• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 18th January, 2011

Charting the PATHS to effectiveness

There is a good body of research on the effectiveness of school-based, social and emotional learning (SEL) programs, one of the best and widely known of which is PATHS or Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies.Like similar SEL programs, this seeks to promote children’s social and emotional competence and reduce aggressive behavior, placing particular emphasis on teachers generalizing the skills learned to the whole of the school day to “build a healthy classroom atmosphere that supports children’s use and internalization of skills”.Now, in a recent paper, the developers of PATHS have looked at its effects on children who have received it for more than two years. Most other SEL programs can only boast data on one school year or less. In addition, the PATHS team is keen to understand the particular conditions under which the program is more or less effective. A recently published study examined whether a student’s gender, age and initial levels of behavioral difficulty, as well as the school-level context, made a difference to the impact of the program.It says: “It is possible that the disruptive climates that often characterize classrooms that serve many disadvantaged children may affect the utility of different approaches to preventive intervention.”Teachers in schools that have a high density of children with anti-social behavior or who came from homes with high poverty levels may face particular problems in implementing the demands of many SEL programs, reducing the impact possible. In contrast, interventions that are less intensive may be relatively more effective because it is possible to implement them with fidelity.Approximately 12 schools in each of three areas of the USA, chosen to represent a different cross section of the American population, were matched in size, achievement levels, poverty levels, and ethnic and sets of schools were then randomly assigned to either the PATHS intervention group or a control group. The longitudinal analysis involved 2,937 children who remained in the same intervention or control schools for grades 1, 2 and 3. Retention rates in the study varied enormously from 30.9 per cent to 75 per cent, due to high levels of mobility in some neighborhoods.The program’s impact was assessed by using: teacher ratings of children’s behavior in their class and peer ratings of children in the class whose behavior met descriptions for aggressive, pro-social or hyperactive. The study found that on both outcome measures the program had a significant impact on children’s social competence and reduced behavioral problems. These effects were significant both in the short- and longer-term follow-up for those children who remained in their schools for the period of the study. But findings also reveal something about the particular contexts within which PATHS is more and less effective.As expected, PATHS was more effective for children with greater initial levels of difficulty; “children who exhibited higher levels of baseline aggression in the fall of first grade and received the intervention showed larger reductions in aggression by the end of third grade than did children who started school with low levels…”. There were differences between ratings by teachers and peers, however; peer nominations did not adjust significantly for girls, possibly reflecting “the very low base rate of such nominations for girls during early elementary years”.The importance of school context was apparent: PATHS was effective in both high- and low-poverty schools, however, greater improvements were demonstrated in those with less socio-economic disadvantage. This is unlikely to be entirely down to differences in implementing the program since high-disadvantage schools did not deliver with significantly less fidelity than low-disadvantage schools. However, it is clear that “ongoing, proactive technical assistance provided to teachers” is required to assist “teachers who are working in highly stressed contexts and responding to daily student crises”. Despite significant evidence for the effectiveness of PATHS, there is more to explore. Although “it is the largest study of its kind… [it] cannot differentiate the impact of having 1 year versus more than 1 year of intervention” since the design did not test different amounts of exposure. Future studies will also be needed to examine the processes by which school disadvantage affects program impact, so that more can be done to enhance the program’s impact in schools that most need it.

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