The University of Alabama

‘Coping Power’ Program Attracts, Inspires Pakistani Scholar

Asia Mushtaq, second from left, stands on campus with UA youth behavior experts, from left, Drs. Nicole Powell, John Lochman and Caroline Boxmeyer.

By Chris Bryant

Asia Mushtaq, a Pakistani scholar who had never traveled outside her hometown without the accompaniment of an older relative, took an approximate 30-hour plane trip by herself so she could spend six months in Tuscaloosa. Her motivation? To learn as much as possible about Coping Power, a program co-developed by Dr. John Lochman, professor and Saxon Chair of Clinical Psychology and director of UA’s Center for the Prevention of Youth Behavior Problems, to reduce aggressive behavior in children.

Mushtaq wants to adapt and implement the program upon her return home in an effort to reduce aggression in her country’s elementary schools and perhaps one day reduce the violence that plagues her country.

“If we want to minimize the criminal behavior, we have to start with the children and correct this at the initial level,” said Mushtaq, who is working on her doctorate at Quaid-i-azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan.

“Asia is extraordinarily committed to developing and adapting interventions that could really help children in Pakistan who are at risk for having significant behavior problems,” said Lochman.

She received funding from the Higher Education Commission in Pakistan to spend six months working alongside Lochman. His Coping Power program has been tested in dozens of elementary schools and clinics, including schools and youth centers in Alabama, North Carolina, Oregon, New York and Puerto Rico.

Mushtaq’s implementation of Coping Power in Pakistan will be the program’s first venture into the Middle East, and Lochman said Mushtaq’s previous research has already shown that Pakistani children with behavior problems face many of the same issues as children in the U.S., including rejection from their peers, misreading social cues and difficulty thinking of solutions to social problems.

“That set of peer relationship difficulties and social information processing difficulty is exactly the same as we would see here in the U.S. with children who have difficulty with aggressive behavior,” Lochman said. “Because Asia (pronounced ah-see-ah) has those findings, that makes it much more credible that adapting an intervention from here would be useful with the children she is working with in Pakistan.”

Coping Power techniques include an emphasis on seeing other people’s perspectives, improving social skills, finding alternatives to deal with conflict, and using of self-statements and relaxation and distraction techniques to deal with anger. In the program’s parental component, school staffs meet periodically with parents to discuss ways of improving parenting skills, including establishing age-appropriate rules and expectations for children, ways to reward children for displaying appropriate behavior, and discipline techniques. Parents also learn ways to support their children with their homework responsibilities and tips for solving conflict between siblings and within their families.

Coping Power training has been provided to hundreds of school- and clinic-based therapists from throughout the United States and from Ireland, Italy, Spain, Germany, and Poland. It has been published in English, Dutch and Spanish. Animated cartoons that accompany the program also were created recently.

Mushtaq, who arrived in Tuscaloosa last October, plans to return to Pakistan in April and begin implementing aspects of the program in 10 schools in Rawalpindi and Islamabad.

Mushtaq said she had read Lochman’s name in her textbooks and first learned of his research about three years ago while studying with her mentor, Dr. Naeem Tariq, former director of the Pakistan’s National Institute of Psychology, part of Quaid-i-azam University.  She was first drawn to the field of psychology (which, she said, is still gaining acceptance in Pakistan) as a way of studying criminal behavior. Later, she began researching social information processing – how young people develop and learn social skills and the resulting impact – and learned of Coping Power.

Mushtaq says she has already translated many aspects of Lochman’s program into Urdu, the national language for Pakistan, and has made other adaptations reflecting cultural differences.

Boys are significantly more aggressive than girls in Pakistan, and many in her country believe that is at it should be. “If the boys are not aggressive, who will be aggressive?” is the mindset many in her country have, Mushtaq says. However, she says she sees the beginnings of such attitudes changing as suicide bombings and other acts of violence have repeatedly erupted in recent months as the Pakistani military has clashed with Taliban militants.

Mushtaq says she has high expectations that Coping Power will be very helpful in reducing aggression and problem behaviors in Pakistani youth. Because Pakistani youth have a high level of respect for school authority and typically comply to “pin-drop silence” in the classroom, she says it’s feasible to believe the program could be even more helpful in Pakistan than it has been in the United States.

The challenge, she says, will not be getting the youth to buy in, but the adults. She does not yet know if she will seek to implement both the school and home components of Coping Power.

“If parents are willing to work with us, then we will add the parental component also – seeking to improve social skills of the parents,” she says.

Lochman said Mushtaq has shown tremendous dedication in her quest to help her country’s youth. “She’s very exemplary.”