of the Coping Power program and finding success.
One of the most recent adaptations for Coping Power is a joint project between UA and Dr. Catherine Bradshaw at the University of Virginia. Using a grant from the Institute of Education Science, Lochman, Bradshaw, and their team are conducting tests to see how well a revised version of Coping Power will work in middle schools.
“While there are a growing number of evidence-based programs that have been effective for elementary-school-aged children who have aggression or conduct behavior problems, there have been relatively few evidence-based programs that have been developed for the middle-school-aged period,” Lochman said. “There are a variety of reasons for this, but the prominent one is that these children are going through puberty, so there are a lot of changes happening in terms of their hormones and how they regulate or don’t regulate their behavior.”
According to Lochman, adolescents’ bodies change faster than their pre-frontal cortexes, which means they are less able to think through and control their impulsive behaviors.
In the abbreviated Coping Power program for middle school students, which is only 25 sessions, participants not only learn skills that will help them to regulate their impulses, but they also get time to practice.
For instance, during the fifth and sixth weeks of the program, participants learn three tools to use when they begin to feel angry: they can breathe deeply and try to relax; they can try to distract themselves; and they can silently repeat coping statements to themselves like “I’m not going to let this get to me,” “I don’t need to prove myself to anyone,” or “Losing my temper means trouble for me.”
To practice, the students take turns working on a single tool while being provoked by their classmates. For example, when practicing distraction techniques, one student will be given 30 seconds to stack as many dominoes on top of one another as possible using only one hand. Meanwhile, the rest of the students will tease the participant with comments like “Your hair is messy!” or “Your breath stinks.” Through the activity, the students are able to recognize and discuss how focusing on a task and not making eye contact can prevent them from losing their temper.
The newest iteration of the Coping Power program also includes six sessions specifically geared toward social relationships. These sessions help the participants to repair damaged relationships by seeking forgiveness, make new friends in less deviant peer groups, and deal with the challenges of cyberbullying and sexting.
“The kids resonate best with the things that are currently relevant to them,” said Shannon Jones, one of UA’s Coping Power group leaders. “We teach problem solving and thinking before you act, and with these kids, we created a session on social media to get them to stop and think before they send out a tweet or before they put something on Facebook.
“One of my favorite things is when a kid comes in and tells you that he saw another kid making a bad choice and then he went over and explained to the kid how to ‘use perspective’ or ‘think about the consequences of what you’re doing,’” Jones said. “It’s really cool when they tell you that they’re trying to teach other people what they themselves are learning.”
Though the findings about the middle school adaptation are preliminary, Lochman says that already, the intervention has helped adolescents to reduce aggression, conduct problems, and hyperactivity.
“Our findings suggest that children who have participated in the program are getting better at impulse control and inhibitory control,” Lochman said. “They also have higher levels of functional communication—meaning the ability to describe their feelings, to perceive what other people feel, and to make decisions.”
The program has been implemented over the past three years, using annual cohorts of 240 children at 40 schools split between Baltimore and Tuscaloosa. Half of the students participate in the intervention, and the other half are in a control group.
“Getting reports about kids who walk away or who try to discuss something with a peer instead of having things escalate is really rewarding—and the kids feel it too,” Powell said. “They come back and brag on themselves. These kinds of experiences are really self-reinforcing.”
For his work with Coping Power and Fast Track, another prevention program, Lochman received two awards from the Society of Prevention Research this year. The first was a SPR Fellow Award for a distinguished record of contributions in the field of prevention research, and the second was the 2017 Service to SPR Award for the professional development of early career prevention researchers. ■