The Effects of City-Wide Implementation of "Second Step" on Elementary School Students' Prosocial and Aggressive Behaviors

Michelle Beaulieu Cooke; Julian Ford; Joan Levine; Cate Bourke; Lisa Newell; Garry Lapidus


J Prim Prev. 2007;28(2):93-115. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

This study examined the impact of implementing Second Step, a violence prevention program, using a comprehensive, city-wide approach. The evaluation included 741 3rd-5th graders in six schools. Student surveys, behavioral observations, and discipline referrals were used to assess aggressive-antisocial and prosocial behaviors. We found significant improvements in positive approach-coping, caring-cooperative behavior, suppression of aggression, and consideration of others, but no changes in aggressive-antisocial behaviors. Behavioral observations and disciplinary referrals showed no significant changes. The program was implemented with high fidelity and engaged a wide range of participants from the community.
Editors' Strategic Implications: Key implementation issues are presented for a cross-site, city-wide evaluation on "Second Step." School and community officials will benefit from these lessons, as well as the authors' recommendations for further longitudinal study with appropriate comparison groups.

Youth violence is widely recognized as a serious and complex public health problem (Mercy & O'Carroll, 1988; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001). Several longitudinal studies have demonstrated a link between early aggressive and antisocial behavior in youth and later violence in adolescence and young adulthood (Farrington, 1991; Huesmann, Eron, Lefkowitz, & Walder, 1984; Olweus, 1979; Tremblay et al., 1992). These studies show the presence of a predictable and stable developmental pathway to violence that begins in early childhood (Reid & Eddy, 1997). Therefore, prevention programs must begin early, ideally at the elementary school level or even earlier, in order to break this continuum of violence (Rivara & Farrington, 1995). Schools have been identified as ideal environments for implementing prevention programs (Mayer, 1995; Walker et al., 1996), and a multitude of programs are available to address violence prevention in this setting.

One such program, Second Step addresses the socioemotional skills of children and youth in grades pre-kindergarten through middle school and seeks to enhance their social environment by providing students with social cognitive skills (Bandura, 1986) that enable them to negotiate situations of interpersonal conflict in a non-violent manner (Thornton, Craft, Dahlberg, Lynch, & Baer, 2000). Second Step is already widely used in the United States and Canada, has been adapted for use in other countries (Frey, Hirschstein, & Guzzo, 2000), and offers developmentally-appropriate curricula for children in grades pre-Kindergarten through middle school. The program is recommended as a best practice or "model" program by several organizations-Safe, Disciplined, and Drug-Free Schools Expert Panel (U.S. Department of Education, 2001); Hamilton Fish Institute (1999); U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2001); Communities that Care (Developmental Research and Programs, Inc., 2000)-because of its modest proven effectiveness combined with its ease of implementation and accessible cost.

Second Step's effectiveness has been tested in several open trial evaluations and one randomized controlled trial, with promising, but somewhat inconsistent, results. A randomized, controlled study of Second Step with 790 second and third grade students in Washington State revealed that the curriculum reduced physically violent behavior in participants and increased the use of prosocial behavior, with effects on physical aggression in the classroom lasting up to six months (Grossman et al., 1997). During the same period, students in the study who did not receive the Second Step curriculum showed increases in physical and verbal aggression at school and no appreciable changes in neutral or prosocial behavior. However, a separate evaluation of Second Step with sixth graders showed less promising effects, which were attributed to a low level of teacher's commitment to the program at some sites, as well as other problems related to program implementation (Orpinas, Parcel, McAlister, & Frankowski, 1995). Other studies of Second Step have reported no change in violent behavior (Botzer, 2003) or in antisocial behavior (McCabe, 2000; Taub, 2002), except with initially highly aggressive children.

Although studies have been inconsistent in their abilities to demonstrate positive effects on violent and aggressive behaviors, they have been consistent in the demonstration of significant improvements in prosocial behaviors that have been shown to precede and predict reductions in student aggression in other studies (Frey et al., 2000; McMahon & Washburn, 2003), including: empathy (McMahon & Washburn, 2003; Ryan, Aten, Auinger, & Miller, 2004; Washburn, 2002), problem solving and understanding of anger management skills (Ryan et al., 2004), social competence and peer engagement (Grossman et al., 1997; Taub, 2002), and awareness of others, classroom climate, and self control (Lillenstein, 2002). Researchers have offered several possible reasons for Second Step's inability to demonstrate a consistent impact on violent and aggressive behaviors, including failures to achieve high and consistent implementation fidelity in the research setting (McMahon & Washburn, 2003; Orpinas et al., 1995), strong teacher buy-in (Orpinas et al., 1995), community involvement (McMahon & Washburn, 2003), and adequate follow-up (Taub, 2002) -- all characteristics linked to prevention program effectiveness. Other characteristics associated with program effectiveness include addressing multiple risk and protective factors (Nation et al., 2003); intensive training and technical support (Domitrovich & Greenberg, 2000; Durlak & Ferrari, 1998; Nation et al., 2003); strong staff and administrative support (August, Lee, Bloomquist, Realmuto, & Hektner, 2003; Kam, Greenbert, & Walls, 2003; Mihalic, Irwin, Elliott, Fagan, & Hansen, 2001). We sought to determine if the effectiveness of Second Step could be enhanced by incorporating these characteristics into its design and implementation. Improving the effectiveness of such a widely-used and accessible curriculum could have broad and important implications for the prevention of school violence.

For the current study, we specifically focused on achieving the following four goals: (1) high implementation fidelity; (2) strong teacher and administrator buy-in and support; (3) high levels of community involvement and support; and (4) the provision of intensive, ongoing training and technical support. This is the first reported implementation of Second Step as a school-community, city-wide intervention. Using a multi-component evaluation methodology, we examined the effectiveness of Second Step in this setting, with the hypothesis that this implementation approach would enhance the effectiveness of Second Step by broadening the scope of the program and addressing some of the potential reasons for lack of success in the past. Our evaluation included three major components: student self-report questionnaires, independent behavioral observations and review of disciplinary referrals. For the current study, we report the effects of Second Step on 3rd and 4th grade students' outcomes in terms of changes in risk and protective factors.


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