Mitigating conflicts—on the courts and in the community

For more than a decade, Howard Stevenson has used athletics and culture to understand and illuminate the lives of children.

In 1998, he founded the Preventing Long-term Anger and Aggression in Youth project, known as PLAAY, which integrates a combination of intervention and research to bring positive changes in the lives of young people, from improving school attendance, to maintaining better family relationships. PLAAY introduces students to conflict-resolution skills through sports, as well.

It’s based on an understanding that youth reveal who they are through athletics movement,” explains Stevenson, an associate professor in Penn’s Graduate School of Education. “Frustration, anger, promise, potential, coping and personality can come out in that movement as well, and it’s an adult’s job to make sense of that.”

This month, Stevenson and his colleague Duane Thomas, an assistant professor in GSE, are expanding the PLAAY project to include coaches and parents in the equation. They are working with the South Philly-based nonprofit Urban Youth Organization, on Peacemakers, a two-year program that will teach coaches and parents to become supportive adults for seventh and eighth graders before, during and after peer conflicts. A grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development will enable Stevenson and Thomas to work with basketball teams from the Marian Anderson Recreation Center in South Philadelphia.

“We want to find more effective ways of building bridges between academic-based researchers, and individuals that are working in the communities,” says Thomas. “We want to bring each of those resources together around preventing aggression, serious conduct problems and violence in kids, and teaching kids how to manage their emotions effectively and manage stress associated with academics and general life circumstances.”

Stevenson, the chair of GSE’s Applied Psychology and Human Development Division, says that parental involvement has been key in helping kids complete homework, which in turn affects motivation and persistence in the classroom. As students get older, sports can be a place where parents can remain engaged in kids’ lives. “Sport isn’t just about the game; it’s about how you make sense of your child’s life,” Stevenson says. “There’s a crossover appeal.”

Thomas notes that seventh and eighth grade is a significant time in boys’ and girls’ development. “One of the critical things you start to see at this developmental juncture in the lives of the kids is that peer influence starts to take off, and can in many instances negate some of the positive influences of parents,” he says. “Developmentalists point out that one of the critical features in terms of preventing risky behaviors in kids at this age is that you want to increase parent-child communication.”

Sports can also provide a place where parents and coaches—trusted adults—can have close proximity with kids. Touch, says Stevenson, is a way for adults to communicate support and caring to young people. When conflicts do arise, these established relationships can come in handy. “Kids trust you that you’re not a threat and that they should listen to you because you’re been there in moments of stress without being threatening,” says Stevenson. “The more you know the children, the more you’re able to make sense if they’re upset about something.”

The Peacemakers program will train parents and coaches to spot conflict before it starts, rather than just breaking up fights or picking up the pieces afterwards. Talking is a big component of that, they say, since small issues can easily escalate and spill over from the court into the community. To that end, Stevenson and Thomas are developing culturally relevant interventions, and specifically, how children manage stereotypes. “We think you have to be very direct and teach skills to combat not only stereotypes, but disrespect, not getting a good education, not being thought of as a learner, whether it’s on the playground or in the classroom, whether it’s from peers or teachers,” says Stevenson. “How do you challenge people who are disrepsective of you?”

It’s important, they say, for the kids to note that most people in the middle of an energetic, competitive game have moments of aggression. Stevenson recalls several Penn Med students in a basketball league who asked him for a consultation, because they were so competitive that by the third quarter of their game, no one was speaking. “We just want, in those moments of conflict, to be there to help understand why, but also propose some possibilities of what you can do,” Stevenson says. “The more in-the-moment, the better the understanding, the quicker the learning.”

The researchers are currently recruiting coaches and parents to participate in Peacemakers, and plan a kickoff event at the Marian Anderson Recreation Center on Oct. 17. They hope to broaden the project, generalizing it to different communities in Philadelphia and in other urban areas.

“The coaches are on board with understanding that its about more than the athletic prowess of the kid,” says Thomas. “They are also generally interested in [the kids’] social and emotional development, developing leadership skills in kids [and] encouraging parents to think about basketball above and beyond a respite for them.”

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