Research has shown that people who have experienced dating violence are more likely to also experience physical and mental health issues. Another risk? Those who witness dating and domestic violence in the home have greater potential for being future victims or perpetrators of interpersonal violence themselves. The good news is that a new study suggests one possible solution: a so-called healthy relationship curriculum.
The study’s lead researcher, Jeff Temple, tells Texas Standard that 30%-50% of teens experience dating violence. Temple is director of the University of Texas Medical Branch Center for Violence Prevention.
Listen to the interview with Temple above or read the transcript below to learn more about how he and fellow researchers found that students were less likely to perpetrate dating violence after a year of being immersed in the healthy relationship curriculum.
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
Texas Standard: What’s known about dating violence right now among teens and young adults?
Jeff Temple: We think that about 10% to 25% of teens, by the time they graduate high school, will have been impacted by physical dating violence. So what we mean by that is hit, pushed, kicked, hair pulled. And then there’s other forms of violence, like sexual assault, within a dating relationship, or psychological abuse, which also encompasses cyber abuse. So when you put all those together, we’re looking at closer to 30% to 50% of teens are victims of dating violence.
That’s a stunning statistic. Why is it important to focus on the specific age group of middle-schoolers when teaching the curriculum?
We know that dating violence can be prevented, and we’ll talk more about that study here in a second. But domestic violence with adults is traumatic, is prevalent and it affects so many people. In order to prevent that we want to address those problems and relationships before that unhealthy pattern of relating happens. High school might be a little bit too late, as in, we know that dating violence happens before that. So if we want to get in there and stop violence before that habit starts, we must focus with middle-school students – younger kids, before they start dating, before they start getting in those risky behaviors.
Could you explain this concept of the “fourth R” and how that might affect a school curriculum?
Fourth R, it stands for, reading, writing and arithmetic, and the fourth R is relationships. But basically what that does is it replaces existing health curriculum in schools. So the kind of old-school health curriculum that talks about, [that] kind of talked to students as opposed to with students. And this one, what this does is it replaces that curriculum while still meeting the health standards that Texas requires, and federal standards. But it teaches kids how to be in a relationship. You know, we teach kids everything. We teach them about sports and athletics and music and math and English and history. But we don’t really teach them the most important skill, and that’s how to be in a relationship. So what our curriculum does is it takes a dynamic, student-centered approach to actually role play and teach kids how to be in a relationship, how to apologize, how to break up with someone, how to resolve conflict in a nonviolent manner.
How did you go about testing whether this fourth R approach would really work?
We use what’s called a randomized controlled design. So we got 24 schools in the Houston area; 12 of them were control schools, so they did the health curriculum as usual. And then 12 of the schools where our intervention schools were they adopted fourth R. And so we followed the students in the intervention schools, about 1,500, and compared them to the students in the control school – about 1,500. And what we found is after a year, those that we’re in fourth R that we’re exposed to this healthy relationship curriculum were less likely to perpetrate violence against a dating partner.
I think there’s something that’s already mandated by the state of Texas for teaching healthy relationship skills. Why is that not enough? And is it possible to incorporate what you’re suggesting here with this fourth R approach into the current standards?
So there are some healthy relationship mandates in the state of Texas, and the problem with those is that they’re great; they’re well-intentioned. But they also often lack teeth and enforcement and not enough. An assembly about healthy relationships just isn’t going to cut it. You want to teach a kid basketball by having them dribble for 15 minutes and then call it a day. If we really want to affect kids, we want to improve their relationships, if we want to prevent things like dating violence, then it has to be a prolonged exposure to skills, sort of like a dose- response effect. If you get sick and you get an antibiotic, you can’t take just one pill; you have to take the whole bottle. And it’s sort of that way with this dating violence prevention.