Urban African American Youth Exposed to Community Violence: A School-Based Anxiety Preventive Intervention Efficacy Study

Violence in schools, neighborhoods and communities has reached critically high levels in recent years.  Exposure to community violence may profoundly affect children’s development from early childhood to adolescence and beyond.

Cooley-Strickland et al. evaluated the efficacy of a school-based anxiety prevention program among urban children exposed to community violence. Higher rates of community violence and crime are experienced by African Americans living in low-income, urban neighborhoods than urban European Americans. Persistent worry about one’s own health and safety, or the health and safety of a loved one, is likely to interfere with a child’s ability to function in developmentally appropriate, academically successful, and health ways. Furthermore, positive correlations between exposure to community violence and anxiety have been demonstrated in previous research.

In this study, 3rd-5th grade students from two Title 1 schools in Baltimore, MD participated in 13 bi-weekly, one-hour group sessions of a modified version of FRIENDS, a cognitive-behavioral anxiety intervention program. FRIENDS utilizes core components of CBT (exposure, relaxation, cognitive strategies) and targets the primary symptoms of anxiety (physiological, cognitive, behavioral). The goal of this study was to decrease anxiety symptoms and prevent the onset of severe anxiety disorders among the sample of low-income, urban African American children exposed to community violence.

The children who participated in the FRIENDS (experimental) group showed lower levels of victimization and fewer life stressors than the control group. The cognitive behavioral skills taught in the program coupled with an emphasis on utilizing healthy coping techniques for managing anxiety, may have contributed to this finding. While the intervention did not specifically target academic skills, the participants’ in the FRIENDS group showed improvement in standardized reading and mathematics scores, whereas the control group showed improvement in reading scores only.

CBT based therapies and interventions, such as the FRIENDS program, can be effective in reducing and preventing anxiety disorders in low-income children from urban public schools. Enhancing the coping skills of these children who experience greater life stressors and have less social support can help reduce the effects of community violence exposure. This can contribute to lower levels of anxiety and consequently higher levels of appropriate development and academic success.

Cooley-Strickland, M.R., Griffin, R.S., Darney, D., Otte, K., Ko, J. (2011). Urban African American Youth   Exposed to Community Violence: A School-Based Anxiety Preventive Intervention Efficacy Study.  Journal of Prevention & Intervention in the Community, 39(2), 149-166.