STEP-UPP® is based on the skills training component of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy(DBT), an empirically supported psychological treatment for adults and adolescents with problems caused by pervasive emotion dysregulation. STEP-UPP is not a therapy program. Rather, it is the skills training component of DBT modified for students from grade 8 to grade 12. We believe that all adolescents, not just those who have difficulties regulating their emotions and behaviours, can benefit from the STEP-UPP group. The group incorporates social–emotional learning, which focuses on helping adolescents acquire and practice the skills they need for successfully navigating stressful life events; coping with emotional dysregulation; and developing/ maintaining an important family, peer, school, and relationships.

The stressors adolescents experience range from mild to severe in significance. It is rare that an
adolescent will escape this developmental stage without experiencing any stressful life events or emotional struggles. Problems that typically have a mild impact on academic and social functioning include feeling anxious about asking someone out on a date, skipping a class, managing a workload, or breaking curfew for the first time. Severe problems (which happen less frequently) may include self-harming, suicidal behaviour, substance abuse, family conflict/aggression, or being arrested. These are typically either causes or results of intense emotional pain and dysregulation, and they are likely to have a significant impact on an adolescent’s social and academic functioning.

Adolescence, in general, can be an emotionally difficult time. According to the American psychiatric association (2014), the onset of most mental health disorders occurs during this time. Instead of waiting until symptoms become unmanageable and are interfering with school, social relationships, and/ or emotional control, we believe that focusing on the acquisition and practice of skills for emotion management and decision making will be beneficial for all adolescents. Instead of using a reactionary approach, we believe in using a proactive approach. “Catch them before they fall”. Unfortunately, most schools do not offer courses on coping with stress or decision making, and yet the need for such skills and abilities is continuing to grow among this young adult population and thus STEP-UPP was created to meet this need.


Its aim is to help adolescents develop their own toolboxes of effective behavioural strategies, or what we call “life development skills” strategies. They can use these skills to solve problems well into their adulthood, such as completion of their schooling and continuing on to university, maintaining important relationships, or keeping important jobs. STEP-UPP will help adolescents to acquire and practice these skills before making life choices that may have detrimental consequences. We are hoping that STEP-UPP will provide the tools and the strategies for helping adolescents to manage difficult and emotional situations and to make better decisions when they are experiencing emotional distress.

According to this theory, a vulnerable biology coupled with an “invalidating environment” (i.e., lack of support or understanding) can result in problems in four key areas:

1. The Emotion Regulation module teaches skills for decreasing unpleasant, distressing emotions and increasing positive emotions.
2. The Mindfulness module teaches skills for increasing self-awareness, becoming less judgmental, and gaining control of one’s attention.
3. The Distress Tolerance module teaches skills for making distress endurable so that an upsetting situation is not made worse by impulsive action.
4. The Interpersonal Effectiveness module teaches skills for asking for something or saying no to another person while maintaining a good relationship and one’s self-respect.

The four main areas in which teens typically develop problems (difficulty managing emotions, confusion about self/distraction, impulsive behaviours, and interpersonal problems) and the four DBT skills modules that can address the problems (Emotion Regulation, Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, and Interpersonal Effectiveness, respectively).
1. Difficulty managing emotions. Adolescents often experience intense, and rapidly changing emotions,
which can lead to impulsive, emotion-based behaviours. Sometimes teens don’t even recognize their
emotions or the physical sensations that go along with them. The skills in the
Emotion Regulation module address the recognition and naming of emotions and
then how to decrease these unpleasant emotions and increase positive emotions.

2. Confusion about self/distraction. Adolescence is a time when students are developing who they are,
what they like, their values, and their goals. Peer pressure, social media, and other environm ental
pressures can make it difficult for teenagers to understand themselves. It is also a time when distraction
and loss of focus are problems. Confusion about the self and distraction can be improved by using
the skills taught in the Mindfulness module (again, often referred to as “core” mindfulness skills to
emphasize their importance). These skills increase self-awareness and control
of attention. These skills are necessary for making centred, grounded decsions about
the self, as well as focusing the mind (on classwork or other activities).

3. Impulsiveness. Teens can engage in a variety of problematic impulsive behaviours— ranging from
truanting, drug use, and consumption of alcohol to risky unprotected sexual behaviours, self-injurious
behaviours (e.g., cutting, burning, or hitting oneself), and suicidal behaviours. Sometimes impulsive
behaviours function as an escape from painful emotions. The skills taught in the Distress Tolerance
module help to make emotional distress more endurable so that students do not act impulsively
and exacerbate the situation.

4. Interpersonal problems. Many people struggle with how to ask others for things
they want, say no to things they don’t want, build and maintain long-term relationships,
and maintain self-respect during interpersonal interactions. The three primary sets of skills in the
Interpersonal Effectiveness module are strategies for increasing success in each of these difficult areas.

The ultimate goals of STEP-UPP are for students to learn the skills (skill acquisition) and to be able to apply them to their lives outside the classroom (skill generalization). Thus STEPP-UP focuses on helping students learn different skills, while also providing structured opportunities for students to practice those skills. Skill acquisition and generalization are the main foci of the programme. It is a peer driven skills group.

Skill acquisition in STEP-UPP is a two-part process: instruction and skill practice. The lessons are designed to teach students the underlying reasons for the skills, such as why our bodies and minds react the way they do under certain circumstances. Students are given information about emotions and their emotional reactions, and are taught that they can change those reactions or reduce the intensity of the reactions through specific coping strategies.

The majority of time during each lesson is spent on helping students to understand what the skill (or skills) being taught is, the rationale behind the skill, examples of the skill, and when to implement the skill. This part of the lesson uses examples and involves student participation in order to ensure that the
skill is properly understood.

The homework is assigned after each lesson and promotes generalization by requiring practice of the taught skills in environments outside the STEP-UPP programme. As with most other skills, students will need to practice these skills over and over again to gain proficiency and confidence in using them. We expect that some skills will work better for some students than for others. Thus each module contains multiple skills that can be used for the same purpose. Students are encouraged to try all the skills and choose those that work best for them. It is highly likely that students attending the same STEP-UPP programme will choose to implement different skills for similar situations.

By providing explicit DBT skills building to students along a continuum of emotional needs we feel it will not only promote both academic learning and social-emotional learning within the school structure but will also equip them with the tools to carry them into adulthood.