Background and History

PhotoIn the mid-1960's, a predelinquent adolescent boy ran away from a residential treatment home at 2 a.m. on a Saturday. He headed toward the city by way of the railroad tracks. George Spivack, the boy's therapist and research director of the treatment home, rescued him and asked him why he was leaving the home at 2 a.m. and walking down the train tracks. "I need to go shopping," the boy replied. Spivack asked if the boy knew that stores were closed on Sundays. "I didn't think of that," said the boy. Spivack asked if the boy knew that walking down railroad tracks was dangerous. "No. I didn't think of that," the boy repeated. Spivack asked the boy one more question. "Don't you know you'll get in trouble for going AWOL?" Continuing with the same response, the boy replied once again, "No. I didn't think of that." Spivack, who once thought that youth who behave this way might have an unconscious, or even conscious, desire to get into trouble, began believing that his client might be telling the truth. Perhaps he really did not think. Perhaps he did not know how to think. This, and other similar experiences, led Spivack and his colleague, Murray Levine, to identify ICPS skills that would distinguish delinquent and predelinquent adolescents from their nondelinquent peers. They discovered two such skills -- means-ends thinking and weighing pros and cons (Spivack and Levine, 1963).

Bullet Means-ends thinking is a skill used to reach a stated interpersonal goal (e.g., making friends). With this approach, a person plans step-by-step, sequenced means to reach that goal (e.g., talk to a group leader and show him how to play basketball). The person then identifies potential obstacles that could interfere with reaching that goal (e.g., the leader does not like basketball) and appreciates that problem solving takes time. For example, 3 months later, a few kids see the young boy practicing shooting goals with a hockey stick and ask him to teach them how to shoot goals. The young boy makes several friends.
Bullet Weighing pros and cons is a skill used to decide whether to carry out an interpersonal act (e.g., going to a party the night before an examination). A person may process the decision by thinking, "If I go to the party I'll see my friends and have fun, but I might fail my exam and get into trouble," or "If I don't go to the party I'll miss meeting the beautiful girl who just moved into the neighborhood, but I'll have more time to study and I'll get a good grade on my test."

In 1968, Spivack teamed up with Myrna Shure to continue investigating whether children who behave differently think differently. Their first study together (1972) compared youth in a school for diagnostically disturbed juveniles, ages 9 to 12, with peers in regular public schools (Shure and Spivack, 1972). Although the weighing of pros and cons did not distinguish these two groups, means-ends thinking did. In their second study, Shure and Spivack (1980) then tested this age group in a more homogeneous sample of normal public school fifth-graders who displayed varying degrees of behavioral difficulties. Youth deficient in means-ends thinking were more likely to display impulsive antisocial behaviors such as physical and verbal aggression, inability to delay gratification, overemotionality in the face of frustration, inability to make friends, and less tendency to show empathy or sympathy to others in distress than youth with competent means-ends thinking skills. These findings have been substantiated by Pelligrini (1985) and by studies of homogeneous groups in institutional settings that compared more impulsive youth with less impulsive youth (Larcen, Spivack, and Shure, 1972) and the most-liked youth with the least-liked (Higgens and Thies, 1981). In addition, poor means-ends thinking was characteristic of youth who were more socially withdrawn, unable to stand up for their rights, and timid and fearful of others (Shure, 1980; 1985).

In addition to means-ends thinking and weighing pros and cons, two other ICPS skills emerged through the 1980 and 1985 studies.

Bullet Alternative solution thinking is the ability to name unconnected, alternative solutions to a stated problem (instead of connecting sequenced plans). For example, to make friends, a child could say, "She could ask him to go to a movie with her," or "She could have a party and invite lots of kids," or "She could get another kid to tell everyone how nice she is." Well-adjusted, more socially competent children were able to think of more alternative solutions than their less well-adjusted classmates.
Bullet Consequential thinking is the ability to think of different things that might happen in certain situations. For example, David was at Kevin's house, and when Kevin wasn't looking, David put Kevin's new ball in his pocket and later took it home with him. When asked to state what might happen next rather than to list pros and cons, better adjusted youth could offer more different, relevant consequences (e.g., "Kevin will make David pay for a new ball," "He'll make David apologize," or "Call his mother or the police") and more empathic responses, including, "David will feel bad 'cause Kevin thinks he lost his ball" (Shure, 1985).

The correlational data revealed that, among this homogeneous group of low-income, African-American fifth-graders, high ICPS skills, especially alternative solution thinking skills, added significantly to the prediction of prosocial behaviors such as sharing and caring. Low ICPS skills contributed to the prediction of negative, impulsive, and inhibited behaviors. These relationships still held after the controlling effects for the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-Revised Intelligence Quotient (WISC-R IQ) (vocabulary subtest) and academic skills. In addition, none of the relationships between ICPS skills and behavior were statistically explained by the number of verbal attempts to conceptualize relevant responses to these tests. Further analyses revealed that youth able to think of both alternative solutions and means-ends plans were the most prosocial and the least impulsive or inhibited of all (Shure, 1985). The significance of alternative solution thinking to behavior has also been confirmed by Asarnow and Callan (1985) in a sample of fourth to sixth grade boys (girls were not studied).

ICPS Skills in 4- to 8-Year-Olds

Interested in identifying the relationship between ICPS skills and behavior at different age levels, Shure and Spivack also studied children as young as 4 years of age. Deficiencies in two ICPS skills -- alternative solution thinking and consequential thinking -- were most strongly associated with impulsiveness, withdrawn behavior, and lack of prosocial skills in 4- to 8-year-olds.

Alternative Solution Thinking. As measured by the Preschool Interpersonal Problem Solving (PIPS) test (Shure and Spivack, 1992), behaviorally adjusted, low-income, African-American 4-year-olds could give more different and relevant solutions to a problem involving peers (how to get to play with a toy that another child has) and to a problem involving parents (how to keep a mother from being angry after the child had damaged property) than peers showing impulsive or withdrawn behaviors (Spivack and Shure, 1974). As measured by the Hahnemann PreSchool Behavior (HPSB) Rating Scale (Shure and Spivack, 1974), behaviorally adjusted and socially competent youngsters gave both prosocial responses to the peer-toy scenario (e.g., "Trade a toy," "Be his friend," "Say he'll just play with it a little while") and antisocial ones (e.g., "Hit him," "Grab the toy," "Take it when he's not looking"). Their more poorly adjusted peers gave fewer different solutions, though not necessarily more forceful ones. Just as they did in the peer-toy scenario, behaviorally adjusted youngsters also gave more solutions to the parent scenario (e.g., "Fix it [the flower pot]," "Hide it [throw it away]," "Hide") and more creative ones (e.g., "Pretend she's asleep and mommy can't spank her," "Put her favorite flower in it," and "Paint it her favorite color").

PhotoThe study of the ICPS skills in 4- to 8-year-olds revealed surprising results. While solutions such as "Say I'm sorry" and "I made a mistake, I won't do it again" are positive, socially acceptable responses, it was shy and withdrawn children who were more likely to give those responses than children who showed either adjusted behavior or impulsive behavior. With the more adjusted children giving both forceful and prosocial solutions and withdrawn children giving apologetic ones, Shure and Spivack wondered if the important link to behavior was not what children think, but how children think. Perhaps the process of thinking of more than one solution guides behavior more than the positive content of just one or two options, however prosocial in nature they may be (Shure, Spivack, and Jaeger, 1971; Spivack and Shure, 1974). In studies replicated by other researchers in low-income 4-year-olds (Dimson, 1992; Turner and Boulter, 1981) and in the middle class (Arend, Gove, and Sroufe, 1979), lack of alternative solution thinking skills continued to relate to aberrant behaviors and the absence of prosocial behaviors in lower income and middle-income children ages 6 to 8 (Johnson, Yu, and Roopnarine, 1980; McKim et al., 1982; Richard and Dodge, 1982).

Consequential Thinking. As with older children in the ICPS study, younger children were asked what might happen next if a child grabbed a toy from another child and what would happen if a child took something from an adult without first asking [as measured by the What Happens Next Game (WHNG) test (Shure and Spivack, 1990)]. Strengths in the combination of solution and consequential thinking skills distinguished the adjusted children from other behavior groups. Weaknesses in both ICPS skills were characteristic of withdrawn children. This did not necessarily hold in terms of consequential thinking skills found in children identified as impulsive (Shure, Newman, and Silver, 1973). Perhaps impulsive children experience the consequences of their negative behaviors often enough to be aware of what might happen next. Perhaps withdrawn children, fearful of people and problems they cannot solve, simply give up and do not think about how to solve problems at all.

Risk and Protective Factors: The ICPS Link

Research has clearly documented that beginning as early as preschool (Parker and Asher, 1987) and escalating in the middle childhood years (Eron and Heussman, 1984; Hawkins, Catalino, and Miller, 1992; Morrison and Masten, 1991; Spivack, Marcus, and Swift, 1986), antisocial behaviors; poor impulse control, including the inability to delay gratification and to cope with frustrations; poor peer relations; and lack of empathy are high-risk predictors of subsequent delinquency, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, school dropout, and some forms of psychopathology. Early social withdrawal predicts more internalized problems such as depression (Rubin and Mills, 1988).

In addition to these risk factors, Arend, Gove, and Sroufe (1979) and Schiller (1978) also found that, in middle-income 4-year-olds, alternative solution thinking skills related to protective factors such as resilience. These researchers learned that those who gave a high number of solutions on the PIPS test were more likely to behave flexibly, persistently, and resourcefully, especially in problem situations, than low scorers. Perhaps having more than one solution available provides the very flexibility and resourcefulness that creates a resilient child.

Zachary, a 4-year-old who wanted the wagon Peter was playing with, illustrates how cognitive flexibility can relate to behavioral flexibility. When Peter refused his request, Zachary asked him why he couldn't have it. "I need it," replied Peter. "I'm pulling the rocks." Instead of hitting Peter, grabbing the toy, telling the teacher, or walking away in despair, Zachary said, "I can help you pull the rocks. We can pull the rocks together." Peter said, "Okay," and the two children went off, happy with their solution. No adult had to intervene. The children solved the problem themselves. Children who can think of several options can, perhaps, avoid experiencing frustration and failure. They can bounce back and do not have to give up too soon.

Having identified the link between ICPS and behavior, Shure and Spivack tested the hypothesis that ICPS skills mediate behaviors and that behaviors can be modified by engaging children in thinking about their actions, the impact of that behavior on themselves and others, the possible consequences of their actions, and the other options they have. If exposing children to an intervention that focuses on thinking skills, rather than directly on behaviors themselves, could reduce or prevent high-risk behaviors, there would be a new approach to the primary prevention of violence, substance abuse, mental health dysfunction, and other subsequent, serious outcomes.

Early School Intervention

Believing that it would be optimal to reduce and prevent high-risk behaviors at the earliest possible age, and with research showing that inner-city, low-income youth may be at greater risk than their middle-income peers, Shure and Spivack began their interventions with urban, primarily African-American children in federally funded daycare programs.

Training strategies grew out of what was learned from correlational studies, from what children were observed saying and doing, and from the theory that understanding a child's social cognition could explain why some children are socially competent and others are not. Because the Shure and Spivack research suggested that the process of thinking, not the content, helps children apply their problem-solving skills to many situations, no single solution was stressed. Rather, the focus was to help children develop the habit of thinking of different ways, not adult-valued ways, to satisfy their needs and cope with frustration. They could then decide for themselves whether their idea was or was not good in light of their own and others' feelings and of the possible consequences. The goal was to enhance ICPS skills very early in life and increase the probability of preventing later, more serious problems.

Preschool and kindergarten teachers were trained to implement ICPS skills in their classrooms through games, role-plays, and dialogs applied to real life (Shure, 1992a; 1992b). The study showed that the 113 children exposed to the interventions in preschool improved their problem-solving abilities more than a comparable group of 106 children who were tested but not trained. The study also showed that trained youth who improved their ICPS skills were most likely to show a decrease in both impulsive and withdrawal behaviors. These gains were still apparent when they were measured 1 and 2 years later. In addition, preschoolers who did not exhibit behavioral difficulties were less likely to begin exhibiting them in kindergarten if they were exposed to ICPS training. This was a very important finding because it suggested that no matter how skilled a child was at solving problems, he or she could still improve, and that the continued use of ICPS skills to solve real problems helped to relieve any anxiety, frustration, or anger.

The 35 children trained in kindergarten also improved their ICPS skills and behaviors compared with a control group of 27 children who were never trained, suggesting that although kindergarten is not too late to expose children to ICPS, those who were given ICPS training in nursery school could enjoy their kindergarten year from a better behavioral vantage point (Shure and Spivack, 1979a; 1980; 1982).1

1 ICPS has also been conducted in grades 5 and 6 (Shure, 1992c), with research results reported in Shure and Healey (1993).

Preventing Violence Juvenile Justice Bulletin   ·  April 1999