SCHOOL TRANSITIONAL ENVIRONMENT PROJECT (STEP)

Principal Investigator: Robert Felner

Level of Intervention: Universal

Target Population: students making normative school transitions (from elementary to middle or junior high, or from middle or junior high to high school), especially in large schools with many feeder schools

References: Felner & Adan (1988); Felner, Brand, Adan, Mulhall, Flowers, Sartain, & DuBois (1993); Felner, Ginter & Primavera (1982)

Theory (Risk & Protective Factors Targeted):
STEP is based on the Transactional-Ecological/Transitional Life-Events model, in which children experience greater risks for negative outcomes during normative transitional life events such as moving from elementary to middle school or from junior to senior high school. This increased risk is due to the heightened complexity and developmental demands of the new setting, and the school’s typical inability to provide the necessary support, resources and information for students to transition successfully. STEP seeks to institute ecological changes in the school environment to make the transition less threatening and disruptive, and to create a supportive environment in the receiving school.

Description of Intervention:
STEP’s core components include creating "cohorts" of transitioning students who remain together as a group during core classes and homeroom, restructuring the arrangement of classes to create smaller "learning communities" within the larger school, and redefining the role of the homeroom teacher and counselors to provide a greater support structure for transitioning students. In this revised role, the homeroom teacher becomes an advisor to the students in his/her cohort and serves as a liaison between the students, their families, and the rest of the school. The homeroom teacher takes on many of the administrative responsibilities of the traditional guidance counselor, such as helping students select classes and addressing truancy issues with families. The homeroom teacher also meets with the other teachers who provide core instruction to the cohort, to identify students who may need additional counseling or support.

Research Subjects:
Although a number of evaluations and replications of STEP have been conducted, few have focused on behavioral or psychosocial outcomes. In one relevant replication study, the sample consisted of 1204 students from 4 treatment schools and 761 students from 4 control schools. The sample was 17% minority and 44% were from families where the highest level of parent education is high school. The students were entering junior high school in 6th (58%) or 7th (42%) grade. The sample included all non special education students in the 8 study schools, and treatment and control schools were comparable on demographic and socio-economic characteristics. The treatment schools generally had larger entering class sizes and more feeder schools, which theoretically would have biased the study against finding treatment effects for that group.

Research Design:
The relevant study used a quasi-experimental (treatment and control) longitudinal design which assessed both process and outcome measures, and included student and teacher reports as well as collection of administrative data. Outcome measures included the School Transition Stress (STS) index (designed by the author) to measure stress experienced during the transition, the Children’s Depression Inventory (Kovacs, 1981) to assess depression, the Revised Children’s Manifest Anxiety Scale (Reynolds and Richmond, 1978) to measure anxiety, the Self Evaluation Questionnaire (Dubois, Felner & Brand, 1993) to measure self esteem, the Delinquency Scale of the Youth Self-Report (Achenbach & Edelbrock, 1987) to assess behavior problems, and a subset of the Teacher-Child Rating Scale (Hightower, et al., 1986) to measure teacher rating of classroom behavior. All measures had high internal consistency (all alphas > .84).

Outcomes:
MANOVAs for student self reports of socio-emotional adjustment and teacher ratings of student behavior showed significant effects (p < .001) after controlling for student background variables. Followup univariate analysis showed significant groups effects across all data sets. STEP students reported significantly lower levels of school transitional stress and better adjustment on measures of anxiety, depression, self esteem, and delinquent behavior than controls. Teacher ratings of classroom behavioral adjustment were also significantly better than controls. STEP students grades and attendance patterns were significantly better than controls as well.

Strengths & Limitations:
The STEP program focuses entirely on school environment as a risk factor and seeks to improve student outcomes through ecological change. Though it may be more effective as part of a more comprehensive prevention effort, other studies of STEP have found it to be more effective than programs targeting transitional life events through individual skill building. Earlier studies have also demonstrated STEPs effectiveness when targeted at the transition to high school (the present study focused on the transition to junior high/middle school) and with extremely high risk schools. Although its focus is somewhat narrow, the study demonstrated significant outcomes with a relatively large sample across a wide range of behavioral and emotional indices, using both student and teacher reports. Group equality and attrition did not appear to be at issue.

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