Intervening with Children Experiencing Serious Peer Difficulties: The Friendship Connections Program
Co-Principal Investigator: Janet Welsh
Purpose: In this study, the team will test 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 three year period, researchers will randomly assign students in first through fourth grade who are identified by peers and teachers as having serious peer difficulties and social skill deficits to receive the FCP intervention or typical services. The team will assess 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.
Products: The research team will produce evidence of the efficacy of the Friendship Connections Program to improve the social competence, peer relationships, and social distress of elementary school students who are identified by peers and teachers as having serious social and peer difficulties, and ultimately to enhance their achievement in school. Researchers will also produce peer-reviewed publications.
Setting: This study will take place in up to four school districts serving economically disadvantaged urban and rural communities in Pennsylvania.
Sample: Approximately 252 students in first through fourth grade across an anticipated nine schools will participate. Eligible students are those who are identified by peer sociometric nominations and teacher ratings as having serious peer difficulties and social skill deficits. Teachers and parents of these children will also participate. Up to four peers per eligible child (who are identified as prosocial and accepted by peers through the screening process) will also participate in the FCP intervention. About three intervention specialists from the surrounding communities will deliver the FCP intervention in the schools.
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 Friendship Group Program. The program includes two sets of 45 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 three consecutive years, researchers will identify eligible students in about 90 first through fourth grade classrooms across three schools. Only one child per classroom will be recruited into the study, and not all classrooms are expected to have a child who meets eligibility criteria. Following screening, children will be assessed further and then randomly assigned to FCP or the control condition. Researchers will assign children in the FCP group to a FCP interventionist who initiates services. FCP interventionists are trained in the first year and provided with annual booster training in each subsequent year. The first month of service delivery involves contacting the child's teacher and parent, constructing a Friendship Check-up assessment feedback form (for intervention planning and progress monitoring), hosting the collaborative teacher-parent conference for intervention planning, and scheduling the social skills training (SST) sessions. SST sessions (20 in total) are delivered weekly in school over a six-month period. The interventionist contacts teachers and parents monthly to report progress and adjust treatment if necessary. Follow-up assessments will occur the following school year. In the final year of the project, researchers will provide FCP training to all interested teachers and school personnel in the participating schools.
Control Condition: Students randomized to the control group may receive any other available school or community services.
Key Measures: The researchers will assess relevant child outcomes using multiple measures and informants: peer relations (e.g., the Child Behavior Scale); social skills (e.g., the Social Skills Improvement System-Rating Scale (SSIS-RS)); child social cognitions (e.g., the Social Problem Solving Scale); externalizing and internalizing behaviors (e.g., the Teacher Observation of Child Adaptation—Revised (TOCA-R)); feelings of social distress (e.g., the Loneliness and Social Dissatisfaction Scale); learning engagement (e.g., the Direct Observation Form); and academic performance (e.g., the Academic Competence Evaluation Scales and attendance and grades from school records). The team will assess implementation fidelity and service use with researcher-developed measures.
Data Analytic Strategy: The analytic team will use two-level hierarchical linear models (HLM; children nested within school) to examine FCP efficacy for improving child outcomes. Researchers will re-estimate the same models for outcomes at one-year follow-up to determine if any intervention-related changes are sustained over time (using post-intervention assessment of the outcome as a covariate). To determine if there is differential impact based on child heterogeneity, the team includes interaction variables (intervention status and subgroup membership such as sex, race, grade level, specific social difficulty, etc.) in the HLM models. Researchers will use mediational analyses to determine whether changes in children's social behavior and peer relations lead to reductions in feelings of social distress, and improvements in engagement and academic performance. Researchers will examine the nature and severity of concurrent behavior problems as potential moderators of intervention effects. The research team will carry out additional exploratory analyses to 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. In addition, the researchers will calculate the costs of the FCP program to inform district decisions about service provision for children with social skill deficits.