Article by Matt Wunderlin | Photos courtesy of Oregon Social Learning Center
Tucked behind the 5th Street Public Market, on Shelton McMurphey Boulevard, sits a large, gray, rectangular building. This building, while relatively unknown in the community, is home to a nationally and internationally recognized research center focused on social development, learning, prevention and treatment of behavioral and emotional problems in children and adolescents.
Oregon Social Learning Center (OSLC) was founded in 1977 by a group of clinical psychologists, led by Gerald R. Patterson and John Reid. During this time, research on child and adolescent development was mostly observational; psychologists would follow and document family daily life over periods of time. Researchers at OSLC then began coding interactions to determine whether some styles of family interaction might give way to problematic youth behavior.
“Out of that came some groundbreaking discoveries on factors that can lead youth to develop problems related to serious delinquent behavior or just acting out in home and school settings. From this observational work, a theory was developed called the coercive behavior process or, coercion theory,” explained OSLC Senior Research Scientist, Mike McCart, Ph.D.
According to coercion theory (Patterson, 1982), a coercive sequence begins when a parent makes a request for child compliance (e.g., “clean your room”). The child protests and the parent’s request intensifies. This sequence repeats several times, escalating to emotional displays of anger by the parent and child. The interaction typically ends in one of two ways: the parent might discipline the youth by removing a privilege, although implementation of the consequence is often too delayed to impact the youth’s future behavior; or, a more common outcome involves the parent “giving in” and reinforcing the youth’s defiance. Through this coercive cycle, the youth learns that oppositional behaviors are effective ways to avoid undesired activities such as doing chores or going to school. Parents tend to become increasingly disengaged from attempting to control their child’s behavior.
“Coercion theory has guided the development of intervention approaches that have shaped almost every parent training protocol that's ever been implemented in the world.”
Decades ago and prior to the development of coercion theory, children with behavior problems would have been sent to a therapist for a one-on-one conversation. However, guided by their observations of the coercive sequence, Patterson (and Reid) began working with a child’s parents and teachers instead.
As noted by OSLC Science Director, Patti Chamberlain, this groundbreaking new approach was much more effective because “kids aren't like adults; one-on-one talk therapy isn't very effective. A better strategy is for parents and teachers to show kids how they want them to act, and when they do, really noticing with verbal praise; and when they don't, also noticing and swiftly implementing a small negative consequence.”
This intervention approach for children and adolescents has provided a strong framework for OSLC’s future projects—a few of which have been adopted around the globe.
Treatment Foster Care Oregon (TFCO) and KEEP are two projects that were developed and tested by OSLC and have since expanded globally. TFCO was developed to provide advanced training and 24/7 support to foster parents who were hired and trained to work with children displaying extreme emotional disturbances.
“We started recruiting these foster parents and providing them with a lot of training and support and it was like oh my, they can really make a difference in these kids,'' Chamberlain explained. “And then I started wondering if that's the case, could we take some of the same stuff and put it into the regular foster care system?”
KEEP was then developed as a way to reduce stress and provide effective skills for foster parents already hired by the state. This framework was tested in three Oregon counties: Lane, Linn and Benton. Although KEEP was shown to reduce the chances of a child disrupting out of their foster home, the program received some criticism for the lack of diversity.
“The criticism we got was that the study was great but we have mostly White children and that’s not representative of the foster care system nationally,” Chamberlain recalled. “So, we had some colleagues in San Diego County and we implemented the model there. We randomized 700 families, where close to 60% were ethnically diverse.”
Through their process called cascading dissemination, or “training the trainer,” group leaders in San Diego County studied the effects of KEEP and what they found was no change in the effect size between the study in Oregon and California. In other words, the program produced similar positive outcomes in both states. “That told us we can actually train other people to do this and as long as they get a good grip on it in the beginning, we can implement this in other areas.”
After their successful study in San Diego, KEEP was adopted in New York City, Baltimore and then overseas in the United Kingdom and is now country-wide in Denmark.
“It’s gratifying to see the work you’ve spent part of your life doing making an impact—especially ‘training the trainer,’ because even if you have something great, if you’re the only person who can do it, it’s very limiting and that makes it difficult to implement elsewhere,” said Chamberlain.
TFCO has also been adopted in other states countries and regions as well, including Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, the United Kingdom, Denmark and the Netherlands.
OSLC has a number of additional ongoing studies, such as the Contingency Management+ Project, which focuses on enhancing treatment for adolescent substance abuse via improved parent management skills. OSLC scientists also work on several projects funded by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, all aimed at enhancing offender rehabilitation and reducing prison utilization within our state.
OSLC has been an incredibly impactful institution not only within Eugene and the state of Oregon, but around the globe. This local institution continues to make positive strides on complicated, multifaceted issues with people from all walks of life. While their work may be behind-the-scenes, their commitment to making our community and others around the world a better place, is invaluable. “We’re here, and we’ve been here a long time,” said Chamberlain. And with their global impacts, they will likely continue to be.
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