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Schools and Families Educating Children (SAFE Children)

Ages 4-6

Rating: Level 2


Schools and Families Educating Children (SAFE Children) is a family-based comprehensive preventive intervention for children who live in innercity neighborhoods and are entering first grade. The goal of the program is to help families gain or increase parenting and family management skills that would facilitate successful child academic and social adjustment and, therefore, to promote social and academic competence and to lower risk for later antisocial behavior. In addition, the intervention concentrates on promoting initial academic success.

The intervention is based on a developmental–ecological perspective regarding risk and prevention efforts that views normal developmental transition as a time when intervention may be particularly useful. This approach emphasizes the interdependence among multiple risk factors in explaining the development of antisocial behavior. There is also the recognition that the necessity and salience of a given risk factor can vary as a function of the social ecology in which the child develops.

SAFE Children combines two components: multiple family groups and individual reading tutoring.

The first component—multiple family groups—consists of weekly multiple family group meetings (e.g., four to six families per group) and addresses parenting, family relations, and parents’ involvement and investment in their children’s schooling. All family members are invited to attend these meetings. The intervention consists of 20 weekly sessions. The first sessions deal with the family’s role in their child’s schooling and with helping the family affirm and express the importance of their identity and responsibility to each other. The subsequent sessions concentrate on the relation of home to school and the structure needed in the home to help children succeed in school. Afterward, the program concentrates on family relations, with communication, problem-solving, and maintaining support as the primary emphases.

The second component—the one-on-one reading tutoring program—is based heavily on phonics, teaching the basic skills of reading such as understanding letter–sound relationships, blending sounds into words, identifying letter combinations that correspond to regular combinations of phonemes, reading strings of words, and understanding the thought expressed by a sentence as it is read. Whole language strategies are incorporated into the program activities through games and reading time. The purpose of this component is to increase children’s opportunities to apply reading skills; to reinforce the skills, values, and beliefs taught as part of the family-based intervention; and to use this opportunity to address ethnic identity. Tutors spend a portion of each session reading with the child. The program is taught by trained undergraduate students. Tutors receive about 20 hours of training before beginning the intervention. They receive weekly group supervision by the Tutoring Coordinator (a postdoctoral student under the supervision of the principal investigators).


The SAFE Children program was evaluated by taking 424 families residing in innercity neighborhoods whose children were entering first grade in one of seven schools and, after baseline assessments were made, randomly assigning the families to the intervention group or the control group. Random assignment was at the individual level within each school. Of the 424 participating families, 42.5 percent were African-American and 57.5 percent were Latino. Fifty-one percent of the children were male, 40 percent lived in a single-parent household, and 44 percent of the primary caregivers did not graduate from high school. Fifty-one percent had a family income below $20,000 (in 1996 dollars), and 85 percent below $30,000.

Five waves of data were collected for all participants. Data was obtained from parents and children at four points including a 6-month follow-up. The fifth point (wave 3) collected only teacher data. Individual interviews were conducted with the primary and secondary caregivers and the target child over the course of the study. The study targeted four major proximal effects for the intervention: a) child’s school functioning (Woodcock Diagnostic Reading Battery and BASC), b) child’s behavior (TOCA–R and POCA–R), c) child’s social competence (BASC), and d) parenting and family relationships (Parenting Practices Questionnaire and Family Relationships Scale).


The study results indicate that 6 months after the intervention the program had produced an overall effect of increased academic performance and better parental involvement in school. In other words, intervention families remained engaged in school (while the norm was to disengage), and their children progressed academically at a rate comparable with the national rate (while the norm was to drop further behind national standards). Moreover, among high-risk families in the intervention, the program produced additional benefits for parental monitoring, child problem behaviors, and children’s social competence. High-risk youths showed—in addition to the overall effects—improvement in problem behavior (i.e., aggression) and social competence.

Risk Factors


  • Anti-social behavior and alienation/Delinquent beliefs/General delinquency involvement/Drug dealing
  • Early onset of aggression and/or violence
  • Favorable attitudes toward drug use/Early onset of AOD use/Alcohol and/or drug use
  • Life stressors
  • Mental disorder/Mental health problem/Conduct disorder
  • Poor refusal skills


  • Family management problems/Poor parental supervision and/or monitoring
  • Family transitions
  • Having a young mother
  • Low parent education level/Illiteracy
  • Parental use of physical punishment/Harsh and/or erratic discipline practices
  • Poor family attachment/Bonding


  • Inadequate school climate/Poorly organized and functioning schools/Negative labeling by teachers
  • Low academic achievement
  • Negative attitude toward school/Low bonding/Low school attachment/Commitment to school


  • Community crime/High crime neighborhood
  • Community instability
  • Economic deprivation/Poverty/Residence in a disadvantaged neighborhood
  • Neighborhood youth in trouble
  • Social and physical disorder/Disorganized neighborhood

Protective Factors


  • Healthy / Conventional beliefs and clear standards
  • Perception of social support from adults and peers
  • Positive / Resilient temperament
  • Self-efficacy
  • Social competencies and problem-solving skills


  • Effective parenting
  • Good relationships with parents / Bonding or attachment to family
  • Opportunities for prosocial family involvement
  • Rewards for prosocial family involvement


  • Above average academic achievement / Reading and math skills
  • High expectations of students
  • Opportunities for prosocial school involvement
  • Rewards for prosocial school involvement
  • Strong school motivation / Positive attitude toward school
  • Student bonding (attachment to teachers, belief, commitment)


  • Clear social norms / Policies with sanctions for violations and rewards for compliance
  • Nondisadvantaged neighborhood
  • Presence and involvement of caring, supportive adults
  • Prosocial opportunities for participation / Availability of neighborhood resources
  • Rewards for prosocial community involvement
  • Safe environment / Low neighborhood crime


  • SAMHSA: Model Programs


Gorman–Smith, Deborah, Patrick H. Tolan, David B. Henry, Amy Leventhal, Michael Schoeny, Kelly Lutovsky, and Elena Quintana. 2002.“Predictors of Participation in Family-Focused Preventive-Intervention for Substance Use.” Psychology of Addictive Behaviors 16:S55–S64.

Gorman–Smith, Deborah, Patrick H. Tolan, David B. Henry, Elena Quintana, Kelly Lutovsky, and Amy Leventhal. 2007. “The SAFE Children Prevention Program.” In Patrick H. Tolan, José Szapocnik, and Soledad Sombrano (eds.). Developmental Approaches to Prevention of Substance Abuse and Related Problems. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Tolan, Patrick H., Deborah Gorman–Smith, and David B. Henry. 2005. “Supporting Families in a High-Risk Setting: Proximal Effects of the Safechildren Prevention Program.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 72(5):855–69.

Tolan, Patrick H., José Szapocznik, and Soledad Sambrano (eds.). 2007. Preventing Youth Substance Abuse: Science-Based Programs for Children and Adolescents. American Psychological Association.


Patrick Tolan, Ph.D.
Institute for Juvenile Research
1747 W. Roosevelt Road
Department of Psychiatry
Chicago, IL 60608
Phone: (312) 413-1893
Fax: (312) 413-1703
Web site: