Risky student behaviour – challenging perceptions

Student perceptions about the attitudes and behaviour of their peers can often be far from the reality. With this in mind, a pilot project has used a social norms-based approach to address concerns about teenage use of alcohol, tobacco and cannabis.

The Risky Business learning program is designed for use with Years 7-10. It aims to reduce the likelihood of students engaging in risky behaviours by challenging their assumptions about what's happening in their peer group – closing the gap between perception and reality.

Research Developments (rd) reports that it is Australia's first social norms-based drug and alcohol program for secondary school students.

Development of the pilot program

Life Education is a non-profit organisation delivering curriculum-based programs around safe and healthy lifestyle choices to preschool, primary and secondary students.

In 2017 it commissioned the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) to carry out a review of research related to interventions using a social norms approach (Ahmed, Mitchell & Trevitt, 2018). Taking the findings as a foundation, ACER researchers worked with Life Education educators to design and develop an alcohol, tobacco and cannabis intervention program for secondary schools that uses best-practice social norms approaches.

What is social norms theory?

In the ACER literature review, Syeda Kashfee Ahmed, Pru Mitchell and Jenny Trevitt explain the three basic assumptions of a social norms approach are: misperceptions reinforce negative behaviour; accurate perceptions reduce negative behaviour and promote healthy behaviour; and multi-dimensional interventions can reduce misperceptions as participants become aware of the reality (Linkenbach et al., 2002).

The review adds ‘social norms theory predicts “interventions to correct misperceptions, by revealing the actual, healthier norm, will have a useful effect on most individuals, who will either reduce their participation in possibly problematic behaviour or be encouraged to engage in protective, healthy behaviours” (Berkowitz, 2005).'

What happened in the pilot?

In total, 841 Year 7-10 students and 22 staff from two non-government schools in New South Wales participated in eight pilot sessions (four at each school) during 2018. The length of each session ranged from 50 to 70 minutes, and group sizes ranged from 23 to 222 students.

Writing in rd, ACER Senior Research Fellow Katherine Dix says the intervention comprised a ‘classroom learning session facilitated by a Life Education educator, with teaching and learning wrapped around a social norms-based online survey, nested in a whole-school approach'.

Teachers were given summarised survey data for their school, and an interactive planning tool and guide, to help them identify areas of concern in their own school context and implement and review the effectiveness of targeted strategies.

Dix tells Teacher the live survey was a key element of the program that really grabbed the attention of students. Researchers created a survey that asked students about their perceptions of the behaviour and attitudes of peers, and their own behaviour and attitudes. Using PeoplePulse software, they completed it anonymously using their own devices, such as smartphones, or a provided device. Once responses were in, a live report was generated in moments and shown on the screen, forming the basis of subsequent discussion and unpacking.

For example, students were asked to choose one of four options in response to the questions: How often do you think your classmates smoke cigarettes? How often do you smoke cigarettes? From the live survey results, they could then see the difference between their perceptions and the actual behaviour. ‘So, it's about them. It's actually their data, rather than national figures that they maybe don't see as relevant to them,' Dix tells Teacher.

The pilot revealed the students' perceptions of how often peers were engaging in risky behaviour were significantly higher than the reality.

Of course, such an approach relies on students being completely honest in their survey responses. Dix says this is something that was emphasised during lead-in activities. A ‘snowball survey' was carried out before the main survey to help instil the importance of providing honest responses, while also giving students an opportunity to familiarise themselves with social norm-type questions and have a trial run.

The snowball survey was also anonymous but, this time, paper-based. Students were asked, for example, to choose ‘yes' or ‘no' in response to the questions: Do you think most of your classmates pick their nose? Do you pick your nose? They were also asked: Do you think most of your classmates answered this survey truthfully? Did you answer this survey truthfully?

The survey papers were screwed up into a ball and the students had a ‘snowball fight' to move them around the room. After the snowball fight, they end up with someone else's survey and the facilitator guided them through the results and misperceptions. ‘End-of-session feedback collected from students indicated that this was a standout activity that would leave a lasting impression because it was a fun, entry-level way of learning what they needed to do in the main survey,' Dix says. Students also said they enjoyed completing the main survey on their device and discussing the live results.

Other activities included ‘think-pair-share', a ‘would you rather' game, videos, sense making by contributing to discussions, comparing their data with national norms, and a chance to post questions and views anonymously about possible strategies for their school.

Impact of the pilot

Student feedback and follow-up interviews with teachers suggest the program successfully challenged student attitudes and beliefs in relation to drug and alcohol use. Writing in rd, Dix says: ‘The Risky Business program provides schools the opportunity to safely engage student voice on the highly sensitive but important topic of drug and alcohol use.

‘The learning session and whole-school approach act as change-agents to help ensure that the program will achieve its aims of raising awareness, confronting misconceptions and having a positive impact on the school community.'

While a full report of the pilot has been prepared (Dix & Carslake, 2018), it is not yet available for public release. Following the success of the pilot, Life Education is now exploring options for refining the program and extending the pilot to more schools, in partnership with ACER.

References and related reading

Ahmed, S. K., Mitchell, P., & Trevitt, J. (2018). Social norms approach in secondary schools: literature review. Camberwell, Australia: Australian Council for Educational Research.

Berkowitz, A. D. (2005). An overview of the social norms approach. In: L. C. Lederman & L. P. Stewart (Eds.), Changing the culture of college drinking: A socially situated health communication campaign (pp. 193-214). Creskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Dix, K.L., & Carslake, T. (2018). Risky Business: Pilot of the social norms program for secondary schools. Unpublished report for Life Education Australia. ACER, Melbourne.

Linkenbach, J., Berkowitz, A., Cornish, J., Fabiano, P., Haines, M., Johannessen, K., Perkins, H. W., & Rice, R. (2002). The main frame: Strategies for generating social norms news. Bozeman, MT: Montana State University. Retrieved from https://chsculture.org/wpcontent/uploads/2014/09/TheMainFrame.pdf