School-Based Social Work Intervention Research: Improving Outcomes With At-Risk Students
School social workers are confronted with a variety of social and behavioral problems experienced by at-risk students in schools. Over the past 20 years, social workers have been increasingly encouraged, and in some cases mandated, to use empirically supported interventions. To engage in evidence-informed practice, social workers must have access to rigorous intervention research and knowledge of interventions that have demonstrated efficacy or effectiveness. Despite this need, rigorous school-based social work intervention research is sparse.
The goal of this symposium is to expand upon the current evidentiary base of school social work interventions by presenting results from four randomized studies that examined the effects of school-based interventions with at-risk students. Each paper builds the knowledge base in important ways and provides evidence that school social workers can use to inform practice. Furthermore, each paper offers unique examples of how rigorous school-based intervention research can be conducted by social workers, with and without external funding, to inform practice and research and advance the profession.
The first two papers present results from two independent studies examining effects of Check & Connect (C&C), a widely disseminated school engagement and dropout intervention with little prior empirical support. The current studies utilized randomized block designs, and students were randomized to conditions within schools. The first of these two studies was a federally funded efficacy trial to examine the effects of C&C on school engagement (n=456, j=3). The second study was an unfunded study, implemented by a social service organization in partnership with a university, to examine the effects of C&C on behavior, grades, and attendance (n=260, j=14). Both studies add rigor to the prior evidence-base of C&C by extending empirical support of positive effects under different conditions, with a variety of outcomes, and with diverse samples.
The third paper presents a randomized controlled trial of the X-Y Zone—a school-based delinquency prevention intervention—and provides another example of a researcher-practitioner partnership. This study uniquely contributes to the social work evidence-base by examining effects of a gender-specific intervention focused on improving protective factors with students at-risk of delinquency. Among a sample of 61 primarily Hispanic and Black high school students randomized within 10 schools, positive effects of the X-Y Zone were found for self-efficacy, self-control, family-involvement, and career development.
The final paper presents results from a cluster-randomized study of STARS—a manualized selective intervention designed to mitigate disruptive classroom behaviors by organizing instruction in social competence, relationship, and self-management skills. Students (N=108) in this study were identified using a universal screening instrument before being randomized at the classroom level (j=42). STARS was associated with reductions in disruptive classroom behavior and improvements in social competence, authority acceptance, and student-teacher relations. Findings extend emerging research, suggesting social and emotional competencies are malleable through direct instruction. This study also supports the feasibility of using universal screening approach and provides school social workers with built-in, on-going assessment tools to gauge student responses to program elements as a way to collaborate with teachers to influence change.