• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Monday 19th March, 2012

When the pay-off never leaves school

When prevention programs are implemented in schools, there is often an assumption that the benefits will spill over into other areas of children’s lives. A study published in the Journal of School Psychology suggests otherwise. A systematic review by Linda Reddy and colleagues from Rutgers and Fairleigh Dickinson Universities looked at the effectiveness of 29 school-based programs designed to improve children’s emotional health.  Unusually, it looked at studies that measured outcomes both in school and at home. This enabled researchers to see whether the effects of programs were visible away from the setting were they were delivered.  Programs were also broken down into prevention and intervention. The two kinds of activity overlap, but broadly, where work with children is concerned, prevention programs are designed for those who may be at risk of problems; interventions target those who are judged already to have developed symptoms.  Interventions are often more complex and involved than prevention initiatives, and they tend to have a greater impact on outcomes. As Linda Reddy’s report points out, this may be due to the fact that children selected for intervention treatments generally have more serious difficulties to begin with. This difference was borne out by the study: overall, prevention programs achieved moderate effect sizes (an average of 0.54) whereas interventions produced smaller changes (.35). What was surprising was the difference between prevention and intervention when their effects on emotions were compared between school and home. They achieved similar levels of effectiveness when the results were measured at school, but measured at home the prevention effect on emotions was negligible.  The authors suggest that prevention programs struggle to affect outcomes outside the classroom because of their design. Preventative approaches generally focus narrowly on school misbehavior – such as disruption and bullying; interventions are more holistic in their intention.  Of the studies included in their review, 89% of the prevention programs concentrated on disruption and bullying; the comparable figure for interventions was 60%. Interventions are generally far more expensive than prevention programs, but it now appears that the returns are greater. The question is whether school prevention initiatives can be reconfigured to make the equivalent jump toward wider effectiveness. In the light of these findings, the authors call for “additional efficacy research that examines the impact of school programs in home and school.”  Among the many meta-analyses of prevention and treatment inventions, Reddy and colleagues’ is believed to be the first to bring together the literature on school-based programs for children at risk of, or in the grip of emotional difficulties.  The authors advise caution on that score because results were combined from a broad range of evaluations using experimental and quasi-experimental methods, as well as between-subjects, within-subjects and single-subject designs. The scientific validity of some of the studies included is questionable.  See: Reddy L A, Newman E, De Thomas C A and Chun V (2009) “Effectiveness of school-based prevention and intervention programs for children and adolescents with emotional disturbance: A meta-analysis” in Journal of School Psychology, 47, 22, pp 77-99.

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