Evaluation of a theater-based youth violence prevention program for elementary school children

Kisiel, C., Blaustein, M., Spinazzola, J., Schmidt, C. S., Zucker, M., & van der Kolk, B. (2006). Evaluation of a theater-based youth violence prevention program for elementary school children. Journal of School Violence, 5(2), 19-36.

Abstract:

The researchers used a quasi-experimental research design to investigate the effectiveness of Urban Improv, a 27-week interactive drama-based youth violence prevention program. Urban Improv is a school-based program in which participants rehearse and perform conflict scenarios in order to learn decision-making, impulse control, and conflict resolution skills. Specifically, the researchers designed the program evaluation to examine three outcomes: aggressive and externalizing behaviors (actions directed towards others); pro-social behaviors, including cooperation, assertiveness, and self-control; and scholastic attention and engagement. The researchers matched 77 students in four fourth grade classrooms who participated in the program with 63 students in four similar fourth grade classrooms who did not participate in Urban Improv. The researchers collected data through pre- and post-intervention teacher and student questionnaires and classroom observations, and found that students in the treatment group made significant gains in all outcome areas as compared to their control group counterparts.

Key Findings:

Participation in the Urban Improv program halted the progression of aggressive and violent behavior. Students who participated in the drama-based youth violence prevention program maintained baseline levels of aggressive and violent behavior while comparison students’ levels of these behaviors increased over time.

During the study time period, students in the treatment group demonstrated an increase in levels of all prosocial behaviors, including cooperation, assertiveness, and self-control. Students in the control group evidenced decreased levels of these behaviors during the same timeframe.

Urban Improv participation resulted in decreases to behaviors that may inhibit high academic performance. Students in the Urban Improv program showed decreased levels of internalizing symptoms and hyperactivity from pre- to post-intervention while comparison students demonstrated an increase in these symptoms.

Significance of the Findings:

The results of this study support the use of interactive drama as an effective means to prevent violence and promote positive behaviors for urban youth, and lend support to arts-based youth violence prevention programs. Evidence from the study suggests elementary school as an important time to provide students with youth violence prevention programs like Urban Improv, in order to build problem solving skills and stop the development of aggressive behaviors before they become entrenched in student life.

Methodology:

The Boston Public School district identified fourth-grade classes from five inner-city schools, based on their prior collaborations with community organizations and at-risk demographic factors, for participation in the treatment group. The control group consisted of fourth-grade classrooms from the same schools as the treatment group, matched to the treatment group in terms of demographics. The treatment group included 77 students and the control group included 63 students, with all participants between the ages of eight and 11. The treatment group of students traveled to a local theater space during the school day, once per week for nine weeks. Each Urban Improv session was 75 minutes in length, and included opportunities for students to make pivotal decisions affecting the outcome of scenes, to develop and perform their own scenes on a particular topic, and to engage in group discussion about choices and consequences.

The researchers collected data using student and teacher reports of the Social Skills Rating System (SRSS) for the elementary level. The SRSS is a self-report that measures participants’ social skills, problem behaviors, and academic competence. The students also completed the aggression subscale of the Youth Coping Inventory, a self-report that measures a student’s coping style. Students completed a self-report that measures youth attitudes and beliefs towards violence and aggression, called the Normative Beliefs About Aggression test. The researchers administered all the tests at the beginning and end of the program, and the researchers used multiple statistical methods to analyze the data for significant changes between pre- and post-test and to compare the findings across the treatment and control groups.

Limitations of the Research:

The researchers note that significant differences in behavior were apparent only on teacher-report measures; student report measures did not show significant effects. This discrepancy suggests a lack of reliability between measures. However, past research has found such teacher-student differences to be common, and young children may not be able to accurately self-report behaviors. On the other hand, perhaps teachers were more likely than students to answer as they felt was expected based on participation or lack of participation in Urban Improv. Because the study used in-tact classrooms, competing variables such as teacher quality, could not be isolated from the findings.

Non-English proficient students and some students with learning disabilities were excluded from this study, limiting the ability to apply these findings to many urban classrooms.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Are drama-based youth prevention programs effective for middle and high school students? Do the findings apply to other at-risk students, such as English language learners and students in rural areas? How does prolonged and intensive participation in drama-based youth prevention programs impact student at-risk behavior over the long term?