Quarrels, conflicts and disengagement remain major problems in schools. They affect students who are struggling with school grades in particular. There are many interventions that try to enhance prosocial attitudes and behaviors among students. But measuring program effects continues to be a major challenge.
Most assessments investigating social impact are quantitative.
I have taken a different approach: I simply talked to students about what participating in a program had done to them.
“RespAct” is run by CamP Group, a social enterprise based in Berlin, Germany. It works primarily with elements of boxing and video education and is performed as a two-day training in schools. Initially offered to children in primary school, it has later been extended to youth in secondary or vocational school. The program aims to empower students in their prosocial behavior, for example by boosting their self-confidence, or enabling them to deal productively with conflicts.
You would therefore expect it to have a direct influence on the perspectives, the values and the normative worldview of the young adults. These, in turn, empower or inhibit the students from acting positively towards themselves and their fellow human beings. In addition to this, I examined how the program affects their ability to solve problems, individually or collectively.
In several schools I talked to more than 20 students aged between 14 and 20 years, and eight of their teachers. I chose a “qualitative approach” to better understand the potential process of change and transformation the students underwent by participating in the program.
My interviews show that the effects achieved vary strongly between different types of students. The program is particularly strong at activating passive and withdrawn youths. One girl described her empowerment like this:
“I‘ve spoken up when someone insulted me. I was able to assert myself. I told myself that I was no longer the little girl from before, […] who never defended herself. I’ve become this new girl. And when something unnerves me, I tell myself: „Calm down. Just leave. Let them talk. Don’t give a shit.”
In contrast to this, the program had little effect on male students with major behavioral problems. It kicked-off some reflection about violence, which was however too weak to change actual behavior. A male student said:
“The goal [of the program] certainly is that you’d never fight again. […] But we don’t accept that. For instance, if someone insults us [several strong swear words as examples of such insults], we’d beat him up! And it is always going to stay that way, no matter what anyone is trying to do about it.”
Males in particular said they were or would be more impressed by alternative interventions, such as visiting a prison or by talking to an ex-convict now active in youth work.
One of the most surprising findings was that the program strengthened the cohesion among the students and succeeded in creating new social relationships. There was much more of a group feeling and participating in the program brought students together, who typically had no point of contact:
“We trusted each other more, we talked much more to each other. We all sat together and laughed. We had never done that before.”
This is just a glimpse of my findings, but it should provide a good feeling for the specific strenghts and limitations of the program.
Beyond this particular application, my study offers three lessons for assessing social impact: First, when studying social impact it is often important to dive deep and really understand the process of change occuring. Second, some interventions may have unexpected outcomes that would be overlooked, were they assessed with a rigid and clear-cut design. Third, it is important to tease out the exact value individual programs offer.
Not each program is for everyone, and the right one depends on the specific needs of the target group. Impact information helps participants to choose the right intervention and the assessed organization to fine-tune its approach.