SFU’s New Institute for the Reduction of Youth Violence

June 15, 2013

Robert McMahon talks about Prevention, Collaboration and Trans-disciplinarity

The new Institute for the Reduction of Youth Violence at Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby campus is the culmination of a journey years in the making, according to Dr. Robert McMahon of SFU’s Psychology Department. In 2010, McMahon was appointed BC Leadership Chair in Proactive Approaches to Reducing Risk for Violence among Children and Youth; the Leading Edge Endowment Fund (LEEF) contributed $2.25 million dollars, and with a matching endowment from SFU, the $4.5 million dollar Chair brought McMahon to work at SFU and at Vancouver’s Child and Family Research Institute (CFRI). As McMahon explains, his colleagues in the Department of Psychology had the vision to apply for the LEEF Research Chair as early as 8 years ago, and “things were in motion with the recruitment process from late 2005.”

McMahon himself arrived at SFU in 2010, following a stellar career mostly based in the US. He earned his Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the University of Georgia, Athens, and spent 7 years in the early 1980s on faculty at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Psychology. McMahon then became Director of the Graduate Program in Child Clinical Psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he spent over 20 years as a researcher on the Fast Track program.

For McMahon, Fast Track was a unique opportunity to work on an ongoing (now 23-year) collaborative project to “design, implement and evaluate a prevention program for kids who are at very high risk for developing very serious conduct problems.” The program assessed children in several regions across the US including Durham, NC, Nashville, rural Pennsylvania and Seattle, and it included researchers from University of Washington, Vanderbilt University, Duke University, and Penn State University, who collaborated to design intervention strategies and to evaluate the effects of the intervention program.

McMahon calls Fast Track “monumental” for his own research trajectory, noting that even in the 1990s, researchers knew prevention and early intervention were important in addressing delinquent behavior, which mental health professionals now call conduct problems. As such, Fast Track was designed and implemented as a 10-year intervention to work with families and teachers of children from Grade 1 through to Grade 10. The broad-based intervention, McMahon says, included “what would now be called a social-emotional learning classroom-based curriculum, teaching kids non-aggressive ways to solve peer conflicts; more intense activities in small groups of children devoted to these same strategies; academic tutoring; and direct work with the families to encourage positive parenting approaches.”

Researchers in the field of youth violence prevention have spent over 20 years analyzing data from Fast Track. A central outcome of that study, according to McMahon, was that kids who participated in Fast Track did better than those who did not. In addition, researchers were “getting very large effects on reduction of conduct disorder during the high school years for youth who had been at the highest level of risk at the beginning of the study in kindergarten”, which meant that the “highest-risk cases clearly needed this long-term intervention.”

This type of research in a Canadian context does not yet exist, hence the support from LEEF and SFU to establish the Chair at SFU, and more recently a $250,000 grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) to develop the Institute. McMahon notes that with SFU’s Institute for the Reduction of Youth Violence “we are hoping to do prevention, treatment, and intervention research” as his own experience and over 20 years of research suggest that early prevention and intervention are key.

McMahon notes that youth with conduct problems are a “heterogeneous group” and there is “lots of information coming from Education, from neurosciences, obviously from Psychology, from genetics, that is very exciting and very important for us to incorporate into our models about how these problems develop and how we can develop more effective prevention and treatment strategies.”

With the Institute now up and running, McMahon intends to set new directions for Canadian research on the reduction of youth violence. In addition to conducing his own research program and fostering collaborative research among colleagues at SFU, CFRI, and beyond, he notes that he "wants the Institute to play an important role in knowledge exchange and transfer – making sure that the general public and policy makers alike are aware of what works (and what doesn’t) in reducing youth violence."

For example, McMahon mentions two conferences currently in the planning stage: a collaboration with the Banff International Conferences on Behavioural Sciences and PrevNet that will focus on preventing bullying by promoting healthy relationships; and a working meeting co-organized with Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a pediatric epidemiologist in SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences, and others, designed to foster transdisciplinary research about the effects of environmental toxicants – such as lead or prenatal tobacco exposure – on the development of conduct problems and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

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