Intervention on social skills expanded to academic motivation and responsibility

An intervention program that reduces aggressive behavior by training students not to “jump to conclusions” about their peers’ intentions has now been expanded to encourage academic motivation and responsibility, write the developers of the program in a recent issue of Educational Psychologist.

“To our knowledge, this is the first successful intervention for children displaying high rates of aggression that blended social skills training with motivation skills training under one unifying theoretical framework,” write the authors, who developed The BrainPower Program and the Best Foot Forward program.

“The pervasive links between problem behaviors and school adjustment suggest that effective intervention programs to enhance school adjustment must focus both on decreasing the motivation to aggress and increasing the motivation to achieve.”

Based on attribution theory, the BrainPower program aims to reduce aggressive behavior by training children to more carefully appraise peer interactions. So, for example, when a peer walks by a student’s desk and knocks down a pile of books, the student is trained to consider that clumsiness or overly narrow aisles between the rows of desks might be the cause of the behavior and that it is not necessarily a hostile act.

Hostile attributional bias

Now, the authors say, they have taken the program one step beyond intentionality to teach students with hostile attributional bias to take greater responsibility both for their peer interactions and for academic success. In peer interactions, the Best Foot Forward program trains students to take responsibility for their personal relationships by practicing “account giving” or providing explanations for social transgressions that include apologies, excuses, justifications and denials.

In school, students can attribute academic outcomes to themselves or to factors beyond their control such as poor teaching. The Best Foot Forward program promotes attributing achievement to personal responsibility and provides students with strategies based on motivational principles of choice (whether a student prefers easy, intermediate or difficult achievement tasks) and persistence (how a student manages challenge). To promote motivation, the program teaches students to selects tasks of intermediate difficulty and proximal goal setting skills (breaking down goals into manageable components).

“Both academic motivation and achievement outcomes are enhanced when students choose tasks of intermediate difficulty, set proximal as opposed to distal goals, are task focused rather than ego focused, and attribute failure to controllable causes,” the authors write.

“There is a chilling tendency in our society to give up on children much too quickly and declare them casualties of societal risk factors,” the authors write. They describe their intervention programs as cost-effective, educational strategies that can change these behaviors early before they become too entrenched.

African-American and Latino youth

In their recent article in Educational Psychologist, the researchers report on evaluation studies of their BrainPower program primarily with African American and Latino youth and also of their expanded program Best Foot Forward. In an initial controlled efficacy investigation of Best Foot Forward with 66 African-American elementary school males Grades 3 to 5, the researchers found changes in student behavior after the 12-week intervention.

Students who participated in intervention displayed changes in attitudes about the legitimacy of aggression, they report. When presented with scenarios of social transgressions, intervention participants were more likely to select more appropriate social responses and to accept accounts of hypothetical peers who apologized or offered an excuse (but they were not more inclined to forgive the peer). In the achievement domain, when asked to recall a recent failure, intervention participants were more likely to rate lack of effort very highly and lack of ability and external factors very low.

To implement the intervention programs in a school setting, participants typically receive 12 BrainPower lessons in six weeks (twice weekly) in small groups with two trained group leaders. Each group consists of four students displaying excessive aggression and two students with average behavior who are included to avoid the stigmatization of other participants and to provide positive peer models. This also provides the opportunity for average students to reappraise their own perceptions of peers with aggressive behaviors.

Best Foot Forward is a 32-lesson curriculum that focuses on enhancing social and academic motivation skills. The academic motivation component is divided into four sections: intermediate risk taking, goal setting, task focus and failure attributions. In one exercise, the Spelling Game, for example, students compete for points to win prizes for correctly spelling words from three lists of word, easy, intermediate and difficult. Participants learned that the best strategy for earning points that could be traded for prizes was to focus on words of intermediate difficulty, the authors write.

“Reducing Aggressive Behavior and Increasing Motivation in School: The Evolution of an Intervention to Strengthen School Adjustment,” by Cynthia Hudley et al., Educational Psychologist, 2007,Volume 42, Number 4, pp. 251-260.

Published in ERN February 2008 Volume 21 Number 2

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