Use “Kernels” and Other Common Elements to Improve Treatments

By: Dr. Cheri Shapiro

When we think about prevention and effective treatment of social, emotional, and behavioral problems, named programs often come to mind.  However, it is important to understand that many of the most effective treatments are based on the same elements.

Nearly a decade ago, Dr. Dennis Embry and Dr. Tony Biglan identified the smallest units of behavior influence, and called them “kernels.”  Kernels are defined as procedures that have been shown in research to change behavior.

Examples include:

  • Special time or interactions between children and caregivers where the child takes the lead,
  • “Beat the timer” to help tasks go quicker, or
  • Nasal breathing (breathe in through the nose, exhale through the mouth) as a way to bring calm when you are feeling anxious.

Another example of a kernel is verbal praise that follows a desired behavior (that clearly describes the behavior, such as “You did a great job helping your brother”).  Verbal praise like this has been shown to increase the behavior that it follows (in this case, helping your brother).

At about the same time, Dr. Bruce Chorpita and Dr. Eric Daleiden examined a large number of child mental health treatments used in clinical trials and identified the most common clinical strategies.  These common elements are thought to the be active ingredients in treatment and help us to understand what works to help address problems such as anxiety, depression, traumatic stress, and autism.

What we learn from this research is that change is possible from small procedures, and that many effective treatments for children’s mental health challenges share common elements. As treatment providers, we can learn to use these effective elements and be confident that we can make a difference.  As parents and caregivers, we can easily learn and use simple strategies like kernels to help us reach the goals we want for our children.

Learn more about kernels from Dr. Dennis Embry:

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