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IES Grant

Title: Intervening with Children Experiencing Serious Peer Difficulties: The Friendship Connections Program
Center: NCER Year: 2015
Principal Investigator: Bierman, Karen L. Awardee: Pennsylvania State University
Program: Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Context for Teaching and Learning      [Program Details]
Award Period: 4 years (7/1/2015–6/30/2019) Award Amount: $3,499,996
Type: Efficacy and Replication Award Number: R305A150488

Co-Principal Investigator: Welsh, Janet

Purpose: In this study, researchers tested whether an intensive, individualized social skills training program, the Friendship Connections Program (FCP), can remediate the serious and chronic peer difficulties that 10–15 percent of elementary school students experience. Most of these students have or are at risk for emotional or behavioral disorders and exhibit social skill deficits (e.g., poor communication skills, inability to resolve conflict) that alienate peers. These problems can escalate, leading to social exclusion, victimization, social distress, and disengagement from school. FCP acknowledges the heterogeneity of the social skill deficits these children experience and uses a tailored process to identify the unique needs of each child and provide the optimal social skills training to support positive peer relationships in school.

Project Activities: Over a four-year period, the researchers randomly assigned students in first through fourth grade who were identified by peers and teachers as having serious peer difficulties and social skill deficits to receive the FCP intervention or typical services. The team assessed the impact of FCP on social competence, peer relations, social distress, learning engagement, and academic performance immediately following the intervention period and in the following school year.

Key Outcomes: The main findings of this study reported in Bierman et al., 2022 are as follows:

  • The Friendship Connections Program (FCP) was feasible to implement with high levels of fidelity in the school setting.
  • The FCP program led to improvements in social-cognitive skills, social behavior, and interpersonal relationships. Effect sizes ranged from 0.19 to 0.36 and were consistent across child sex, grade level, and behavioral characteristics.
  • The FCP program did not lead to better academic performance.

Structured Abstract

Setting: This study took place in four school districts serving economically disadvantaged urban and rural communities in Pennsylvania.

Sample: Eligible students in 1st through 4th grade were those identified by peer sociometric nominations and teacher ratings as having serious peer difficulties and social skill deficits. Teachers and parents of these children also participated. Up to four peers per eligible child also participated in the FCP intervention as normative peer partners. The research team recruited three intervention specialists from the surrounding communities and trained them to deliver FCP in the schools. The final analytic sample included 224 peer-rejected elementary students (57% White, 17% Black, 20% Latinx, 5% multiracial, 68% male, mean age 8.1 years old).

Intervention: The Friendship Connections Program (FCP) integrates four intervention strategies to improve peer relations: two-step screening and case assessment to identify the specific social skill deficits of each child; parent-teacher collaboration to tailor social skills training to the unique needs of each child and facilitate generalization of skills across school and home contexts; delivery of tailored social skills training by an intervention specialist with peer partners (2–3 per session who rotate over the intervention period); and progress monitoring to support learning and support positive teacher-parent communication. The social skills training groups use lessons from the Fast Track Friendship Group Program. The program includes two sets of lessons (one for first and second graders and another set for third and fourth graders). The lessons address skill deficits in six domains: prosocial engagement; communication skills; emotion regulation and self-control; responsible social behavior; social problem-solving skills; and managing stress and coping. Each lesson targets specific skills and includes presentation materials, activities and games, guidelines for implementation, and information sheets for parents.

Research Design and Methods: In each of four consecutive years, researchers identified eligible students in first through fourth grade classrooms in four school districts. Only one child per classroom was recruited into the study, and not all classrooms had a child who met eligibility criteria. Following screening, the researchers randomly assigned children to the FCP group or a services-as-usual control group. FCP interventionists were trained in the first year and provided with annual booster training in each subsequent year. The first month of service delivery involved contacting the child's teacher and parent, constructing a Friendship Check-up assessment feedback form (for intervention planning and progress monitoring), hosting meetings with teachers and parents for intervention planning, and scheduling the social skills training (SST) sessions. SST sessions (20-25 in total) were delivered weekly in school over a six-month period. The interventionist contacted teachers and parents bi-monthly to report progress and adjust treatment if necessary. Follow-up assessments occurred in the following school year. In the final year of the project, researchers provided FCP training to interested guidance counselors and other school personnel in the participating schools.

Control Condition: Students randomized to the control group received any other available school or community services.

Key Measures: The researchers assessed relevant child outcomes using multiple measures and informants: direct assessments of child social cognition skills (e.g., the SELWeb social emotional assessment); teacher ratings of social behavior, including social skills and externalizing and internalizing behavior problems (e.g., the Social Skills Improvement System-Rating Scale) and student teacher relationships (Student-Teacher Relationship scale); peer sociometric relations; self-ratings of social distress (e.g., the Loneliness and Social Dissatisfaction Scale); observations of learning engagement (e.g., the Direct Observation Form, Daily Behavior Ratings); and teacher ratings of academic performance (e.g., the Academic Competence Evaluation Scales). The team assessed implementation fidelity and service use with researcher-developed measures.

Data Analytic Strategy: The analytic team used hierarchical linear regressions to assess intervention outcomes. Child characteristics (sex, teacher screen score) and study design features (cohort, grade level) served as level 1 covariates along with the pre-treatment score on the outcome measure, and school district was at level 2 to represent the nesting of schools and intervention staff within school district. Because there was only one rejected target child selected from each classroom, it was not necessary to nest within classroom. Similar analyses are planned to evaluate sustained effects at the one year follow-up assessment. To determine if there was differential impact for children who varied in key characteristics, the team used interaction terms to evaluate variation by child sex, grade level, and specific social problems (e.g., pretreatment aggression levels, hyperactivity-inattention, autism spectrum difficulties) in the HLM models. Researchers are also conducting exploratory analyses to understand how experiences during group treatment and level of involvement by teachers and parents contributed to intervention outcomes. Exploratory analyses address whether particular children were more or less engaged in the intervention or whether their teachers or families found the intervention more or less useful.

Cost Analysis: The researchers calculated the costs of the FCP program to inform district decisions about service provision for children with social skill deficits.

Publications and Products

Project website:

Publicly available data: The data collected through this grant are housed at the Pennsylvania State University's Child Study Center and are available to interested researchers under conditions of restricted-use access by contacting the Principal Investigator at

ERIC Citations: Find available citations in ERIC for this award here.

Selected Publications:

Bierman, K. L., Greenberg, M. T., Coie, J. D., Dodge, K. A., Lochman, J. E., and McMahon, R. J. (2017). Social and Emotional Skills Training for Children: The Fast Track Friendship Group Manual. Guilford Publications.

Bierman, K. L., Greenberg, M. T., and The Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group (2020). Multi-tiered social-emotional learning: PATHS and friendship group in the Fast Track Program. In T. W. Farmer, M. Conroy, E. M. Z., Farmer, & Sutherland (Co-editors). Handbook of research on emotional & behavioral disorders: Interdisciplinary developmental perspectives on children and youth (pp. 254-260). Routledge: London.

Bierman, K.L. and Sanders, M.T. (2021). Teaching Explicit Social-Emotional Skills with Contextual Supports for Students with Intensive Intervention Needs. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 29(1): 14–23.

Bierman, K.L., Welsh, J.A., Hall, C.M., Jacobson, L.N., Lee, D.L., & Jones, D.E. (2022). Efficacy of the Fast Track Friendship Group program for peer-rejected children: A randomized-controlled trial. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology.

Farmer, T.W., Bierman, K.L., Hall, C.M., Brooks, D.S., Lee, D.L. (2021). Tiered Systems of Adaptive Supports and the Individualization of Intervention: Merging Developmental Cascades and Correlated Constraints Perspectives. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 29(1): 3–13.

Hall, C.M., Bierman, K.L., & Jacobson, L.N. (2022). Latent profiles of students at social-emotional risk: Heterogeneity among peer rejected students in early elementary school. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders.