• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Thursday 30th August, 2012

From the front line: making the unthinkable possible

strong>Many fans of evidence-based programs know how hard it can be to get providers to adopt single evidence-based programs. The far tougher task of persuading government to implement a national evidence-based strategy could send many prevention scientists running for the hills. But it can be done, as the developers of Austria’s national anti-bullying program demonstrate.In the UK and US in recent years, policymakers, researchers, and educators have made strides toward establishing evidence as a basis for decision-making. This is not the case in Central and Southern European countries, especially in education.A recent initiative in Austria shows one way to buck the trend. Two of the researchers involved, Christiane Spiel and Dagmar Strohmeier, offer some insights into what they did and why it worked.In 2003, a national report showed that existing initiatives to prevent violence in schools in Austria were not working. Four years later, after violent incidents in schools made the headlines and sparked a public debate over high rates of bullying, the Austrian Government commissioned researchers to develop a national plan for violence prevention in Austrian state schools.The resulting strategy has been implemented gradually since 2008 and includes evidence-based programs in schools and kindergartens. It is part of the coalition agreement between the two governing parties and has funding until 2013 – a big success story for a plan that didn’t exist five years ago.Barriers to changeLike any major policy shift, the anti-violence strategy faced challenges in getting off the ground and sustaining its momentum. What were these barriers, and how were they overcome?One of the biggest challenges, Spiel and Strohmeier say, was getting the mandate in the first place to develop a national plan. This required convincing the relevant minister and civil servants about the need for such a plan, which was achieved by raising awareness of the issues and highlighting the benefits of a coordinated approach.Another key challenge was shifting people’s attitudes from supporting one-off initiatives that lack evidence to supporting evidence-based programs. Before the national strategy, there were many one-off initiatives in Austrian schools but they did not meet high standards of evidence, such as those developed and promoted by the US-based Society for Prevention Research (SPR). An existing primer on evaluation methods, designed for clients of evaluations, proved particularly useful here.Moreover, stakeholders in violence prevention were not connecting with one another, and their knowledge about the science of evaluation was poor. The team charged with developing the strategy therefore sought dialogue with the government and attempted to get stakeholders to work together better. The strategy development processIn the face of these challenges, the team went through a process of gathering information and working out what could be done – and who could do it.The team’s first step was to examine violence prevention efforts in other countries, such as the KiVa anti-bullying program in Finland. Next they undertook a systematic review of programs to identify those that met the SPR standards.The team then interviewed a range of stakeholders, including politicians, teacher unions, school psychologists, parent groups, teacher training colleges, NGOs, and the media. They found out what these groups were doing for violence prevention and what they needed help with.A first draft of the strategy was discussed with international experts, and then specific goals for each stakeholder group were identified. At last, it was ready to be presented to government ministers.Implementation begins – and so does changeOf course, developing the strategy is only the beginning. As it has been rolled out, the national strategy has been successful in promoting the implementation of evidence-based programs, according to Spiel and Strohmeier. This success could happen partly because of the money devoted to the plan and constituent programs ¬– but also because the relevant minister and civil servants were “very much engaged and very keen to get positive results.” And attitudes and practices did change, as the rigorous evaluation of ViSC (Viennese Social Competence) shows. This real-world randomized controlled trial evaluation of this program, which aims to reduce aggressive behavior and bullying in secondary schools, was the first such trial ever financed by the Austrian ministry responsible for education. A national plan also keeps one eye on the future. Political climates change. Having a national strategy also acts, the authors suggest, as a protective factor against the risk that politicians will abandon an initiative to score quick electoral wins.**********Reference:Spiel, C. & Strohmeier, D. (2012). Evidence-based practice and policy: when researchers, policy makers, and practitioners learn how to work together. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 9(1), 150-162.For more on the standards for evidence-based programs and policies developed by the Society of Prevention Research (SPR): Flay, B. R., Biglan, A., Boruch, R. F., Castro, F. G., Gottfredson, D., Kellan, S., Moscicki, E. K., & Schinke, S. (2005). Standards of evidence: Criteria for efficacy, effectiveness and dissemination. Prevention Science, 6(3), 151-175.

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