Peer support is also central. Kids in a first-grade program called the Good Behavior Game, which is used in 12 Baltimore public schools, are divided into teams within a classroom. When the students follow rules, their team receives rewards like extra recess time. "Instead of isolating a student who misbehaves, the game helps a teacher use the child's peers to reinforce positive behavior," says C. Hendricks Brown, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of South Florida in Tampa, who is studying the program's effects.
Another program, PeaceBuilders, shares this focus on positive reinforcement. Kids in kindergarten through fifth grade learn five rules: praise people, avoid put-downs, seek wise people as advisers and friends, notice and correct hurts we cause, and right wrongs. Teachers give out "praise notes" complimenting kids for things they do right and send students to the principal's office in recognition of good deeds instead of just discipline problems. "The goal is to change the culture of the school by promoting kids' social skills and positive behavior," says Daniel Flannery, Ph.D., director of the Institute for the Study and Prevention of Violence at Kent State University in Ohio.
A program that understands the link between caring and calm behavior is Second Step. This violence-prevention project, which won an "exemplary" rating from the U.S. Department of Education, weaves empathy-training, anger management, and problem-solving into its curriculum; it also provides education and support for parents. "Many kids don't even know they're angry until it's too late," says Claudia Glaze, director of client relations for the Seattle-based Committee for Children, the nonprofit group that created the program.
Another distinguishing feature of Second Step is its commitment to reaching children early, with a program for 4- and 5-year-olds. "We underestimate the ability of kids this age to understand and manage their emotions," says Donna Bryant, Ph.D., who heads up an evaluation of a Second Step-based program called the Preschool Behavior Project near Chapel Hill, NC. If you're wondering how preschoolers can possibly learn the finer points of tantrum prevention, clues can be found in a participating Head Start classroom in Roxboro, NC.
During a typical session, teacher Cheryl Long gathers her preschoolers in a circle and holds up a photo showing one child, Jeffrey, cutting in line in front of another child, Rick. "How do you think Rick feels?" Long asks her charges. One 4-year-old waves her hand. "Mad!" she says. "I get mad when somebody butts in front of me!" Long nods. "How can you tell he's mad?" she asks. "His face is scrunched up," another child pipes up. "Good answer," says Long. "How do you think Jeffrey might feel if Rick yelled at him?" A preschooler holds up her hand. "I think sad," she says shyly.
Now it's time for Long to introduce the session's key lesson: how to express emotions using "I" messages ("I feel angry when...") instead of resorting to fists or mean words. The kids practice this skill through role-playing.
Second Step's preschool program forms the foundation of its curricula for elementary and middle school kids. While preschoolers are taught to calm down with an external object, such as a stuffed animal, grade-schoolers graduate to strategies for soothing themselves with thoughts -- for example, of tranquil ocean waves or a hug from Mom. As these kids master more tools for handling their anger, they find it easier to make friends and do well in school, which, in turn, helps them become more self-confident and compassionate. "My hope," says Glaze, "is that they will, as adults, be able to use these skills to make the world a better place."