• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Wednesday 13th November, 2013

Reach for the stars and moon

strong>Research shows that social skills training programs for children and young people with emotional or behavioral problems often have short-lived and only moderate benefits. However, a group-based program in the Netherlands is designed to remedy weaknesses in earlier programs and shows promise, especially when “booster” reinforcement sessions are included.Researchers from the Universities of Amsterdam and Utrecht found that the multi-component social skills training program called Star Camp reduced social anxiety among 7-13 year-olds with problem behaviour. More importantly, after a booster intervention known as Moon Camp there were large, positive changes on social anxiety, social problems, internalizing problems and self-perception.The context for the study was that up to a quarter of children aged under-12 in the Netherlands experience mild internalizing problems, including depression and anxiety, and externalizing problems, such as aggressive and rule-breaking behavior. These children tend to perform less well at school.The program included social skills training, physical education, and mentoring. The six-day Star Camp was followed by a day for parents where they learnt how to help their children develop and maintain their new skills. Some children in the study subsequently also attended the six-day Moon Camp that aimed to extend their skills, including sessions on coping with peer pressure, bullying and setting emotional and physical boundaries.Better by designThe Dutch study is one of the first to look at the effects of a multi-component social skills training program for children with mild internalizing or externalizing problems over an extended period of time. A “quasi-experiment” involving 161 children compared those who attended the Star Camp program with a similar group on a waiting list to take part. There was no control group for the continuation Moon Camp, but the participants’ progress continued to be assessed up to a year after taking part. The booster camp was a specific response to research suggesting that any positive effects from social skills training can be short-lived unless reinforced. Parental involvement was, similarly, added, because of evidence that training is less effective unless children are encouraged to apply their new skills in the home. In addition, it was decided to make the program available to children with both externalizing and internalizing problems following evidence that targeting mixed groups would be more effective and less likely to have unexpected, negative consequences.To be selected for the program, children needed scores within a clinical range on survey instruments for assessing social anxiety, emotional and behavioral problems and self-perception. They also needed adequate reading skills. Those with serious emotional or behavioral problems, a physical or mental handicap, or an IQ below 80 were excluded.After Star Camp, children showed less social anxiety than those in the control group, meaning they were less likely to feel fearful and anxious in social situations. This was a small but significant effect. Social and internalizing problems were found to be lower among both the participants and the control group.However, a year after the booster Moon Camp the study found a very large reduction in social anxiety among the sub-sample who took part, plus substantial reductions in social and internalizing problems and increases in children’s sense of self-worth. There was also a small, positive effect on externalizing problems.Grounds for cautionAlthough they show promise, some caution is needed in interpreting these results. As noted, this was a quasi-experimental study, not a randomized controlled trial, and the waiting-list design meant there was no control group by the time children attended the Moon Camp. Thus, positive changes at follow-up cannot necessarily be attributed to the program.It should also be borne in mind that the participants were native Dutch children from mainly well-off backgrounds – for example, 75 per cent of their parents had higher education qualifications. So the results cannot be generalized to children from non-western cultures or lower socio-economic backgrounds.Moreover, since this was a multi-component program it is not possible to disentangle the particular effects that its different components might have had. A useful next step might, therefore, be randomized controlled trial of the program that includes children from less advantaged, multi-ethnic backgrounds children and retains an active control group throughout the booster session and beyond.*********Reference:Van Vugt, E. S., Deković, M., Prinzie, P., Stams, G. J. J. M. and Asscher, J. J. (2013) Evaluation of a group-based social skills training for children with problem behavior. Children and Youth Services Review 35, 162-167.

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