How effective are abuse-prevention programs?

Despite the widespread use of school-based abuse-prevention programs, there is little research that supports their effectiveness in helping children avoid victimization. Susan F. Ko and Merith A. Cosden, University of California/Santa Barbara, report that most programs are evaluated by measuring students’ increase in knowledge about abuse, not by measuring changes in their behavior and subsequent experiences with abuse. In fact, Ko and Cosden state that it has not been proven that increasing students’ knowledge of strategies to avoid abuse enables them to change their behavior in order to reduce victimization.

Prevention programs were designed to equip children with protective strategies that would allow them to avoid or reduce harm. They teach children skills that make them more assertive and less compliant with offenders. These programs targeted the primary years because of the high incidence of abuse seen with young children.

Only one previous study attempted to link knowledge obtained in prevention programs to changes in children’s behavior and subsequent experiences. In that study, researchers conducted 2,000 telephone interviews with students aged 10-16.

Students who had attended prevention programs in their schools exhibited more knowledge about abuse and its prevention, yet there was no correlation between this knowledge and a reduction in victimization or injury. However, these students were more likely to have disclosed the incident to others and less likely to blame themselves for the abuse.

In the current study, Ko and Cosden attempted to measure the impact of school-based prevention programs by surveying high school students who had participated in prevention programs in elementary and middle school.

Data from 137 students were collected anonymously during health classes. The researchers compared the results from 72 students who reported attending abuse-prevention programs with 65 students who were demographically similar but had not participated in such programs.

As in previous studies, students who had attended prevention programs were more knowledgeable about abuse concepts. These students also reported fewer incidents of abuse than students who had not been trained in abuse prevention.

Among students who had been abused but had not used one of the recommended strategies, 25 percent reported a positive outcome and 75 percent reported a bad outcome. However, even when the students used the strategies they had been taught, the effectiveness of their reactions to abuse was variable.

There were significant differences in the reported effectiveness of these strategies in relation to abuse by known and unknown offenders.

Sixty-two percent of students whose abusers were unknown to them reported that the strategies they used were effective in reducing or preventing abuse, whereas only 34 percent of those who knew their assailants believed their strategies were effective. These children still seemed vulnerable to abuse by people they knew.

Most students in the current study had a core of common knowledge about abuse, but students who attended programs had greater understanding of subtle but important issues. These issues included attribution of blame, understanding that abusers could be people who were close to the victim, awareness that both girls and boys could be victims, and acknowledging the need to report abuse.

No one strategy appeared to be universally helpful in either avoiding or reducing harm. The majority of abuse incidents reported by the students were perpetrated by someone known to them. The strategies taught in most abuse-prevention programs appear to be more effective with strangers.

Thus, participation in school-based programs may have helped these students avoid abuse by a stranger, but it was less effective in helping them contend with known assailants.


“Do Elementary School-Based Child-Abuse Prevention Programs Work? A High School Follow-Up” Psychology in the Schools Volume 38, Number 1, January 2001 Pp. 57-66.

Published in ERN November 1999 Volume 12 Number 8

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