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Do training programs work? Evaluation of the training Coping with Social Limits


Background. Research was carried out in a Dutch secondary school for special education for 12-18 years-old pupils. This school's population has psychiatric disorders and/or severe behavioural problems, and shows a similarity with the youth care population in the Netherlands. Therefore, a large amount of the school population has contacts with some type of youth care. A deficit in knowledge of coping with social limits was found, and an evidence-based intervention to decrease this deficit was put together and evaluated in this study.

Description of the research. Characteristics of the population have been studied, using the Child Behavior Checklist (Cbcl) and Teacher Report Form (Trf) along with data from pupils' school records (N=175). Analysis of Cbcl and Trf shows the average special education pupil to score in the clinical range on the two broadband syndromes (externalizing and internalizing behaviour) and on the total problems scale. Analysis of the pupils' school records shows that there are far more boys than girls attending the school. Over half (60%) of the pupils have been diagnosed with a psychiatric diagnosis, 40% of the pupils were not diagnosed, or had an unknown diagnosis. Adhd and autistic spectrum disorders are the prevalent psychiatric diagnoses. A majority of the pupils (86%) receive or have received mental health assistance from an institution other than school.

Next to these demographics, the pupils attending the school for special education at the time of research (N=74) filled out a questionnaire on coping with social limits (Attitude scale Social Limits; Asl). This questionnaire consists of 28 situations in which a social limit is converted and examines the knowledge of coping with social limits, the preferred way of coping and the motivation of this preferred way. There are four ways of coping with a situation which has a social limit in it. These are; adjusting to the situation, overstepping the social limit, negotiating on the social limit and withdrawing from the situation. Independent sample t-tests were carried out in order to analyse the difference in both groups (special education and reference group) of total known reactions on each of the three measurements. Results of these t-tests are shown in table 1, and show the pupils in special education have less knowledge on how to cope with social limits compared to pupils in regular education (Huyghen, 2007). This is statistically significant for all four ways of coping and total known reactions of coping with social limits.

Tab. 1 - Knowledge of ways of coping with social limits (N=71)


Mspecial education (SD)

Mreference group (SD)



20.6 (5.2)

23.4 (4.0)



20.9 (5.7)

24.7 (4.2)



3.6 (3.3)

5.7 (3.5)



7.4 (3.8)

9.5 (4.1)


Total coping

52.6 (12.7)

63.4 (11.7)



Inability to generate a sufficient amount of behaviour alternatives, could explain problem behaviour (Crick & Dodge, 1994). Slot and Spanjaard (2000) agree with this when they describe problem behaviour as a consequence of lacking social skills. This lack of social skills makes it impossible to develop a full range of behaviour alternatives in social situations. In general, children who are lacking in social skills are given a social skills training to expand their repertory of behaviour alternatives and become more socially competent. The special education pupils' lack of knowledge on coping with social limits can be viewed as a gap in their ability to generate sufficient behaviour alternatives. A social skills training aimed towards filling this gap, may help remove this deficit and aid the pupils in producing socially acceptable behaviour. Therefore the training Coping with Social Limits was put together.

The training content was based on a meta-analysis of the literature on conditions that possibly influence the effectiveness of social skills training. Several conditions were deduced based on the literature search. First, training must be intensive and take place during a longer period of time before one can realize generalisation. During the same time period it is necessary to practice in daily life situations in order to come to a full generalisation. Second, the young person should be treated in conjunction with his social network. Parents should receive training and the training at school should take place within the classroom. Third, social skills training should take place within heterogeneous groups. Last, the meta-analyses showed that the only effective programs are (cognitive) behavioural programs, these programs teach both social cognitive and problem solving skills.

In order to evaluate the training Coping with Social Limits and to be able to draw internally valid conclusions, a quasi-experimental pretest-posttest follow up control group design, as shown in figure 1, was set up. In figure 1, the experimental group is represented by E on the three measurements (T1, T2, T3), the control group with C on the three measurements and the training with X.

Fig. 1 - Research design













 The experimental group received the training once a week, during a seven week period. Then the teachers of the experimental group conducted daily 5-minute interviews about situations with a social limit over a period of four weeks. The Asl was administered in both the experimental (n=17) and the control group (n=17) before and directly after the training. Six months later the Asl was once more administered during the follow-up measurement.

The Asl data collected during these three measurement points were analysed in order to evaluate the training. Differences in averages over time of both groups on the knowledge of coping with social limits were calculated. In order to do so, a (2 groups x 3 time) Manova was carried out. The Manova indicated no statistical significant effect between groups (experimental- or control-group) or within groups (time). There did appear to be a statistical significant interaction-effect of group over time on the four known reactions, F(8,25)=4.12, p<.005, η2=.57. The found effect size of 57% is considered large (Cohen, 1988) indicating the experimental group learned more ways of coping over time than the control group.

Key findings. This research project has shown that knowledge of the pupils in special education about coping with situations in which social limits are involved is less adequate than the knowledge of students in regular education. The social skills training Coping with Social Limits did reach the goal of expanding the students' knowledge on coping with social limits. To make the training more effective it is advisable to expand the training to the entire school and to emphasize the 5-minute interviews.

Key references

Cohen, J. (1988). Statistical power for the social sciences. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Crick, N. R., & Dodge, K. A. (1994). A Review and Reformulation of Social Information-Processing Mechanisms in Children's Social Adjustment. Psychological Bulletin, 115, 74-101.

Huyghen, A. M. N. (2007). Breaking fresh ground. Secondary school students with severe behavioural and/or psychiatric disorders following the 'Coping with Social Limits' training: Children's characteristics and treatment outcomes. PhD thesis. University of Groningen (in Dutch).

Slot, N. W., & Spanjaard, H. J. M. (2000). Enhancement of competence. In Enhancement of competence in residential child and youth care: Treatment in children's homes (pp. 35-57). Duivendrecht: PI Research (in Dutch).

Contacts: Anne-Marie N. Huyghen, PhD, Department of Special Needs Education and Child Care, University of Groningen, the Netherlands, Grote Rozenstraat 38, 9712 TJ Groningen, The Netherlands, Phone 00 31 50 363 6788, a.m.n.huyghen@rug.nl.



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