As models of prevention have become better integrated with research on the development of antisocial behavior, the need for addressing the transactional nature of risk factors has emerged. As noted by the Institute of Medicine (1994)
, “the transactional interaction between the individual child and his or her environment over time is the ecological crucible in which the pathways to the development of a range of positive or negative childhood and adult outcomes are forged” (p. 181). A critical factor in the early development of antisocial behavior for many high-risk children is that they attend schools that have a high density of other high-risk children like themselves and thus present the classroom teacher, who often has fewer resources than do teachers in less high-risk schools, with additional challenges to classroom order. This volatile combination of high-risk child and high-risk classroom has negatively synergistic consequences for both the child and the classroom. The disruptive behavior of high-risk children undermines the social and academic environment for other children. Reciprocally, the high-risk child encounters greater stimulation to disruptive behavior and a less nurturant learning atmosphere, rather than being given the kind of well-structured and nonprovocative classroom that would be needed to compensate for his or her emotional, social, and cognitive deficits.
The primary goal of the Fast Track model is to integrate the provision of universal (all children) and selective (children at some risk) services into a comprehensive model that involves the child, school, family, and community (Institute of Medicine, 1994
). Fast Track was designed to provide two levels of child intervention simultaneously during the elementary school years. Through a multistage screening process involving both teacher and parent reports during kindergarten, the 10% of children demonstrating the greatest degree of early conduct problems were selected for a series of interventions that included weekly parenting support classes, small-group social skills interventions, academic tutoring, and home visiting (Bierman, Greenberg, & Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group [CPPRG], 1996
; McMahon, Slough, & CPPRG, 1996
). Such interventions are believed to be necessary to both reduce risk factors and promote protective factors in children who are showing the “early starter” model of conduct problems (CPPRG, 1992
; Loeber, 1990
; Moffitt, 1993
Simultaneous with the initiation of these interventions for the high-risk children and families, the universal intervention consisting of the Fast Track PATHS (Promoting Alternative THinking Strategies) curriculum and behavioral consultation was started in the classroom. There are two central reasons that integrated delivery of universal and selective interventions should provide an additive effect. First, it is unlikely that effects of the selective interventions with the children and families will generalize to the school and classroom setting without providing support for these new skills in the school (Kazdin, 1990
). By providing similar skills, cues, and a common language in both the selective and universal interventions, teachers and other school staff are able to promote the generalization of skills to the classroom. Second, a universal intervention intended to promote the development of social competence in all children should lead to an improved classroom atmosphere that supports improved interpersonal relations for all students (Battistich, Solomon, Watson, Solomon, & Schaps, 1989
; Elias et al., 1998
). Reciprocally, more intensive intervention with the highest risk children in these same classrooms may serve to reduce their highly disruptive impact on the classrooms, thereby making it easier for the remaining children to respond to the universal intervention. It was hoped that intensive intervention for higher need students would serve to communicate to teachers that the program staff were committed to helping them with their most difficult problems, thus making teachers more open to participating in a universal intervention. In addition, Fast Track staff provided behavioral consultation to teachers regarding both the high-risk children and the remaining classroom students.
In this report, we consider the effectiveness of the universal intervention using a randomized clinical trial design. We examine its effects at the level of the classroom (Murray & Wolfinger, 1994
) in altering the conditions of peer relations and classroom atmosphere through the use of multiple reporters (children, teachers, and observers). Although sets of schools, not classrooms, were the unit of randomization, the classroom is the unit of program delivery and also the level at which measures such as dosage and implementation can be assessed.
Social competence can be broadly conceived as the capacity to integrate cognition, affect, and behavior to achieve specified social tasks and positive developmental outcomes (Waters & Sroufe, 1983
; Weissberg & Greenberg, 1998
). Meta-analyses of universal prevention programs during the elementary school years indicate that such programs have shown significant and moderate effects on social–cognitive abilities and mild to moderate effects on children's social adjustment (Beelmann, Pfingsten, & Losel, 1994
; Denham & Almeida, 1987
; Durlak, 1995
; Schneider, 1992
). A number of other conclusions have been reached. First, traditional prevention models based on single skills (e.g., only social problem solving, self-control, empathy, or behavioral social skills training) have demonstrated less effectiveness than multimodal programs that integrate social problem solving, social skills (peer relations and self-control), and emotional understanding. Second, interventions need to be of significant duration and intensity to show effects (Weissberg & Elias, 1993
). Third, there is a need to examine how both dosage and quality of implementation affect outcomes. The PATHS preventive intervention program is based on the ABCD (Affective–Behavioral–Cognitive–Dynamic) model of development (Greenberg & Kusche, 1993
; Greenberg, Kusche, & Speltz, 1991
), which places primary importance on the developmental
integration of affect (and emotion language), behavior, and cognitive understanding as they relate to social and emotional competence. A basic premise is that a child's coping, as reflected in his or her behavior and internal regulation, is a function of emotional awareness, affective–cognitive control, and social–cognitive understanding.
Between the ages of 5 and 7 years, children undergo a major developmental transformation that generally includes increases in cognitive skills, as well as changes in brain size and function (Kendler, 1963
; Pennington & Welsh, 1995
; White, 1965
). This transition and accompanying developmental changes allow children to undertake major changes in responsibilities, independence, and social roles (Belsky & MacKinnon, 1994
; Pianta, Steinberg, & Rollins, 1995
). Thus, the relationships between affective understanding, cognition, and behavior are of crucial importance in socially competent action and healthy peer relations (Weissberg & Elias, 1993
). Taking this into account, the PATHS curriculum model synthesizes the domains of self-control, emotional awareness and understanding, peer-related social skills, and social problem solving to increase social and emotional competence. In addition to a person-oriented model that focuses primarily on developmental integration, the intervention model incorporates an ecobehavioral systems orientation (Weissberg, Caplan, & Sivo, 1989
), which places primacy on the manner in which the teacher uses the curriculum model. That is, program impact may be the greatest when teachers generalize support for curriculum-based skills during the day and build a healthy classroom atmosphere that supports the child's skill use and internalization of skills. It is presumed that improvements in social competence can be a function of changes in the child, changes in the ecology, and their interaction.
Previous field trials with different versions of the PATHS curriculum with both deaf (Greenberg & Kusche, 1993
) and regular- and special-needs children (Greenberg & Kusche, 1997
; Greenberg, Kusche, Cook, & Quamma, 1995
) have shown that the use of the PATHS curriculum is associated with significantly more mature social cognitions, including better understanding of social problems, higher percentages of effective solutions, lower percentages of aggressive and passive solutions, and increased recognition of emotions. In all three samples studied to date, teachers reported significant improvements in behaviors targeted by PATHS (self-control, emotional understanding, and use of more effective conflict resolution skills). In special-needs children, PATHS also led to significant decreases in self-reported sadness, decreases in teacher reports of internalizing problems, and increases in teacher reports of social competence.
Following from the model, the Fast Track universal prevention strategy operated under the following assumptions. First, the school environment is a fundamental ecology and one that can be a central locus of change (Elias et al., 1998
). Second, given the developmental issues facing children in middle childhood, self-control, emotional understanding and awareness, peer-related social skills, and problem solving would all appear to be prime targets for preventive intervention during the elementary school years. Following in the tradition of numerous recent school-based preventive interventions (Elias, Gara, Schuyler, Branden-Muller, & Sayette, 1991
; Hawkins & Weis, 1985
; Weissberg & Elias, 1993
), the PATHS curriculum was designed to be delivered by teachers with support from project staff, to be taught on a regular basis throughout most of the school year, and to provide daily activities to promote generalization. Using an ecobehavioral systems model, Fast Track staff also consulted with the school principal to bring the philosophy of PATHS to the entire school, resulting in various efforts (on a school-by-school basis), such as placing PATHS posters in school hallways, implementing new school behavior guidelines, and painting problem-solving “stop-lights” on school playgrounds.
The present study advances the knowledge base on school-based universal prevention programs in four ways. First, it examines the efficacy of a universal program in the context of a comprehensive model that includes targeted intervention. Second, it uses a model in which emotional understanding and regulation are a central focus of intervention. Third, because of its large sample size, it is the first elementary school study in which analyses can be accomplished at the classroom level. This provides two innovations: There is sufficient power to assess measures of the classroom atmosphere, and hierarchical modeling can be used to account for interdependency among scores within classrooms (Bryk & Raudenbush, 1992
). Finally, the study can assess the effects of curriculum effectiveness in sites with different populations.
We hypothesized that the introduction of the Fast Track universal prevention program would lead to differences in peer-rated aggression and hyperactive–disruptive behavior, teacher-rated aggression and conduct problems, and observer-rated classroom atmosphere. Further, we hypothesized that both dosage and quality of implementation would predict variation in the above outcomes.