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Effects of the Second Step Program in Middle School on Violence, Victimization, and Substance Use in High School

NIJ-funded researchers looked at the effect of the program on participants in their high school years.
Date Published
April 1, 2019

Second Step is a universal, school-based social-emotional learning program aimed at reducing violence and encouraging academic success among middle school students. 

Second Step is a social-emotional learning program that teaches various social and emotional skills such as emotion recognition and management, empathy, problem solving, bullying prevention, and goal-setting. It has been shown to reduce physical aggression in middle school youth within a one-year period [1] and was rated as “Effective” in multiple studies in CrimeSolutions.[2] In a longitudinal study funded by NIJ, a team of researchers examined the effect of receiving this program during middle school on a range of aggressive behaviors across the high school years. Researchers also explored the role of how connected students felt to their school, peers, and teachers — referred to as school belonging — as a link connecting the impact of the program and aggressive behavior outcomes.

Participants in the seven wave longitudinal study included 1,565 students (52 percent males, 22 percent white, 31 percent Black, 33 percent Hispanic, 11 percent biracial) from 15 middle schools in Illinois who were followed into six high schools. The average age of students was 11 at wave 1. Students were randomly assigned to the Second Step program.

Overall, this study showed that Second Step didn’t have a direct impact on outcomes during the high school years (i.e., bullying, sexual harassment, homophobic teasing, cyberbullying, teen dating violence, substance use). However, the intervention did improve students’ sense of belonging across the middle school years, and that sense of belonging was then related to lower rates of certain negative outcomes in high school—specifically bullying perpetration and victimization, sexual harassment victimization, homophobic teasing perpetration and victimization, and cyberbullying victimization. Thus, while the program did not directly impact high school outcomes by itself, it did improve sense of belonging during middle school, which subsequently was linked to reduced negative outcomes in high school.

Given research indicating that school belonging generally declines and aggression increases during middle school, the study’s results suggesting that social-emotional learning programs could help improve students’ feelings of school belonging are promising. Even though the program on its own did not directly influence any high school bullying and harassment outcomes, it did improve students’ sense of belonging in middle school; this sense of belonging was linked to decreases in some negative outcomes in high school. However, it is notable that school belonging was not related to teen dating violence or substance use outcomes. This may indicate the specificity of program impact and different pathways for change across middle and high school years for various negative behavioral outcomes.

About This Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ grant number 2013-VA-CX-0008, awarded to University of Illinois, Chicago. The article is based on the grantee report "Effects of a Middle School Social-Emotional Learning Program on Bullying, Teen Dating Violence, Sexual Violence, and Substance Use in High School" (pdf, 11 pages) by Dorothy L. Espelage, Ph.D., University of Florida; Kristen Bub, Ph.D., University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; Mark Van Ryzin, University of Oregon; and Melissa K. Holt, Boston University.

Date Published: April 1, 2019