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Enlisting Peer Cooperation and Prosociality in the Service of Substance Use Prevention in Middle School

2017-04-19 06:08:26 | BioPortfolio

Summary

Students' cooperative and prosocial behavior is vital to their social and academic success and to the quality of a school's social environment. This project will evaluate an instructional technique that could benefit students and schools by encouraging higher levels of prosocial behavior among students and promoting social integration and inclusion, particularly for marginalized students. The instructional technique is called "cooperative learning" which involves students working in groups toward shared academic goals. Previous research indicates that cooperative learning promotes social acceptance and increases academic engagement and achievement. However, it has not been evaluated as a technique to reduce student behavioral problems and promote greater school safety. There is strong reason to believe that it will have these benefits, since cooperative learning brings together students from diverse social groups and provides them the opportunity to work together toward shared goals in a positive setting.

Description

A key contributing factor to the initiation and escalation of substance use during early adolescence is affiliation with deviant peers. These affiliations often arise when socially isolated and rejected youth aggregate and reinforce substance use and other deviant activity within the group (i.e., "deviant peer clustering"). Even though the field has developed a number of efficacious prevention programs, few have demonstrated strong effects on deviant peer clustering. Further, on a national level, substance use among adolescents continues to be high, suggesting that a fresh approach to prevention with a renewed focus on the peer context is needed to create a broad, sustainable public health impact.

Current approaches to prevention lack a transdisciplinary framework that integrates evidence across the relevant domains. In addition, the bulk of our etiological and prevention research continues to focus on individual problems or small sets of related problems, and our public health system focuses more narrowly on fixing problems than on changing the environmental conditions that gave rise to problems in the first place. Progress also faces limitations due to difficulties in translating existing knowledge into widespread public health impact. Existing programs have proven difficult to disseminate with fidelity, often due to their complex design or the significant expenditures required for curricula, materials, and training. To realize broader public health benefits, an approach that integrates scientific knowledge across domains must be applied to develop and test programs that address root causes of youth substance use, are less complex and expensive to implement, are more flexible and adaptable to local conditions, and once established, can spread.

This proposal represents an approach to prevention in which evolutionary theory provides a unifying theoretical framework, which implies that diverse problems are due to social environments that are unfavorable for the expression of prosocial behaviors, instead eliciting a variety of self-oriented or exploitative behaviors. Systematic efforts to reduce multiple problems among youth (e.g., substance use, risky sex, depression, academic failure, etc.) need to look beyond the immediate issues to the social conditions that make the entire range of problems more likely. We need programs that can modify key social environments to nurture prosocial behavior and minimize the toxic or stressful conditions that give rise to non-prosocial behaviors in youth. Additionally, translating scientific knowledge into a broad public health impact requires that we better understand how relationships, rewards, and behavior can promote greater prosociality across large groups, how prosociality circulates through social networks, how it persists or declines as a function of contextual norms, and how it can serve to suppress the expression of problem behavior.

We propose to integrate several simple, flexible, and powerful prevention strategies that have proven value in establishing a social context conducive to positive peer group development. We will apply cooperative learning, service projects, and behavioral kernels to reduce rejection and isolation, promote new friendships among youth from different social groups, and encourage greater levels of prosocial behavior. This should create a positive feedback loop in which the social and behavioral processes "amplify" one another to bring significant change to the school social context, interrupting deviant peer clustering and addressing a key root cause of escalations in substance use and related problem behavior. With this approach, we anticipate larger effect sizes than have been obtained previously as well as more straightforward implementation, greater sustainability, and opportunities for the program to spread through sharing of best practices among teachers. We propose to test our approach in a small-scale randomized controlled trial involving 12 middle schools in the state of Oregon.

Aim 1a of our project is to evaluate the main effects of our program on both prosocial behavior and substance use. We will also examine effects on secondary outcomes, including delinquent and high-risk sexual behavior, teasing and harassment, depression, school attendance, and academic achievement. We will measure program fidelity and incorporate it into our analyses. Aim 1b of our project is to explore links among peer rejection, prosocial behavior, and substance use over time in an attempt to determine the direction of effects, which can inform both developmental theory and future intervention design.

Aim 2 will evaluate social network changes as a mediator of intervention effects. We will use longitudinal social network analysis (RSiena) to examine a variety of processes as mediators of effects, including deviant peer clustering. Our analyses will provide (1) fresh insight into the processes by which deviant peer groups form, how they impact substance use and related problem behavior, and the ways in which we may be able to counteract or interrupt these processes, (2) exploration of the social mechanisms by which prosocial behavior is disseminated across a network, and (3) an indication of whether the alteration of contextual norms in favor of prosocial behavior can create a clustering process driven by prosocial behavior.

Study Design

Conditions

Social Behavior

Intervention

Cooperative Learning

Status

Active, not recruiting

Source

Oregon Research Institute

Results (where available)

View Results

Links

Published on BioPortfolio: 2017-04-19T06:08:26-0400

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