Promoting Resilience in Children
Preventive Interventions and Their Interface
MARK T. GREENBERG
Prevention Research Center, Pennsylvania State University, University Park,
ABSTRACT: Preventive interventions focus on reducing risk and promot-
classroom, school, peer groups, neighborhood, etc). By improving com-
promote resilience. Although there are now a substantial number of pre-
cies across childhood and adolescence, there has been little integration
with recent findings in neuropsychology and neuroscience. This article
context of interventions that promote resilience by improving the exec-
utive functions (EF); inhibitory control, planning, and problem solving
skills, emotional regulation, and attentional capacities of children and
youth. Illustrations are drawn from recent randomized controlled trials
of the Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS) curriculum.
The discussion focuses on the next steps in transdisciplinary research in
prevention and social neuroscience.
KEYWORDS: prevention; intervention; neuroscience; children; youth;
PROMOTING RESILIENCE IN CHILDREN AND YOUTH:
PREVENTIVE INTERVENTIONS AND THEIR INTERFACE
ing public policy, I am often asked questions about developmental processes
and trajectories in children. For example, “How can we help children resist
ing, South Room 109, Penn State University, University Park, PA 16802. Voice: 814-863-0112; fax:
Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1094: 139–150 (2006). C ?2006 New York Academy of Sciences.
140ANNALS NEW YORK ACADEMY OF SCIENCES
negative influences when they live in high-risk neighborhoods?” “How can we
improve children’s academic outcomes when their families have experienced
an intergenerational history of school failure?” “How can we help children
control their emotions when their peers are bringing out the worst in them
through teasing and taunting?” All of these questions imply the notion that
many children are exposed to high-risk situations and the implication is that
unless something is done, the probability of a poor outcome for some chil-
dren is relatively high. Such situations are ripe for efforts to attempt to prevent
difficulties that may spiral into longer-term poor outcomes across childhood,
adolescence, and even adulthood. Beginning with the War on Poverty and the
emergence of Head Start in the 1960s, preventive interventions have become
central to our nation’s public policy. As a result of the increased rate of both
adolescent delinquency and drug use seen in the ensuing decades, the devel-
opment of both preventive intervention programs and social/legislative policy
initiatives has dramatically increased. The role of developmental science in
public policy making has never been greater or more influential.
Improving the public’s health, especially for those at greatest risk, is a com-
plex problem that involves interventions at the level of economic and social
policy as well as the ability to strengthen the skills of educators, parents, and
youth themselves. Macrolevel interventions focused on changing community-
level ecologies, attitudes, and behavior have ranged from large experiments in
economic policy (e.g., earned income tax credits, TANF), changes in housing
patterns,1social legislation ranging from raising the age at which youth can
drive to building community partnerships to reduce youth problem behaviors
and build positive youth development at the community level.2At a more mi-
crolevel, attempts to improve the culture, attitudes, and relations in families,
peer groups, and schools have focused on building communication skills and
values that promote positive developmental outcomes. Finally, there has been
recognition that some attributes inside the individual, including skills, cogni-
tions, and behaviors, may be malleable in response to preventive efforts. The
enormous scope of activities undertaken is a testimony to our implicit under-
standing that child and youth outcomes are multidetermined and that various
levels of influence impact developmental trajectories. Although at times these
initiatives seem (or are) both random and chaotic, at another level they clearly
and the emergent development of the field of prevention science.5
The study of resilience emerges out of the large research endeavor of public
health epidemiology and the study of risk and protective factors and how they
impact development. A number of guiding principles have emerged both from
epidemiology and developmental psychopathology.6,7First, it is unlikely that
there is a single “cause” of many of the preventable outcomes (e.g., mental
disorders, substance abuse, school failure, delinquency); even in the case of
disorders in which a biochemical or genetic mechanism has been discovered,
GREENBERG: PREVENTIVE INTERVENTIONS 141
the expression of the disorder is influenced by other biological or environ-
mental events.8,9Second, there are multiple pathways both to and from risk
and problem outcomes; for example, there are different combinations of risk
factors that might lead to the same disorder. Third, no single cause may be
either necessary or sufficient10and the effect of a risk factor will depend on
its timing and relation to other risk factors. Fourth, many risk factors are not
disorder-specific, but instead relate to a variety of outcomes. Finally, risk fac-
tors may vary in influence with host factors, such as gender, ethnicity, and
Resiliency is commonly defined as positive or protective processes that re-
factors that may be especially important under conditions of risk. Although
much less is known about protective factors and their operation,7,11at least
three broad types of protective factors have been identified. These include
factors, such as quality schools, safe neighborhoods, and regulatory activities.
An essential question related to adversity and resilience is the individual’s
development of an effective set of responses to stress. Central components of
the stress response include the initial appraisal of the event and its emotional
meaning, the ability to sufficiently regulate one’s emotions and arousal to
initiate problem solving and gather more information, the fuller cognitive-
affective interpretation of the event, and one’s behavioral response. Masten12
has noted that among the most important resiliency factors are these very
cognitive and emotion regulation skills.
Prospective longitudinal designs are critical to understanding the role of
resiliency as they can identify (a) which risk factors are predictive of different
developmental stages of a problem, (b) the dynamic relation between risk and
protective factors in different developmental periods, and (c) what factors are
most likely to “protect” or buffer persons under risk conditions from negative
outcomes. In addition, randomized trials of preventive interventions can test
these theories by examining how behavior changes are mediated.
THE INTERFACE OF PREVENTION, DEVELOPMENTAL
PSYCHOPATHOLOGY, AND NEUROSCIENCE
Although developmental psychopathology, prevention, and neuroscience
have developed in isolation, integrated research on protective factors and re-
silience has the potential to answer central questions regarding plasticity and
the role of environmental and genetic process. While the primary goal of
prevention science is to change behavior, behavior can be broadly defined
as action, emotion, and cognition. Further, biological substrates underlie all
of these processes and may serve as moderators, mediators, or outcomes of
142 ANNALS NEW YORK ACADEMY OF SCIENCES
TABLE 1. Levels and measures of the biological substrate
I. Neural processesII. Autonomic nervous system
1. Structural aspects
A. Neuronal development and connections
B. Localization of action
2. Functional aspects
A. Neurochemical systems (dopamine,
noradrenaline, serotonin, brain-
derived neurotrophic factor)
3. Neurocognitive function
A. Neuropsychological testing
1. Parasympathetic activity
A. Cardiac vagal tone
2. Sympathetic nervous system
A. Resting heart rate
3. Neuroendocrine function
A. HPA axis–Glucocorticoids
4. Immunological function
A. T cells/antibody titers to vaccines
preventive interventions.13A broad vision of the integration of prevention and
neuroscience would examine how a variety of biological processes play a role
in a deeper understanding of the processes and effects of preventive interven-
tions. TABLE 1 provides a list of some of the biological substrates that would
be of interest at the levels of both the brain and autonomic nervous system.
A central task for the next decade is to understand in much greater detail
the relations between the multiple levels of the biological substrate and these
resilience processes involved in cognitive processes and emotional regulation.
With transdisciplinary collaboration involving neuroscientists and the use of
research has the potential to make a major contribution to understanding the
developing interplay of biology and behavior.
Many preventive interventions focus on supporting improved emotion reg-
ulation and problem-solving skills in which executive functions (EF) and the
chological processes that are involved in the conscious control of thought. Ex-
amples of processes include inhibition, future time orientation, consequential
thinking, and the planning, initiation, and regulation of goal-directed behav-
tasks are related to childhood maladaptation.13,15However, there has been lit-
tle evidence in childhood between the performance of EF tasks (inhibitory
control, working memory, planning) and neuroanatomical localization of ac-
tivity in areas of the frontal lobe.16,17Due to the methodological requirements
for valid Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) assessments with
young children, few data are available before the age of 10 years, although
recent work using high-density Event Related Potential (ERP) assessments
are particularly promising.18A series of methodological and conceptual chal-
lenges still have to be solved in order to fully assess the specific brain local-
ization of neurocognitive and affective skills in children.19Further, there is a
need to broaden methods to understand how childhood cognitive and affective
GREENBERG: PREVENTIVE INTERVENTIONS 143
processing (especially under conditions of stress) are related to other biologi-
cal processes, including action in the autonomic nervous systems that include
correlates of the hypo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis,20,21immunological func-
tion, the parasympathetic system (vagal tone), as well as functional analysis of
brain action (neurotransmitter release).
Pioneering work with children has already begun to show the potential yield
of this vision in which interventions use measurement models and theories
based on our rapidly developing knowledge of neuroscience. Research has
indicated that there is correspondence between improved reading skills and
prove the outcomes of children in the foster care system has indicated changes
changes in EF and behavior.16Meditation training in adults has been shown
to alter both frontal brain activity (hemispheric laterality) and immunological
response.24Further, a number of studies has shown the moderating role of
biological variables, including how EF moderates the effect of a brief inter-
vention on high-risk teens25and how the hypoactivity of anterior cingulate
cortex predicts poor response to treatment for depression.26
Although neuroanatomical findings on cognitive and emotion regulation
skills in childhood are sparse, there is a burgeoning literature on adults re-
garding brain localization of EF that can judiciously guide theory and action
with children. The field of social–cognitive neuroscience (studies with lesion
clearly implicated the orbital/dorsolateral/limbic circuit in the processing of
emotional stimuli and the cognitive control and regulation of behavior.27,28
Findings indicate a clear role for the anterior cingulate in the processing of
tion of emotional arousal.32,33Further, the orbital frontal area has been related
to emotion processing and regulation.34Although research has attempted to
completely localize processes in single neuroanatomical areas, it is clear that
there is strong and rapid connectivity between these areas during decision
making and there are sometimes contradictory findings between studies of
specific loci.35As most of this work is less than a decade old, conclusions re-
garding specific loci may be premature. Further, noradrenaline, serotonin, and
dopamine are projected to all these areas and thus energize action across sys-
tems. Double dissociation36and lesion studies as well as intervention trials24
will play substantial roles in further differentiation.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF EF
coping,21,37much of the child’s more complex cognitive processes, coping,
144 ANNALS NEW YORK ACADEMY OF SCIENCES
and regulation skills arise with neurocognitive maturation in the frontal lobes.
This maturation proceeds from the preschool years through late adolescence.
Although numerous linguistic and cognitive processes are developing, the de-
velopment of EF appears crucial to healthy development and deficiencies in
EF have been related to numerous poor outcomes. These outcomes involve
cognitive processes related to effective emotional regulation and behavioral
performance, including aggression, delinquency, depression, and disorders of
INTERVENTION AND EF: ILLUSTRATIONS
FROM THE PROMOTING ALTERNATIVE THINKING
STRATEGIES (PATHS) CURRICULUM
During the past few decades our research group has been involved in the
tional learning curriculum based on neuroscientific principles that focus on
promoting emotional awareness and effective cognitive control. The PATHS
curriculum is a universal school-based prevention curriculum aimed at re-
ducing aggression and behavior problems by promoting the development of
(ABCD) model of development.40The ABCD model focuses on how cogni-
tion, affect, language, and behavior become integrated in the developing child.
A fundamental concept is that as youth mature, emotional development pre-
emotions and react to them long before they can verbalize their experiences.
thinking and must be integrated with cognitive and linguistic abilities, which
are much slower to develop. Then, during the elementary years, further devel-
opmental integration occurs among affect, behavior, and cognition/language
through maturation of the prefrontal circuit. These processes of brain matu-
ration are important in achieving socially competent action and healthy peer
The PATHS curriculum places special attention on neurocognitive models
of development.41Of significant importance are the concepts of vertical con-
trol and verbal processing of action (e.g., horizontal control). Vertical control
refers to the process of higher-order cognitive processes exerting control over
lower-levellimbicimpulsesv` ıs-a-v` ısthedevelopmentoffrontalcognitivecon-
trol.14PATHS attempts to consciously teach children the processes of vertical
control by providing opportunities to practice conscious strategies for self-
control. This is achieved via instruction with curriculum lessons and a variety
of cognitive/behavioral techniques that are developmentally appropriate from
the ages of 4 to 11 years. One central example is the use of a control signals
poster that teaches children the steps for problem solving in social contexts.
GREENBERG: PREVENTIVE INTERVENTIONS145
The curriculum also has an intentional and intensive focus on helping children
through curriculum lessons and the integration of “feeling faces” that children
use throughout the day to identify their feelings and those of others.
A series of outcome trials have indicated that effective implementation of
the PATHS curriculum leads to decreases in externalizing and internalizing
problems by both teacher and self-report and to increases in social and emo-
has been little investigation of how such change is mediated. Although some
aspect of this mediation may be due to changes external to the child (improved
classroom environment, warmer teacher–student relations), we believe that
the curriculum promotes more effective inhibitory control, emotion regula-
tion, and planning skills. The curriculum logic model is based on the idea that
ful in their social interactions, and (2) to recruit language to regulate behavior
and communicate effectively with others.
We recently tested this mediation model in a randomized controlled study
of 318 second-and third-grade children.46Schools were randomized to receive
the PATHS intervention or to control status. Intervention teachers received
both a 3-day initial training workshop as well as ongoing weekly coaching in
curriculum implementation. The PATHS lessons were taught approximately
used techniques to generalize PATHS skills with the goal of supporting stu-
dents to apply the PATHS skills in the “hot” naturally occurring contexts of
their school day. These situations of high emotional arousal usually occurred
during conflictual interactions with peers, with their teachers, or when feel-
ing academic frustration. Students were assessed at pretest, posttest (7 months
later), and follow-up (1 year after the curriculum ended).
nalizing behavioral problems using the Child Behavioral Checklist (CBCL47).
EF were assessed by two well-known measures validated to activate anterior
cingulate and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.48Inhibitory control was assessed
with the Stroop Test and verbal fluency was assessed using the Verbal Fluency
Subtest of the McCarthy Scales of Children Abilities. To test a mediational
model, it was first necessary to demonstrate that the intervention affected
both behavior and EF. Results indicated that there were significant differences
at posttest showing greater improvements in both inhibitory control and ver-
bal fluency in the intervention children. At the 1-year follow-up, intervention
children also were rated by teachers as lower in externalizing and internaliz-
ing problems. Further, posttest changes in both inhibitory control and verbal
fluency were significantly related to teacher ratings of behavior problems at
The specific mediational hypothesis we tested was that EF would me-
diate the relationship between prevention/control group assignment and
146 ANNALS NEW YORK ACADEMY OF SCIENCES
teacher-reported externalizing and internalizing behavior problems. The find-
ings indicated that improvements in inhibitory control at posttest signifi-
reported externalizing and internalizing behavior at 1-year follow-up. In
addition, improvements in verbal fluency significantly mediated the relation
between experimental condition and teacher-reported internalizing behavior.
ing change in teacher-reported externalizing behavior.
that underlies the PATHS curriculum model. That is, child neurocognitive
functioning plays a key role in children’s social and emotional adaptation and
changes in EF directly relate to reductions in behavioral problems. However,
a broader view and greater incorporation of the biological substrate into our
understanding of the processes would begin to assess less peripheral systems
of mediation than only the use of neuropsychological tests.
Although our own work with the PATHS intervention is very preliminary, I
use it as a case example of how we might develop transdisciplinary connec-
tions between prevention scientists and neuroscientists. A clear logic model
of the intervention might hypothesize that such behavioral changes would
lead to greater activation in the anterior cingulate and dosolateral prefrontal
areas. Although such assessments could not be readily accomplished using
fMRI at these younger ages, EEG–ERP assessments might be used. One
might also hypothesize that such an intervention might impact the child’s
stress reactivity (HPA axis) or their parasympathetic activity under moder-
ately stressful testing conditions. Finally, if such an intervention impacted
both frontal activity and stress-reactivity, one might hypothesize that over
time it might impact overall bodily health as assessed by immunological
The point here is that effective preventive models that have more fully ar-
ticulated logic models of action should begin to ask “deeper” questions about
the neuroscientific underpinnings of either change processes or obstacles to
intervention impact. That is, how might measures of the biological substrate
serve as mediators, moderators, and outcomes?
Of course, there are some important caveats at this stage in the scientific
enterprise. First, children may recruit different brain regions than do adults to
accomplish the same task and extrapolated theories from research on adults
should be used with caution.49Further, even when fMRI can be used with
in interpreting such findings.19Finally, although some aspects of the effects of
preventive interventions may be better understood by taking a neuroscientific
perspective, much of the action of some prevention models occurs primarily
through changes in the environment (quality of the classroom or community)
models of neuroscience.
GREENBERG: PREVENTIVE INTERVENTIONS147
These findings and others in neuroscience point to the importance of con-
sidering social–emotional development as best understood within broader the-
ories that take into account how children’s experiences and relationships affect
their brain organization, structuralization, and development.38As such, there
is a need for an extensive research agenda in which there is a transdisciplinary
and neuroscientists. However, this will require not only clearer logic models
of change and possibly more potent preventive interventions, but substantial
advances in basic research in childhood neuroscience including improvements
in both measurement and conceptualization. Through such work, carefully de-
veloped studies should take us past the “black box” outcome to more fully
understand the cognitive and neural mediators and moderators of change.
riculum program and has a publishing agreement with Channing–Bete Pub-
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Department of Psychiatry, University of Vermont. Burlington, VT.
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