Prevention trials yield the most insight when they are based on a research-backed theory about causes. For the past 4 decades, life course/social field theory has been a foundation for our research on early developmental risk factors and associated adult problem outcomes and their prevention (Kellam et al., 1976
). The theory has pointed to what we needed to measure and what interventions might be effective.
Life course/social field theory provides a dual-faceted view of mental health. In this perspective, adaptation has a social dimension and an individual, psychological dimension.
Social task demands in the classroom include an expectation that children will pay attention, obey rules, learn, and socialize appropriately with their peers and teachers.
The social dimension focuses on how an individual is viewed by society, both overall and within specific social contexts. At each stage of life, there are a few main social fields where individuals face social task demands. For children, the classroom is such a field, where social task demands include an expectation that they will pay attention, obey rules, learn, and socialize appropriately with their peers and teachers. In each social field, the person’s ability to meet task demands is assessed or rated by individuals we call natural raters. Teachers and student peers are natural raters in classrooms.
Sometimes this rating process is formal, as in the case of teachers giving grades. At other times, it is informal, as when peers respond to a student. Even when ratings are less formal, however, outcomes such as rejection from the peer group can be very powerful. We call this process of demand and response “social adaptation” and the resulting outcome, “social adaptational status.”
An individual may be rated as maladapted for reasons that originate with himself or herself, with the rater, or in the process of demand and response between the two. A first-grader, for example, may behave inappropriately due to a developmental lag in ability to sit still and attend, because the teacher lacks effective methods to socialize students to behave appropriately, or because previous persistent bad behavior has created tension between the teacher and the student.
According to life course/social field theory, improving the way teachers socialize children in the classrooms will result in improved social adaptation of the children in the classroom social field. The theory also predicts that this early improved social adaptation will lead to better adaptation to other social fields over the life course (). It is this hypothesis that supports using an intervention like the GBG in first and second grade.
Life Course/Social Field Concept
The second dimension in life course/social field theory is the individual’s internal condition, or psychological well-being. Depression, anxiety, and thought disorder are examples of poor psychological well-being. Psychological well-being and social adaptational status can reciprocally influence each other over the course of development. For example, receiving poor grades may make a child feel depressed, and depression may make a child more likely to get poor grades. Although the GBG’s effects on psychological well-being are beyond the scope of this paper, we have reported on its impact on suicidal thoughts and attempts, and we continue to study this dimension (Kellam et al., 2008
; Wilcox et al., 2008