Research In Action

Research In Action

preventing school bullying
Using a Community-Based Participatory Research Approach to Expand the Impact of a School-based Aggression Prevention Program
October 20, 2022

October marks Bullying Prevention Month, a time to bring national awareness to the epidemic of school bullying. At the Center for Violence Prevention, our team has been developing, implementing, and evaluating school-based bullying and aggression prevention programs for the past 20 years, primarily working with elementary school-aged children. A central component to our work is how our programs can have a broad and positive impact on overall school climate, both in and out of the classroom, which are themes explored in a recent study published in Prevention Science.

With my co-authors Tracy Waasdorp, PhD, MEd, Christine Waanders, PhD, Rui Fu, PhD, and Stephen Leff, PhD, this study describes successful adaptations to the Preventing Relational Aggression in Schools Everyday (PRAISE) program, a classroom-based, universal program for 3rd–5th grade students aimed at reducing relational and overt aggression. Considering the unique challenges faced by children in communities that lack educational and social resources, the program was specifically designed for culturally diverse students in under-resourced schools in large, metropolitan (urban) settings. As described in the current study, PRAISE consisted of 20 classroom lessons delivered by program facilitators from CHOP in collaboration with classroom teachers.

The Evolution of PRAISE

An initial evaluation of PRAISE supported by the National Institutes of Health demonstrated that PRAISE increased knowledge of problem-solving skills and decreased aggression, especially in girls, but the program was not associated with improvements for boys across most measures. In response, our team used a community-based participatory research (CBPR) approach to solicit feedback from program participants and school stakeholders about how to expand the program’s impact for both girls and boys. Based on this input, program teaching modalities (e.g., cartoon workbooks, videos, role-plays) were updated to include equal representation of boys and girls and revisions were made to curriculum to increase the program’s relevance for boys, such as:

  • New focus on conflicts that start as “play fighting,” (i.e., roughhousing) and sometimes escalate into more serious physical aggression.
  • New assertiveness strategy to help students calmly but assertively let others know that they do not agree with their aggressive words or behavior.
  • Broader coverage of “positive bystander strategies” so that aggressive and non-aggressive students can engage in the program and apply strategies.

To evaluate the revised PRAISE program, three elementary schools within a large urban school district were recruited to participate in a trial, which included 3rd – 5th grade students and teachers. In total, there were 353 student participants in 15 classrooms across the three schools, with 194 receiving PRAISE and 159 receiving their school’s standard practices for social-emotional learning. The new model of PRAISE was successful in decreasing relational aggression for both boys and girls. For girls, it also enhanced knowledge of social problem-solving strategies and reduced the tendency toward hostile attributions (the tendency to interpret others' behaviors as having hostile intent) in social situations. Boys receiving PRAISE showed improvements in academic engagement.

What We Learned

There are a few key take-aways from our modifications and further evaluation of PRAISE. First, these results demonstrate the importance of using a strong CBPR approach not only for initial program development, but also for iterative program refinements to meet the needs of its targeted audience. By talking with staff and students in our partnering schools, we were able to learn about naturally occurring play behaviors among peers in unstructured lunchroom and recess settings, as well as gender or cultural norms to stick up for oneself during conflict situations rather than ignoring it or walking away. Infusing new vignettes and examples into the program and adding a new assertiveness strategy that aligns with students’ lived experiences proved effective for modifying a successful school-based aggression prevention program to overcome previous subgroup differences in outcomes and have broader effects across gender.

Additionally, our study results highlight interesting considerations for aggression and bullying prevention related to gender. While the new PRAISE program was effective for reducing relational aggression among both boys and girls, it appears that the impetus for behavior change could be different. For girls, findings suggest that knowledge change is related to behavior change and that the internal process for making sense of their social relationships (e.g., deciding whether or not something was done to them on purpose to be mean) is really important. For boys, findings suggest behavior change could be driven by more external factors, such as a shift in classroom climate or increased focus on learning. This is useful for all schools and educators as they consider different supports boys and girls may need to effectively address aggression and bullying, and how to move the needle on overt (e.g., verbal and physical) as well as relational aggression.

What’s Next

Our team is excited about the future evolution and expansion of PRAISE. Through our continued commitment to CBPR and funding from Pew Charitable Trusts (2019-2022), we have developed a translational adaptation of PRAISE that allows for wider dissemination and sustainability. One unique feature of the new model is a transition from PRAISE being CHOP-led to being led by school counselors and teachers with our training and coaching. We have also shifted the program structure to include shorter and fewer classroom lessons with accompanying activities (e, g., cartoon worksheets, role-plays, writing prompts, group discussions) that can be completed flexibly over the course of the week to reinforce and generalize core strategies and integrate PRAISE into the culture of the school. Looking ahead, with additional funding, PRAISE is poised for more wide-scale dissemination to reach and positively impact more students.