“Social norms” approach helps schools promote positive behavior – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

“Social norms” approach helps schools promote positive behavior

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

National School Boards Association                                                                  

By Carol Chmelynski

The “social norms” approach, used widely in higher education to address substance abuse and behavior issues, is becoming more popular at the high school level.

This strategy offers the potential to achieve large-scale, positive behavior change and harm reduction by communicating to students the true responsible behavior of their peers.

Social norms programs use a variety of marketing techniques, such as posters; postcards; fliers; newspaper, radio, and TV ads; as well as surveys and classroom discussions, to get students to emulate the positive behavior of the vast majority of youths.

“The success social norms programs have had at reducing high-risk drinking and promoting healthy behaviors at the college level has been remarkable, and we’re seeing a similar response for high-school settings,” said Michael Haines, director of the National Social Norms Resource Center.

Officials at the Salida school district in rural Colorado are pleased with the success of a social norms campaign implemented in its middle and high school four years ago aimed at preventing drinking and promoting positive attitudes.

Data for Salida High School shows that the percentage of ninth, 10th, and 11th-graders who said they used alcohol or marijuana in the past 30 days declined 8 percentage points from 2003 to 2005.

The percentage of students who said they drank and drove declined 5 percentage points during the same period and those who said they rode in a car with an impaired driver declined 10 points.

“We are very encouraged by the data showing the downward trend in children performing risky behaviors,” said Jane Whitmer, the district’s social norms coordinator.

The Stevens Point (Wis.) Area Senior High School uses marketing strategies to correct students’ misperceptions that many students are using alcohol and drugs.

“We’re trying to dispel the ‘everybody’s doing it’ mentality that teenagers commonly use to justify their behavior choices,” said Denise Enders, the school’s social norms coordinator.

For example, a survey conducted last year showed students estimated that 70 percent of their peers smoked cigar­ettes, but the same survey showed that only 24 percent of students actually smoke.

Parents and school staff are key components of the project, Enders said, because data shows they also tend to overestimate student alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use.

Researchers at the Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., recently developed an online survey for use in assessing bullying in secondary schools and for conducting social norms interventions.

According to the survey results, the vast majority of students — between 63 and 89 percent — said they did not bully other students (including such behavior as teasing, kicking, hitting, hair pulling, or threatening).

In contrast, the overwhelming majority of students, about 81 percent, overestimated the prevalence of bullying behavior in their school.

“Furthermore, students underestimate support among peers for reporting bullying behavior to teachers and administrators,” said H. Wesley Perkins, professor of sociology and director of the Alcohol Education Project at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

“These misperceptions are similar to published findings regarding student drinking and driving, alcohol abuse, and drug use,” Perkins said. They “provide strong evidence that a social norms approach may be effective in reducing bullying and related violence among adolescents.”

For more information, visit www.socialnorms.org.