Friday, February 4, 2011

A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety

On a tip from Andrew Harris of the Correctional Service of Canada...

Many of us in the field of sexual offender risk management have been talking lately about the relative utility of various risk predictors; the discussions often centering on static and dynamic factors. I have blogged on this variously over the last couple of months. Of course, we're all struggling to do our best to make sure that we leave no stones unturned in our quest for accuracy in recommending one management strategy over another. The overarching question is: How can we do this better?

In a recent publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), Terrie Moffitt and a long list of collaborators from such far-flung locations as North Carolina, the UK, Canada, and New Zealand give us a really cool little paper about childhood self-control and adult quality of life in a longitudinal investigation they call the Dunedin Study (Dunedin is in NZ). Of course, this has relevance for us because general self-management is a key dynamic risk predictor in most of the popular schemes (Stable-2007, VRS:SO, SRA).

In a study following 1000 persons born in Dunedin from birth to age 32, the authors show that childhood self-control predicts physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and involvement in crime. Interestingly, in another group of 500 sibling pairs, they showed that the siblings with poorer self-control had more negative outcomes, in spite of being raised in the same household by the same parents.

In many ways, this is not terribly earth-shattering, in that a good number of us have always suspected or known this to be true. The best part is that Moffitt et al. tell us that we can fix a lot of problems for a lot of people by teaching them self-control techniques. Doesn't this gel nicely with the recent renaissance in positive psychology regarding antisocial behavior?

Like others, I was a student for a very long time. I often say that the most important course I ever took was Grade 9 typing, which is likely true. Second on the list, though, is easily a certificate course I took in Life Skills Coach Training at George Brown College in Toronto when I was post-Bachelor’s but still trying to get into a Master’s program. However, this wasn't life skills like how to tie your shoes, open a bank account, boil water, etc. The Saskatchewan NewStart program was initiated in the late 1960s as a basic job readiness initiative for Aboriginal Canadians. Some time later, the YWCA in Canada adopted the curriculum and morphed it into Life Skills, which many Social Service Worker and Human Services Counselor students now take as a part of their diploma training (equivalent to an Associate's Degree in the USA). In the YWCA version, Life Skills are defined as "problem-solving behaviors appropriately and responsibly used in the management of personal affairs."

In many ways, Saskatchewan NewStart is a self-regulation model, predating our currently-popular Good Lives Model. In fact, I am a total adherent to the idea that our goal is to assist our clients in developing "balanced, self-determined lifestyles" incongruent with continued offending and other antisociality. The idea is that successful people are able to balance self, family, leisure, community, and job, while making good decisions about how those lifestyle domains are managed. Sound familiar? Don’t those domains approximate “human goods” in the GLM nomenclature? Of all the stuff I learned in school, this little certificate in Life Skills has most affected my thinking and practice in working with clients and in attempting to craft a little balance and self-determination in my own life.

Anyhow, back to Moffitt et al. and the Dunedin Study…

They were able to show that children with good self-control are more likely to be healthy, wealthy, and non-criminal as adults. This speaks a lot to what I would argue is a need for “life skills” type programming for children and youth. As a parent, I’ve often wondered where and how kids learn how to solve their problems and manage their personal affairs. Unfortunately, many parents (me included) “rescue” their children so often that kids don’t learn how to solve problems or deal with the “skinned knees” of life. This extends to self-control, which apparently extends to a balanced, self-determined lifestyle and all sorts of other good things. Go figure.


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