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Municipality and University join forces to help children with behavioural problems

A Preventive Intervention Team that investigates children with behavioural problems and trains their social skills in order to prevent school dropout and other, more serious problems. This is a strategy that Leiden University and the municipality of Amsterdam have been using for several years already, and it has proven a success. The municipality of Leiden has now earmarked 500,000 euros for a similar team in Leiden.

The aim of the Preventive Intervention Team (PIT), which was set up in 2011, is to ensure that children with behavioural problems don’t develop more problems or end up resorting to crime. The municipality of Amsterdam and Leiden University work together intensively in this team. They have already helped almost 2,000 children between the ages of 6 and 18 who had behavioural problems. The municipality of Leiden wants to set up a similar team with the Leiden researchers. It therefore decided in the council meeting on 20 June to earmark 500,000 euros to allow a number of schools in Leiden to work with a PIT from September 2019. 

Social skills training

‘Children with behavioural problems generally have difficulty functioning in social situations,’ says Hanna Swaab, Professor of Neurocognitive Development and Developmental Disorders at Leiden University. She leads the PIT together with its initiators in Amsterdam and will also set up the PIT in Leiden. A neurocognitive profile is made of children who are referred to the PIT. This looks at their social strengths and weaknesses, at why they have behavioural problems and at skills they can learn to prevent these. On the basis of this profile, the PIT coach develops an action plan to help the child learn these skills. This is in conjunction with the parents, the school and the child.

Applying scientific knowledge to everyday practice

The collaboration with the University means that scientific knowledge from all around the world is applied in a tailored approach. ‘A project like the PIT is the dream of every care provider: we apply the latest scientific knowledge to everyday practice and test it immediately by researching its effects,’ says Swaab.

Permanently angry

Children are referred to the PIT through their school. This could be if they are hard to handle, regularly break the rules or are aggressive. ‘There was one 12-year-old boy who had just started secondary school,’ says Swaab. He was often angry, shouted at his teachers and bunked off school. His teachers said they couldn’t cope with him and that he would have to be excluded from school. His neurocognitive skills were screened at the PIT. This involves looking at films of social and emotional situations, for instance, while the child’s reaction is observed, together with its reaction time and heart rate. This provides information about how the child deals with social situations.

Difficulty identifying emotions

The screening showed that the boy had difficulty identifying social signals, such as facial expressions. ‘He identified everything that he saw as aggression or anger,’ says Swaab. He also had a language delay, which meant he was unable to express his emotions in words. ‘He proved to be insecure and anxious, was unable to understand what people wanted of him and hit out preemptively at those around him. Fear of failure prevented him from going to lessons.’ The PIT practised identifying emotions with him, and he was given extra language lessons and explanations at school. This helped. He plucked up the courage to go back to school and didn’t have to be excluded after all. ‘He was really relieved. Until then, he had felt as though no one understood him and therefore felt alone.’

Dramatic decrease in behavioural problems

The PIT in Amsterdam has proven most successful. After six months, the behavioural problems in 75 to 80% of the children had decreased to such an extent that they were no longer classed as serious. This means that the PIT works better than the regular treatment or therapy, which is based on the behavioural problems rather than on the underlying neurocognitive processes.

Text: Dorine Schenk
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