The Urgent Need For School-based Primary Prevention Programs

Jeff Palmer
24 min readDec 13, 2023

The prevalence of American youth who engage in antisocial and health-damaging behaviors is unacceptably high. 24% of American 10 to 17 year olds engage in multiple, interrelated social and health risk behaviors, such as delinquency and substance use. An additional 26% experiment with some risk behaviors. Such widespread involvement jeopardizes the development of young people who participate in such activities, and often negatively affects their peers, family members, and community.

Societal changes-such as dramatic alterations in family structures and stability, reduced amounts of support and guidance for young people by responsible adults, and changing demographics resulting in larger numbers of economically disadvantaged children entering school-increase the likelihood that children will behave in antisocial ways, both in and out of school. These problems are especially pronounced for young urban adolescents. Urban young people encounter a diverse array of health-damaging environmental stressors while growing up in economically disadvantaged communities. In addition, rapid bodily changes, cognitive maturation, and increased social pressures can profoundly influence, and in some instances, disrupt the psychological functioning of young adolescents. Furthermore, the transition from self-contained elementary-school classrooms to the less structured middle-school culture often introduces new problems and concerns to compound those connected with growing up.

Difficult societal conditions and the high prevalence of problem behavior among our young people have prompted numerous calls for school-based, primary prevention efforts to address young adolescents’ social and health needs. Clearly, the educational system offers the most efficient and systematic means available to enhance the positive development of large numbers of young people. In spite of a growing consensus regarding the urgent need for school-based primary prevention programs, there is less agreement about what constitutes the most appropriate prevention strategies or the extent to which such prevention programs have been effective.

To improve the quality of future school-based preventive interventions, researchers must evaluate well-conceptualized programs that are implemented with fidelity. Program conceptualization involves explicitly articulating the intermediate and distal outcomes a program intends to achieve, the intervention methods that will accomplish these objectives, and the models of behavioral change that guide the development of intervention strategies and practices. However, regardless of how well-conceptualized a program is, its potential for positive impact is lessened when program implementers have inadequate resources or time for effective program delivery; are poorly trained or supervised; or lack the skills or motivation to provide competent instruction. Well-conceptualized prevention programs that are implemented with low integrity may appear ineffective when, in fact, they could be beneficial. Unfortunately, few investigators who conduct program-outcome research also assess the quality of program implementation or examine relationships between such process variables and the behavioral outcomes of program participants.

The present study assesses the effects of a school-based social competence promotion (SCP) program designed to prevent antisocial behavior in a sample of young urban adolescents. The goal of SCP training is to enhance young people’s capacities to coordinate interrelated cognitive, affective, and behavioral skills so they effectively handle developmentally relevant social tasks. Based on research and theory identifying factors related to aggressive, antisocial behavior, our SCP intervention attempts to: (a) teach students impulse-control, social-information-processing, and behavioral social skills, (b) foster pro-social attitudes, and © create environmental supports to encourage and reinforce the adaptive, real-life application of skills and values. Because aggression and peer rejection are two central high-risk predictors of future conduct problems and delinquency, the intervention emphasized social-cognitive skills and attitudes that reduce impulsive or aggressive behavior and promote social acceptance, such as: identifying, labeling, and controlling emotions; encoding relevant environmental cues; accurately interpreting the intentions of social partners; establishing pro-social, adaptive goals; generating effective, cooperative, non-aggressive solutions; realistically anticipating consequences; enacting social behaviors effectively; monitoring the effects of behaviors on others; and overcoming obstacles.

A growing literature suggests that family-based and small-group SCP treatment programs, which emphasize social-cognitive and behavioral skills training, can improve the skills, attitudes, and behaviors of antisocial children and youth. Similarly, classroom-based, primary prevention SCP programs for preschool and elementary-school children have enhanced students’ problem-solving skills, social relationships, and behavioral adjustment. Although some studies document the potential efficacy of SCP training approaches, few studies have tested whether classroom-based, teacher-taught, preventive SCP programs can promote adaptive functioning and reduce aggressive, antisocial behavior in urban adolescents. The complex, multiple challenges of successfully implementing and evaluating innovative programs in urban middle schools may limit the number of investigators who conduct such research.

In the present study we assessed the effects of a classroom-based, preventive SCP program on the skills, attitudes, and behaviors of urban, young adolescent, middle-school students. Second, different sets of teachers rated the school-based behavioral changes of program students both in and out of the classrooms in which SCP instruction took place. This evaluation strategy enabled us to determine if the behavioral improvements of program students generalized beyond the training setting. Third, we examined the quality of program implementation and the relationship of program implementation to student behavioral outcomes. We hypothesized that program students would improve more than controls in social-cognitive problem-solving skills, pro-social attitudes, social acceptance, and behavioral conduct. We also predicted that most teachers would carry out the program effectively, and that students from classes with higher quality implementation would benefit more from training.

Participants included 421 fifth through eighth-grade students from 11 program (n = 238) and 9 control (n = 183) classes in four urban, multiethnic schools. Teachers sent consent forms home with 447 students before pre-assessment, and parents withheld permission for 26 students (5.8% of the sample). Approximately equal numbers of males (210) and females (211) participated. The final sample of students from low- and middle-income families consisted of 178 Whites, 167 Blacks, 72 Hispanics, and 4 students of other ethnic origins. Analyses revealed that the program and control groups did not differ with respect to grade level, gender, or race.

Following approval from the Superintendent of Schools, Board of Education, Director of Research and Special Programs, and building principals, we described the program and evaluation to teachers at four middle schools. Once teachers volunteered to participate, we assigned classes to program and control conditions based on scheduling and comparability of academic-ability grouping levels across conditions. Analysis of group differences indicated that program and control students were comparable with respect to academic achievement levels as measured by the Tests of Basic Skills. Participating teachers were compensated with stipends drawn from the school system’s in-service training budget.

The SCP training program. The traffic light links an image that children are already familiar with to the skills and concepts involved in solving problems. The red light (step 1) emphasizes impulse-control and stress-management skills. Children identify common stresses in their lives and learn ways to inhibit impulsive, aggressive responses to stressful situations by stopping to calm down and think about the best ways to cope with them. The yellow light (steps 2 to 5) symbolizes thinking about the problem, and teaches multiple skills involved in effective problem solving and responsible decision making. Students learn an expanded feeling-word vocabulary; to identify problem situations and associated feelings; to establish positive, prosocial goals; to generate alternative solutions; to seek input or support from peers and adults when they have difficulty thinking of solutions; to anticipate realistically the effects their actions may have improve problem situations. The green light (step 6) focuses on successfully enacting solutions. Since even the best of solutions may fail if poorly executed, students learn planning, communication, and behavioral social skills, such as using appropriate timing, speaking with a friendly or respectful tone of voice, and monitoring the effects of their actions on others. Throughout the program, teachers emphasize the benefits of behaving cooperatively in most situations rather than passively or aggressively.

During the first half of the program, students learn the six steps and master problem-solving skills and concepts through discussing and role playing common interpersonal problems for young adolescents, such as coping with physical and verbal provocation by peers, meeting new peers, handling social pressures to take risks, and resolving conflicts with parents, siblings, or teachers. During the program’s second half, students apply the framework to the real-life, daily situations they experience. The six-step process provides a helpful structure to guide students and teachers in addressing problems more thoughtfully. The lessons help students and teachers develop a common language and framework that fosters clearer communication about problems that arise. Teachers learn to model the application of the six-step framework for students, and to “dialogue” with students as problems arise. Dialoguing involves asking students leading questions that guide them through the six-step framework to produce effective solutions to their problems. Dialoguing enhances the internalization, generalization, and maintenance of the SCP skills by helping students practice to calm down and reflect about problems rather than responding in antisocial ways, and to remain persistent in adaptive problem-solving when a first solution attempt fails.

Program implementation and teacher training. Classroom teachers and undergraduate aides co-taught sixteen 45-minute classroom sessions. They taught lessons once or twice per week, depending on school scheduling, over the course of a 12-week period. Direct instruction, role plays, class and small group discussions of problems, and cooperative learning activities were the primary methods used to convey program concepts. Parents were also involved in the program through cooperative homework assignments. These assignments encouraged parent-child discussions of common adolescent problems and the steps leading to their successful resolution. After the 16 sessions, teachers conducted brief weekly classroom activities and dialogued regularly with students to support the continued application of adaptive problem solving.

The two co-authors and an experienced teacher, who taught the program during the previous school year, trained the teachers and undergraduate aides. The training included ten 90-minute workshops that started before program implementation and continued throughout the 16-session intervention. At the start of each training meeting, teachers shared vignettes about program successes and discussed strategies for handling program difficulties. Then upcoming lessons were discussed, modeled by the trainers, and role played by the teachers and aides. Program staff provided on-site consultation and coaching during classroom lessons. After the 16-session program ended, three monthly, 2-hour teacher-training meetings focused on ways that teachers could support their students’ continued application of SCP skills.

A multi-method, multi-rater assessment approach assessed change on 28 dependent variables. Three instruments yielded 16 measures of students’ (a) problem-solving skills, (b) attitudes about conflict resolution, and © self-reported assertiveness in response to hypothetical situations. Teacher, peer, and self-report measures produced 12 convergent assessments of students’ behavioral adjustment for two separate constructs: social acceptance, or the extent to which peers like a student; and behavioral conduct, or the degree to which individuals engage in impulsive, aggressive, or delinquent acts. Finally, two observers independently rated the quality of program implementation in each classroom.

Social problem-solving skills. The Middle-school Alternative Solutions Test (AST) is an individually administered problem-solving measure that assesses the ability to generate alternative solutions to age-relevant, hypothetical peer conflict situations. Given the curriculum focus on the deterrence of aggressive, antisocial behavior, we selected three problems based on their capacity to provoke aggression, and the staging of circumstances with minimal adult supervision. The three scenarios include: (a) being picked on by a peer, (b) being bothered by a peer when involved in an important activity, and © having a textbook taken by a peer in the library. Following the presentation of each problem, an interviewer asked students to name only those solutions they would actually do, rather than saying what a hypothetical peer might do or brainstorming all the ideas that one could possibly try.

Raters scored alternative solutions for a total of nine quantity and quality variables. The quantity of solutions represents the number of non-redundant responses generated across the three stories. The quality of solutions, found to be an important correlate of adjustment, is assessed in three different ways: (a) effectiveness — the average-rated effectiveness of solutions on a 4-point scale (1 = “very ineffective” to 4 = “very effective”); (b) planfulness — the number of planful solutions (e.g., responses that indicate consideration of timing, interpersonal skill, or step-by-step preparation); and © content — the percent of solutions that are aggressive, passive, help-seeking, non-confrontational, assertive, and cooperative.

Three raters each scored one-third of the pre and post-interviews. An additional person independently scored 25% of the interviews, from which inter-rater agreements were established. Kappa coefficients were .96 for quantity, .94 for effectiveness, .81 for planfulness, and .92 for the content of alternative solutions. One-week test-retest AST reliabilities for an independent sample of 38 sixth graders yielded Spearman-Brown coefficients of .84 for the quantity of alternative solutions generated, .85 for average effectiveness of solutions, and .86 for the number of planful solutions.

Attitudes about conflict-resolution strategies. The Problem-Solving Attitude Questionnaire was individually administered after the AST. It assesses beliefs about six different conflict-resolution strategies — i.e., physically aggressive, verbally aggressive, passive, help-seeking, assertive, and cooperative reactions. Students used a 4-point scale (1 = “not at all” to 4 = “a lot”) to indicate how much they would like to spend time with a peer who used each strategy. The same three AST problems were used, based on their potential to evoke a range of conflict-resolution strategies including aggressive reactions. One week test-retest reliabilities for the endorsement of conflict-resolution strategies averaged .84, ranging from .82 for cooperative to .87 for physically aggressive responses.

Self-reported assertiveness. The Children’s Assertive Behavior Scale measures children’s self-reported tendency to respond assertively, passively, or aggressively in a variety of hypothetical situations. The present study included 13 of 27 items that focused on interpersonal interactions. Items scores ranged from -2 (most passive response) to 0 (assertive response) to 2 (most aggressive response). Absolute values of the 13 scores were summed and subtracted from the total possible score of 26, yielding a total assertiveness score ranging from 0 to 26 (high assertiveness). The Cronbach’s alpha for the 13 items used in the present study was .60.

Teacher ratings of social acceptance and behavioral conduct. On this 6-item Teacher Rating Measure, teachers use a 5-point scale (1=”not at all” to 5=”very well”) to rate how well each item describes a student. Preprogram scores were factor analyzed (principal components analysis) to yield two factors accounting for 72% of the variance. The first factor, termed behavioral conduct (teacher), consisted of four items (alpha = .85): impulse control, problem solving, teasing of peers, and academic motivation. The second factor, termed social acceptance (teacher), consisted of two items (alpha = .66): popularity among peers and being left out of groups. For both scales, individual items are reverse-scored as necessary so higher total scores represent better adjustment.

Two sets of teachers completed rating scales for each student. “Primary” teachers taught students in the program or control classrooms. “Secondary” teachers taught other departmentalized classes that program and control students might attend together (e.g., music or art). These teachers were unaware of students’ experimental condition. These two sets of ratings allowed the assessment of behavioral adjustment from more than one perspective and in more than one setting. In addition, ratings from teachers who were unaware of students’ treatment condition provided a non-biased view of change in students’ school behaviors. The correlations between the two sets of teachers were .59 (pre) and .66 (post) for the behavioral conduct scale and .22 (pre) and .39 (post) for the social acceptance scale. These moderate-sized correlations were expected since the teachers based their ratings on observations of students’ behavior in different contexts. Because of these differences, we report analyses of primary and secondary teacher ratings separately.

Peer ratings of social acceptance and behavioral conduct. The 5-item Peer Rating Scale was adapted from the Class Play Sociometric Scale. Students rated each same-gender classmate on a 5-point scale (1 = “not at all that way” to 5 = “really that way”) according to how well each item described the classmate. Factor analysis (principal components analysis, varimax rotation) of preprogram scores yielded two factors, accounting for 76% of the variance, that corresponded to those of the teacher rating scale. The first factor, behavioral conduct (peer), consisted of two items (alpha = .54): impulse control and teasing of peers. The second factor, social acceptance (peer), consisted of three items (alpha = .75): being liked, leadership among peers, and being left out of groups. Sociometric scores represent the average ratings given by same-gender classmates. For both scales, individual items are reverse-scored as necessary so that higher scores represent better adjustment.

Self-report ratings of social acceptance and behavioral conduct. The present study used six scales from two self-report measures. We included two 6-item scales from the 36-item Self-Perception Profile for Children, which assesses children’s perceptions of personal competence in six separate domains. The social acceptance scale assesses the ease with which a child makes friends and interacts with others. The behavioral conduct scale measures the degree to which a child likes the way she/he behaves and avoids getting into trouble. In the present study, the alpha coefficients were .72 for social acceptance and .61 for behavioral conduct.

Two scales from the Student Survey assess students’ involvement with and attachment to their peers. The 4-item involvement with peers scale (alpha = .68) examines the degree of perceived cooperation and positive feelings among classmates. The mean of the four items was used as the dependent variable. The 4-item attachment to peers scale (alpha = .59) measures the extent to which students feel close to pro-social, non-delinquent friends and share their thoughts and feelings with them. Students used a 5-point scale to show the extent to which they agree or disagree with statements on these scales. In addition, an 8-item scale from the Student Survey assesses students’ involvement in minor delinquent behavior. Students reported the number of times they engaged in each antisocial act during the past year. Scores were transformed into a 0 to 4 scale, with 0 = never, 1 = once, 2 = 2 times, 3 = 3 or 4 times, and 4 = 5 or more times. The items were: stealing from a locker/desk, stealing from a store, getting sent out of the classroom, starting fights, vandalism, going out at night without permission, skipping school without permission, and getting suspended (alpha = .80). Finally, three items from the Student Survey asked students to report how often they drank beer or wine, drank hard liquor, or smoked marijuana during the past month (alpha = .81).

Assessment of quality of program implementation. Two evaluators conducted observations of implementation fidelity in each classroom. They independently rated each teacher’s quality of program implementation on two dimensions: (a) understanding program concepts and conveying them clearly to students, and (b) modeling program skills and encouraging students to apply them in real-life situations. The observers used a 5-point scale (1 = “has considerable difficulty” to 5 = “does very well”). Inter-rater agreement between the two observers was high for both dimensions: r = .91 for understanding and teaching program concepts, and r = .95 for modeling and encouraging students to use skills. In the results section, we report analyses that distinguish high implementation quality (a score of 4 or 5 on each dimension) from lower implementation quality.

The project’s evaluation component was kept separate from the intervention component to reduce testing bias and potential feelings of disenfranchisement of the control group. The staff responsible for data collection was distinct from the staff implementing the program. Supervised undergraduate and graduate students, enrolled in a full-year practicum course, conducted pre and post-program assessments. Evaluators were blind to treatment conditions and tested children randomly across the two conditions.

Before the administration of group and individual interviews, evaluators reminded students that participation was voluntary and that their survey responses were confidential. Code numbers, rather than students’ names, were used on evaluation packets. Evaluators administered class surveys during two 45-minute periods on two separate days. The first day included the Children’s Assertive Behavior Scale and Self-Perception Profile, and the second day included the Peer Rating Scale and the Student Survey. Teachers remained in classrooms for management purposes but did not participate in administering the survey. To assure maximum comprehension, a primary evaluator read aloud all questions on group-administered tests while two aides circulated through the room to answer questions. Individual problem-solving interviews, lasting between 20–30 minutes, were conducted in an empty classroom about one week after group surveys at both pre and post-testing. Six girls and 6 boys from each class participated in individual testing, resulting in a sample of 198 students. The order of AST story presentation was counterbalanced across condition, class, and gender, but was consistent across pre and post-testing.

Overview of data analyses. Several 2 (Condition) x 2 (Gender) x 20 (Classroom nested within Condition) x 2 (Time) repeated-measures Multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) assessed program impact. Each MANOVA cluster included all related scales within a particular instrument. One MANOVA assessed students’ acquisition of social problem-solving skills. A second MANOVA measured pre to post changes in attitudes toward conflict-resolution strategies on the Problem-Solving Attitude Questionnaire. A separate ANOVA examined changes in self-reported assertiveness on the Children’s Assertive Behavior Scale. Separate MANOVAs on different teacher, peer, and self-report measures examined changes in social acceptance and behavioral conduct.

Pretest comparisons. Before conducting outcome analyses, a series of MANOVAs examined the pretest comparability of program and control students. Group differences were not found for the 9 problem-solving indices, attitudes about 3 of 6 conflict-resolution strategies, both peer ratings, both self-perception ratings, primary teacher ratings of social acceptance, and self-reported attachment to peers, minor delinquency, and substance use. However, the groups did differ on 8 of 28 variables; 5 favored the experimental group and 3 favored the control group. Program students, relative to controls, were rated lower by primary teachers on behavioral conduct [F(1,399) = 3.89, p < .05], but higher by secondary teachers on behavioral conduct [F(1,349) = 18.58, p <.001] and social acceptance [F(1,349) = 6.83, p < .01]. Pre-assessment differences also emerged on attitudes toward conflict-resolution strategies where program students had more favorable attitudes toward passive conflict-resolution strategies [F(1,176) = 5.70, p < .05] and less favorable attitudes toward physically aggressive [F(1,176) = 5.65, p < .05] and verbally aggressive strategies [F(1,176) = 7.84, p < .01]. Program students also endorsed more assertive responses on the Children’s Assertive Behavior Scale [F(1,311) = 7.06, p < .01]. Finally, self-reported involvement with peers was higher for control students than program participants [F (1,267) = 3.99, p < .05].

Because there were some pre-assessment differences between treatment groups, we performed supplementary analyses of covariance (ANCOVA) on post-scores, using pre-scores as covariates. In general, the findings were comparable to those yielded by the repeated-measures MANOVA procedure. For one variable, however, an ANOVA yielded a significant Condition x Time effect favoring the program group while the ANCOVA procedure did not reveal a significant Condition effect; in two other instances, ANCOVAs yielded significant Condition effects, favoring program students, not revealed by the repeated-measures analyses. These divergent findings are noted where applicable in the results.

The AST MANOVA yielded a significant Condition x Time interaction [F(9,168) = .92, p < .001], and no significant Gender x Condition x Time interaction effect. Univariate ANOVAs indicated that program participants improved more than controls in generating a greater number of alternative solutions, more effective solutions, and more planful solutions. Regarding solution content, program students generated significantly lower percentages of aggressive and passive solutions, and significantly more non-confrontational and cooperative solutions from pre to post-assessment.

Attitudes concerning preferred conflict-resolution strategies were affected by program participation, as indicated by a significant multivariate Condition x Time interaction [F(6,171) = 2.97, p < .01]. Follow-up ANOVAS showed that the extent of liking peers who resolved conflicts in assertive ways increased more for program than control students [F(1,176) = 4.07, p < .05], and the degree to which students liked peers who used passive conflict-resolution strategies decreased [F(1,176) = 4.68, p < .05]. However, this latter effect was largely due to differences at pretesting; the ANCOVA on postscores, controlling for pre differences, did not yield a significant condition effect. There was also a directional improvement in the tendency for program students to endorse cooperative resolution strategies [F(1,176) = 3.38. p < .07]. When group pre-differences were controlled using ANCOVA, program students endorsed cooperative strategies more often at posttesting than control students [F(1,175) = 4.24, p < .05].

The ANOVA examining changes on the Children’s Assertive Behavior Scale did not reach statistical significance. However, controlling for pretest group differences, program students at post responded more assertively rather than passively or aggressively to hypothetical situations [F(1,311) = 7.06, p < .01].

Teacher ratings. The MANOVA assessing changes in primary teacher ratings yielded significant Condition x Time [F(2,398) = 9.31, p < .001] and Condition x Gender x Time interactions [F(2,398) = 4.73, p < .01]. Follow-up ANOVAs showed that, relative to controls, program students improved significantly in behavioral conduct, but not in social acceptance by peers. The 3-way ANOVA for the behavioral conduct factor was also significant [F(1,399) = 8.57, p < .01], and a post-hoc Newman-Keuls test indicated that male and female program students increased significantly more than male controls from pre to post-assessment. The MANOVA assessing changes in the ratings of secondary teachers, who were unaware of students’ assignment to treatment conditions, also yielded a significant Condition x Time interaction, F(2,348) = 3.90, p < .05. Follow-up univariate analyses showed that program students improved more than controls in both behavioral conduct and social acceptance. Significant nested classroom effects for both primary raters [F(36,796) = 4.64, p < .001] and secondary raters [F(32,696) = 6.51, p < .001] and inspection of classroom means suggested that the results were more positive in some program classes than others.

Peer ratings. The MANOVA interactions examining changes in peer ratings of behavioral conduct and social acceptance were not significant.

Self-report ratings. The MANOVA interactions assessing changes on the Self-Perception Profile were not significant. The MANOVA examining changes on the Student Survey scales, however, yielded a significant Condition x Time interaction [F(4,264) = 2.86, p < .05]. Follow-up ANOVAs, showed that program participants increased more than controls in their self-reported involvement with peers. Attachment to peers was not significantly affected by program participation. There was also a significant univariate Condition x Time interaction for self-reported minor delinquent behavior. Although program students remained stable from pre to post-assessment, control students engaged in significantly more antisocial acts (e.g., getting sent out of the classroom, starting fights, staying out at night without permission, and stealing from a desk). From pre to post-assessment, engagement in self-reported minor delinquent behavior increased by 36.8% for control students, and only 2.8% for program students. Finally, although gateway substance use increased significantly for all students from pre to post-assessment, the Condition x Time and Condition x Gender x Time interactions for this ANOVA were not significant.

Implementation ratings of teachers’ mastery and presentation of SCP program concepts ranged from 2 to 5 with a mean of 4.0. Implementation ratings of teachers’ modeling and encouraging students in the use of program concepts ranged from 1 to 5 with a mean of 3.75. Based on observer assessments, five teachers were classified as higher and six teachers as lower in implementation quality. Analyses yielded several significant Condition (Higher Quality Implementation vs. Lower Quality Implementation vs. Control Group) x Time (Pre, Post) interaction effects, which were clarified by post-hoc Newman-Keuls comparisons. Regardless of implementation quality, program students showed significant gains, relative to controls, in solution effectiveness [F(2,192) = 5.52, p < .01], the number of planful solutions, [F(2,192) = 8.08, p < .001], and the percentage of cooperative solutions [F(2,192) = 6.14, p < .01], and decreased more in their percentage of passive solutions [F(2,192) = 5.05, p < .01]. However, students in well-implemented program classes improved significantly more than those in lower-quality implementation classes and control classes on the number of alternative solutions generated to problem situations [F(2,192) = 13.01, p < .001], the extent of endorsing assertive [F(2,193) = 3.58, p < .05] and cooperative [F(2,193) = 4.09, p < .05] conflict-resolution strategies, as well as on secondary teacher ratings of behavioral conduct [F(2,366) = 8.95, p < .001] and social acceptance [F (2,366) = 15.88, p < .001].

Diverse social, environmental, and developmental factors place young urban adolescents at risk for antisocial, aggressive behavior. Communities and schools need theory-based, empirically validated interventions that effectively address predisposing and precipitating developmental and sociocultural risk factors leading to antisocial behavior. Most prevention programs focus on preschool and elementary school children rather than on young adolescents. The current study focused on young, urban adolescents and tested the effects of a middle-school SCP program on students’ social-cognitive and behavioral abilities to cope effectively with daily social problems and stressors that foster antisocial behavior. The findings show that well-implemented classroom-based SCP training can enhance the skills, prosocial attitudes, and behavioral adjustment of young urban adolescents. The constellation of positive results suggests that SCP training represents a promising strategy for preventing or reducing antisocial, aggressive behavior in this high-risk group.

The current study focused on young, urban adolescents and tested the effects of a middle-school SCP program on students’ social-cognitive and behavioral abilities to cope effectively with daily social problems and stressors that foster antisocial behavior. The findings show that well-implemented classroom-based SCP training can enhance the skills, prosocial attitudes, and behavioral adjustment of young urban adolescents. The constellation of positive results suggests that SCP training represents a promising strategy for preventing or reducing antisocial, aggressive behavior in this high-risk group.

A major goal of the SCP intervention was to enhance students’ social information-processing skills and attitudes about aggressive behavior. Such skills and values may serve as important mediators in deterring antisocial behavior. SCP training produced robust positive effects on both the quantity and quality of students’ alternative solution thinking in response to hypothetical problem situations with potential to provoke antisocial responses. Program students learned to generate an increased number of options as well as more effective and planful solutions. These findings support those of other SCP interventions that successfully promoted children’s alternative solution thinking.

SCP training also positively affected students’ attitudes toward conflict resolution. For example, the solutions generated in response to AST problems became less aggressive and passive as well as more non-confrontational and cooperative as a function of program participation. In addition, on the Problem-Solving Attitudes Questionnaire, students evidenced more favorable attitudes towards peers who resolved conflicts in assertive and cooperative ways. The endorsement of pro-social, non-aggressive strategies for resolving disputes has been found to mediate social adjustment. Fostering prosocial beliefs about responding to provocations appears as important in deterring antisocial behavior as teaching general information processing skills.

Teacher ratings showed that the intervention enhanced students’ behavioral conduct and, to a lesser extent, social acceptance. The positive findings held true for ratings by “primary” teachers who were aware of treatment assignment, and also to ratings by “secondary” teachers who were blind to treatment conditions. The findings for secondary teacher ratings are important for two reasons. First, research using teacher ratings to measure adjustment is often qualified because teachers who supply the ratings have knowledge of the treatment group assignments of students. The present design overcomes this potential bias. Second, the results from secondary raters also indicated that students’ behavioral gains generalized beyond the setting in which training occurred. Few prevention studies have documented that positive training effects transfer to other settings and situations. It will be important for future SCP studies to examine generalization of acquired skills to non-school settings such as neighborhoods and homes.

Both primary and secondary teacher ratings indicated that program students improved in behavioral conduct. Clearly, the early SCP lessons that emphasized self-control and stress-management training positively affected students’ behavior. In a series of group discussions after the program, teacher, students, and parents independently agreed that teaching students to “stop, calm down, and think before you act” was the most important problem-solving step to teach students. Secondary — but not primary — teacher ratings suggested program benefits in peer acceptance. The discrepancy in social acceptance ratings may be due to the settings in which students were observed. The secondary teacher raters included primarily music and art teachers. The music and art rooms, compared to the structured academic classroom setting, may provide an arena in which peer relations are more open, making it easier to observe changes in social interactions and relationships.

In contrast to the positive teacher-rated results, program participation did not appear to affect peer assessments of behavioral and social adjustment. Other research has indicated that sociometric status is typically resistant to rapid changes during childhood and early adolescence. Although social reputation is difficult to alter in a short period, such changes may be revealed over time, as supported by follow-up studies of social-skills training programs. Clearly, longitudinal studies will help to clarify the impact of SCP programs on peer assessments of behavior and popularity.

Self-reported involvement with peers increased as a function of program participation, however, similar gains were not found on the Self-Perception Profile. The discrepancy may be due to differences in the particular items that comprise the scales and the spheres to which they apply. The involvement with peers scale reflects the extent to which one views classmates as approachable, cooperative, and caring. SCP training, which emphasized supportive small-group discussions of problems faced by students, may be particularly instrumental in promoting a positive classroom climate. By contrast, the Self-Perception Profile assesses the extent to which students feel that others like them. Such self-perceptions, similar to peer assessments, are difficult to alter in brief interventions. Follow-up studies are needed to determine the impact on students’ self-perceptions over time.

Finally, the outcome findings suggest that the program helped to prevent the development antisocial behavior in the young urban adolescent sample. In line with improvements in teacher ratings of behavioral conduct in the classroom, training positively affected students’ self-reported engagement in minor delinquent acts. Program students remained stable in the frequency of such acts from pre to post-assessment, while control students significantly increased their engagement in delinquent behaviors. Future research must clarify how SCP training reduces students’ participation in delinquency. Such positive effects may result from improved skills, attitudes, and behaviors or from better student communication with teachers, parents, and peers about problem situations. In contrast to the program’s positive impact on delinquent behavior, SCP training failed to affect students’ involvement with alcohol and marijuana. Domain-specific SCP training that emphasizes the negative consequences of substance use and particular skills to resist drugs may be needed to prevent drug use.

The present findings also highlight the importance of considering the quality of program implementation when determining the effectiveness of SCP programs. Although program students from all classes improved in problem-solving skill performance, there were several areas in which implementation quality affected outcomes. For example, attitudes toward conflict-resolution styles and secondary teacher ratings of behavior changed positively for students in the high-quality implementation classes, while the students from lower-quality implementation classes fared no better than controls. Perhaps changing students’ values and behavior requires greater levels of SCP mastery, modeling, and reinforcement on the part of trainers. This study adds to a growing literature demonstrating that the quality of program implementation mediates student behavioral outcomes. Notably, as school-based SCP programs become more widely disseminated, monitoring implementation quality becomes essential.

In sum, school-based SCP programs hold great promise for enhancing the adaptive functioning of high-risk urban adolescents. In particular, this study demonstrates the beneficial effects of well-implemented SCP programs targeting social information-processing skills, attitude change, and the prevention of behavioral conduct problems in early adolescence. An important next step is to determine the long-term impact of this SCP program. We are conducting a follow-up study to assess the extent to which the initial gains reported here will be sustained over time. Ultimately, it may prove necessary to provide additional, developmentally appropriate SCP training during later grade levels to maintain or strengthen the short-term benefits achieved by the current intervention. A growing literature suggests that multi-year SCP programs are the most realistic way to enhance positive youth development and prevent antisocial behavior among young people growing up in high-risk urban environments.

Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.



Jeff Palmer

Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of