The study explored the efficacy of a strengths-based approach in terms of improvements in school climate and reductions in student bullying and victimization. The program, titled Strengths in Motion, was implemented at McKellar Park Central Public School in Thunder Bay, Ontario beginning in February 2008, and ending in December, 2009. A school with similar demographic characteristics (Ecole Gron Morgan Public School), was also included in the study and served as a control school.
Following the guidelines of effective school-based interventions (Finger et al., 2005), Strengths in Motion was theoretically grounded, was implemented school-wide, contributed to the development of a safe and supportive environment, and involved multiple stakeholders including parents, educators, and students. The approach was developed by a team of educators, school administrators, educational researchers, and mental health professionals. Components of the approach included targeted resources for students with particular needs (those new to the school or experiencing behavioural difficulties) as well as strategies and skill development initiatives infused throughout the curriculum. All aspects of the approach have at their core a focus on student strengths; finding ways to identify and capitalize on these in order to improve school climate and ultimately student success.
While Strengths in Motion was implemented school-wide, students in the present study include those who were in grades 4 to 6 when the approach began - in February, 2008. The evaluation portion of the study includes the perceptions of stakeholders regarding the effectiveness of the approach and of the strengths-based approach broadly. Other indicators of success include student self-reports of strengths, self-concept and school climate as well as bullying; in addition, students academic grades were assessed. School staff and parents also reported on their perceptions of student bullying and victimization as it was felt that a school that was successful in creating a positive, strengths-based environment would also be effective in improving positive interactions between students.
A total of 64 students (35 at McKellar Park and 29 at Gron Morgan) completed a number of surveys selected to assess the indicators of success listed above. These were administered at four time points: a) February, 2008 (Pre-test), b) June, 2008 (Post-test), c) March, 2009 (Post-test) and d) November, 2009 (Post-test). In addition, 3 students from McKellar Park also participated in interviews in November, 2009 focused on the perceived efficacy of Strengths in Motion.
A small sample of primary caregivers at McKellar Park (n = 11) and Gron Morgan (n = 4) as well as school staff (McKellar Park: n = 14, Gron Morgan: n = 8) also completed surveys at the first and final time points. Interviews were conducted at the final time point with 4 parents and 5 school staff from McKellar Park.
Findings regarding the efficacy of Strengths in Motion, as evidenced by both qualitative and quantitative findings were generally positive. All stakeholders reported significant improvements in terms of school climate. In particular:
- Reported a greater focus on helping others
- Reported increased school engagement
- Reported becoming more involved in extracurricular activities
- Continued to experience higher self-concept and perceived their classroom climate more positively
- Had significantly higher average academic grades across all time points
- Felt that their children had developed greater confidence and self-esteem
- Observed increased academic achievement for their children
- Expressed fewer concerns regarding bullying
- School Staff
- Perceived the school environment as welcoming and supportive of students
- Felt that students self-confidence improved
- Felt that students had a greater awareness of their own strengths and those of their peers
- Reported that bullying was much less of a problem
- Reported that students were much more comfortable talking about bullying and knew what steps to take to deal with it
Feedback from staff and parents provide several suggestions for further improvements for the approach. Parents suggested that workshops be offered at more convenient times and that the approach needed to include more options for participation for students who are doing well, rather than focusing solely on students actively involved in bullying. School staff felt that greater communication and training regarding the various elements of the approach were required and that their strengths, rather than just student strengths, should be drawn upon within the approach. By addressing these suggested areas of improvement and valuing the feedback of students, staff and parents, stakeholders will likely continue to endorse a strengths-based approach in their school and further perpetuate it’s development and refinement. The cultural shift will thus continue and sustainability of the approach will be increased regardless of staff and student turnover.
The issue of sustainability is an important one. Too often, school-based interventions are not fully embraced by school staff and students due to inconsistent implementation, a lack of common focus and understanding about goals and philosophies, and transient funding. Stakeholders at McKellar Park clearly believe that Strengths in Motion has contributed to a significant shift in school culture; one that draws on student strength and perpetuates positive change in behaviour and learning. It is important that educational leaders and those supporting initiatives such as Strengths in Motion capitalize on the momentum that exists at McKellar Park and promote continued development and refinement of the approach.
Based on the findings, it may also be of value to engage students further in terms of finding ways for them to draw on their strengths to negotiate situations where bullying may be taking place. Although most students at the two schools involved in the present intervention do not report involvement in bullying, there are most likely small groups of students for whom this continues to be an issue. Targeted interventions such as those included in Strengths in Motion are one way to deliver more directed skill development and changes in self-perception for those most at-risk; these should continue to be developed and examined over time.
Many key elements of Strengths in Motion contributed to its success. As recommended by Finger et al. (2005) the approach was theoretically grounded, was implemented school-wide, contributed to the development of a safe and supportive environment, and involved multiple stakeholders including parents, educators, and students. Other schools and organizations that are attempting to build positive school climate and reduce negative student experiences such as bullying should consider these characteristics of effective programs.
Certainly Strengths in Motion shows promise as an approach that has a positive impact on multiple stakeholders supporting students; it’s continued development and implementation is certainly warranted given the present findings.