March 2, 2011: Students reported lower rates of substance use, bullying, and violence after participating in a character development program for three years in Chicago public schools in a study by researchers affiliated with the University of Illinois at Chicago Institute for Health Research and Policy (IHRP).
The program, called Positive Action, was administered to all students in seven Chicago public elementary schools. Researchers tracked outcomes for a cohort of students in those schools as they progressed from third through fifth grades. Compared to students in seven similar schools that served as controls, students in the intervention schools reported 31 percent less substance use, 37 percent less violence and 41 percent less bullying at the end of fifth grade.
The study replicates findings of an earlier study of the program in Hawaiian elementary schools, which “did not address the unique challenges of implementing a program in a large, under-resourced urban school system,” said David DuBois, professor of community health sciences and co-investigator of the study. He said the duplication of the research team’s findings “gives us increased confidence that the program significantly improves student behavior.”
School-based approaches are considered the best for preventing aggression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Positive Action curriculum, administered by teachers trained in the program, teaches and reinforces students’ positive behavior inside and outside the classroom.
The program addresses a broad range of behavioral influences, from the disciplinary climate in a school and teacher classroom management, to students’ feelings and self-efficacy. At the heart of the program, DuBois said, is the idea that with appropriate support and encouragement, positive behavior becomes self-reinforcing for students because it leads them to feel better about themselves.
“Schoolwide interventions have the potential of benefitting all students,” rather than only those students identified by administrators as at risk, said DuBois, a psychologist with expertise in mentoring and positive youth development. He has conducted research on Positive Action with Brian Flay, UIC distinguished professor emeritus of community health sciences now based at Oregon State University, for more than eight years.
“Ideally, in the elementary grades, the program is taught for 20 minutes three or four times a week,” DuBois said, but, “although principals and teachers see great value in a program like Positive Action, in this era of high-stakes testing and No Child Left Behind, it’s not unusual for us to find both schools and teachers that cannot find the time to fully implement a program like Positive Action.”
Having outcome data based on reports by the students themselves and other factors limited the study’s findings, wrote the researchers in the journal Psychology and Health.
“While such measures are widely accepted in research on behavior, it would be valuable to have additional data, such as teacher and parent reports on children’s behavior or observational data,” DuBois said.
"That said, we also found that school disciplinary referrals are significantly decreased in the intervention schools, which supports the validity of our study results," he added.
Almost half of the students (46 percent) reported their ethnicity as African American and 27 percent as Hispanic. Most live in neighborhoods with high rates of poverty.
Owing to the high mobility of students in the study, common in poorer Chicago public schools, half of the fifth-graders whose reports provided the outcome data did not provide baseline data or participate in the entire three-year study.
The researchers are analyzing data for other outcomes, including academic performance and mental health. They have submitted a grant application to follow new groups of students as the schools continue to implement the program. The researchers hypothesize that as the program becomes more thoroughly integrated in the schools' classrooms and culture, benefits for students will increase.
Read the abstract of the paper by Kin-Kit Li, Isaac Washburn, David L. DuBois, et al. Effects of the Positive Action programme on problem behaviours in elementary school students: A matched-pair randomised control trial in Chicago. Psychol Health. 2011;26(2):187-204.