Connections: Relationships and Marriage (Connections) is a high school marriage education curriculum designed to teach students how to develop healthy relationships and marriages. This study evaluated the effectiveness of this curriculum over 4-years postintervention with a matched set of 72 high school students who were in either the Connections group or a control group. Findings suggest that although most of the immediate impacts of the curriculum fade within 4 years after the curriculum, the Connections group shows an increase in self-esteem, a decrease in dating and relationship violence, and an increase in family cohesion over 4 years. Implications for further development of such curricula are discussed as well as implications for practitioners.
Key Words: education, marriage, preparation, youth relationships.
Overview of Effective Youth Relationship Education Curricula
A few youth relationship education programs have now been evaluated and show promise in terms of their effectiveness. For example, in the evaluation of The Loving Well Project, which focuses specifically on reducing sexual risk taking in relationships, Kreitzer (1992) found that of the eigth-grade students who identified themselves as virgins at the beginning of the school year, only 8% of participants reported that they had sex during that year compared to 28% in the control group. In the evaluation of the Love U2: Relationship Smarts program, which used an adapted curriculum with 340 low-income and racially diverse high school students, Adler-Baeder, Kerpelman, Schramm, Higginbotham, and Paulk (2007) found that students improved in their ability to identify unhealthy relationship patterns, increased their realistic beliefs about relationships and marriage, and decreased their use of verbally aggressive conflict tactics in their dating relationships.
The focal point of the current project is the Connections: Relationships and Marriage curriculum, which was first evaluated by Gardner (2001). Using a quasi-experimental design, he found that students taking Connections improved their conflict resolution skills (increased use of reasoning as a conflict tactic), became less likely to see divorce as a good option for troubled marriages, and were more likely to take advantage of marriage preparation and enrichment programs to build better marriages. Of these effects, only the attitudes toward divorce had a significant Time x Group interaction effect. In other words, over time, the Connections students became less likely to see divorce as a cure-all for a troubled marriage, whereas the control students become more favorable toward divorce. All other effects showed significant change over time for the Connections group, but in the context of the control group, these changes were not statistically different.
In an effort to expand the generalizability of this first study, which consisted primarily of a rural Caucasian sample, Gardner, Giese, and Parrott (2004) studied a more diverse urban sample. Although the effects were relatively small, findings suggested that the curriculum increased knowledge of relationship concepts, decreased violence in dating relationships, decreased risk factors for adolescent pregnancy, and positively impacted attitudes related to future successful marriage (positive attitude toward marriage and greater likelihood of taking advantage of marriage preparation and enrichment programs to build better marriages). This last finding is quite significant, given Silliman and Schum's (2004) findings that college aged youth in their study considered preparation for marriage important but expressed lower familiarity with and lower intentions to attend programs than college students previously.
Critiques of Hiah School Relationship Education: Limitations and Gaps
Perhaps, the greatest problem with this area of research is the lack of studies on effective curricula. Additionally, although some recent studies have included behavioral outcomes (Gardner et al., 2004), most past studies have not (Luster & Youatt, 1989; Mack, 2000). Many have suggested that longitudinal data are necessary to assess changes in the respondents' relationships over time (Adler-Baeder et al., 2007; Gardner et al.; Laner & Russell, 1995). Carroll and Doherty (2003) discussing marriage education in general commented that "because of a lack of extended follow-up research, conclusions about long-term effectiveness remain elusive" (p. 105). Additionally, they said "only extended follow-ups of both treatment and matched control groups can provide an indication of their ultimate effectiveness" (p. 115).
Although nothing is available on the long-term impacts of youth relationship education curricula, some authors call into question the effectiveness of the curricula in general. For example, Silliman and Schumm (2004) pointed out the possible limited interest of high school students in marriage and relationship education at that point in their lives. Other studies question the long-term effectiveness of such efforts. In a related area (youth pregnancy prevention), Kirby, Korpi, Barth, and Cagampang (1997) found that the Postponing Sexual Involvement program had an initial positive impact of the curriculum, which remained at a 3-month follow-up. However, at a 17-month follow-up, none of the significant positive effects of the program had been sustained. The authors concluded that the program was either too short or had too narrow a scope to have long-term impacts on youth sexual behavior.
Purpose and Hypotheses
The original studies of the Connections curriculum (Gardner, 2001; Gardner et al., 2004) focused on the pre- to posttest impact of the curriculum. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the effectiveness of the curriculum up to 4 years after the class was taught.
First, it was hypothesized that the variables shown to be impacted by the curriculum in past studies would continue to show an impact of the curriculum during the follow-up period. These variables included: dating and relationship violence, perceived ability to resist sexual pressure, attitudes related to successful marriages (Gardner et al., 2004), use of positive conflict resolution tactics, and attitudes toward divorce (Gardner, 2001). Second, if indeed these attitudes are impacted, it is reasonable that participant behaviors would also be impacted. Therefore, it was hypothesized that objective outcomes such as whether the participants had premarital sex, had a premarital pregnancy, had a sexual affair on a boyfriend or girlfriend, or had cohabited before marriage would be impacted longitudinally by the curriculum. Third, we hypothesized that some measures that did not show an impact because of the curriculum at posttest may show a positive difference between the groups during the follow-up period. For example, the curriculum expressly teaches about self-esteem and the positive uniqueness of the individual. Self-esteem, however, did not show an immediate impact of the curriculum. Rather, it may take time after increasing knowledge and changing attitudes and behaviors for the effect to manifest itself. Last, we hypothesized that the curriculum would have a systemic effect and not only impact the individual but also have a positive impact on the individual's family. Essentially, as the child improves his/her relationship skills, those improved skills would positively impact the family. Specifically, we hypothesized that family closeness and family communication would improve.
Participants and Procedure
Samples from two past evaluation studies of Connections (Gardner, 2001; Gardner et al., 2004) were combined for this longitudinal study. The sample consisted of young people who participated in evaluation studies while they were in high school (1998 - 2000). In these original studies (see Gardner; Gardner et al.), the Connections curriculum was evaluated in 6 California and 23 South Dakota public high schools. Surveys were sent to teachers who agreed to participate in the research (one teacher per site participated; consent of the school principal also was required). By choosing to participate, the teachers agreed to collect parental consent forms and give the survey to their students being taught Connections before beginning the curriculum as well as to one other class they taught without Connections, and then return all materials to the research team (further details can be found in the previously published studies). The control groups consisted of general psychology courses and other Family and Consumer Sciences courses. All students were given a posttest questionnaire in both classes after the Connections curriculum was taught to the Connections class (approximately 3 months later). Teachers collected parental consent forms and returned all materials to the research team (further details can be found in the previously published studies). For this study, all participants who completed both pre- and posttests (n = 743) were sent a follow-up questionnaire 1 year and 4 years after the Connections class had completed the curriculum. A total of 150 students completed and returned both sets of follow-up questionnaires (a 20% return rate). Student surveys were excluded if no valid parental consent form was returned (for minors). In order to maintain the purity of the sample, the sample was further attenuated by discarding those who had participated in any marriage education course during the 4 years after completing the Connections curriculum (118 remained after this reduction). In this way, it was felt that the results of the follow-up questionnaires would better reflect the effect of only the Connections curriculum and not be convoluted by the impact of other related courses.
In preliminary analyses, it was noted that the students who tended to come from more cohesive/ functional families were more likely to return the follow-up questionnaires. This was truer of the control students. Thus, the students in the Control group from less functional families dropped out more so than the students in the Connections group from less functional families. In order to avoid such problems associated with dropout with longitudinal samples, and particularly with a highly mobile young adult sample, the final sample was further narrowed through matching. As a variable such as family cohesion could potentially impact nearly every outcome variable in our study, pretest levels of reported family cohesion was chosen as the matching variable. It also made theoretical sense to use this variable because ideally both treatment and control groups would possess similar family backgrounds at pretest. As there were fewer control participants (an artifact of the number of participants used in the original studies), 100% of the control participants were selected and then each one was matched with a similarly scoring Connections participant on the matching variable. A caliper of 2 points on the Family Adaptability and Cohesion Evaluation Scales (FACES) Cohesion variable was settled on to provide the best match with the smallest caliper possible. Because of thiis caliper, there were slight differences between the groups on their final average pretest Cohesion scores (0.79 points).
The final sample (n = 72) included Hispanic/ Mexican American (13.9%), Asian American (8.3%), Black/African American (1.4%), White/Caucasian (70.8%), and Other (5.6%; including those who marked more than one category of the above). At the 4-year follow-up, the participants were on average 20.69 years old (range was 18-23 years) and 19.4% were men, whereas 80.6% were women. Student reports of family income ranged from the category of "under $10,000" to "$80,000+" with a median income category of "$40,000 - $60,000." Approximately 9% of the families fell below the poverty line.
Analyses showed that the two groups did not differ significantly on any of the demographic variables (gender, race, income) except for age at the outset (Connections students were 0.6 years older on average; however, age was not shown to be significantly related to any outcome variables).
As the current study focuses on the longitudinal evaluation of the Connections curriculum, it is briefly described here. Connections is a curriculum used by teachers, counselors, and others who work with youth in Grades 11-12 (Dibble Fund for Marriage Education, 2004). The content of the curriculum aims to fulfill the needs of today's youth for self-understanding and self-esteem, healthy dating relationships and values, effective communication and conflict resolution skills, and the awareness of skills needed to build a successful marriage.
The curriculum consists of fifteen 1-hr lessons that comprise four units: Personality, Relationships, Communication, and Marriage (Dibble Fund for Marriage Education, 2004). The personality section (three lessons) addresses concepts such as the uniqueness of the individual, how personality changes over time, self-esteem, how needs motivate behavior, goal setting, establishing expectations, and drafting a flexible life plan. In the relationships section (three lessons), students learn concepts and skills such as how relationships and families change over time, the differences between primary and secondary relationships, the characteristics of positive relationships, how dating behaviors and expectations relate to mate selection, how to establish clear expectations for self and partner in dating relationships (sexual and general dating expectations), how differences in relationship goals and expectations may be factors in ending a relationship, signs of a deteriorating relationship, and how to recover from a broken relationship. In the two communication lessons, students learn a number of positive skills, including the influence of family-of-origin communication patterns, the power of compromise, how to change negative statements into positive ones, how to send clear messages, and guidelines for good listening. Last, there are seven lessons on marriage. In these lessons, the students learn different types of love relationships, the most common causes of faulty mate selection, principles for successful marriages, the impact of children on marriage, the basics of family finances, how to manage a family crisis, the importance of family time together, and the benefits of marriage.
In addition to using common didactic teaching methodologies, a student workbook also is used to benefit student learning in each lesson. One unique aspect of the curriculum is the "Bogus Marriage" assignments. For these, students select a partner either in their class or at their school who is willing to complete the assignments with them. This couple completes assignments on the impact of children on their "marriage" and how they will handle a family crisis. The "couple" also must develop a budget that is based on their income and family size (income and number of children are selected at random).
The 1-year and 4-year surveys assessed demographic variables, behaviors in relationships, attitudes regarding relationships and marriage, and specific objective outcomes. The specific objective outcomes assessed included if the participant had sex before marriage, if they had a child before marriage, if she/ he had a sexual affair (cheated on) their boyfriend or girlfriend, and if they had cohabited before marriage. Other variables were assessed by using established scales as indicated below.
Conflict Tactics Scales (Straus, 1979). A revision of Form-R was used. Students indicated how often they had employed each of 18 tactics for resolving conflicts in the past 2 months by choosing from six categories that ranged from "never" (0) to "more than 20 times" (6). Rather than asking about how often the student had done these things with a spouse, the words "boyfriend, girlfriend, or best friend" were used. More violent tactics, such as "Threatened him/her with a knife or gun" were not included so as to be acceptable to thie school administrators who judged thie questions as too personal. This scale produced three subscale scores. The Reasoning subscale consisted of three items (e.g., how often participants had "Discussed an issue calmly"). Scores may range from 0 to 18, with a higher score indicating more frequent use of reasoning as a conflict tactic. The Verbal Aggression subscale consisted of eight items (e.g., "Yelled at him or her"). Scores may range from 0 to 48, with higher scores indicating a more frequent use of verbal aggression as a tactic to resolve conflicts. Last, the Violence subscale consisted of six items including items such as "Slapped him or her." Scores may range from 0 to 36 with higher scores indicating more frequent use of violence to resolve interpersonal conflicts. Straus (1990) reported validity information for the Conflict Tactics Scales and alpha coefficients: .61 for Reasoning, .80 for Verbal Aggression, and .79 for Violence. Coefficient alphas at pretest for this study were: .61 for Reasoning, .86 for Verbal Aggression, and .87 for Violence; at posttest: .76 for Reasoning, .84 for Verbal Aggression, and .69 for Violence; at 1-year follow-up: .70 for Reasoning, .83 for Verbal Aggression, and .83 for Violence; and at 4-year follow-up: .65 for Reasoning, .89 for Verbal Aggression, and .81 for Violence.
Communication with parents (Gardner et al., 2004). This scale consisted of responses to three items answered on a 4-point scale, ranging from strongly agree (1) to strongly disagree (4). Sample questions are: "Do you personally talk to your parent or guardian when something is bothering you?" and "Do you talk to your parent or guardian about having a boyfriend or girlfriend?" Possible scores range from 3 to 12 with lower scores indicating better communication. The reliability coefficient was α = .80 at pretest, α = .82 at posttest, α = .86 at 1-year follow-up, and α = .81 at 4-year follow-up.
Divorce attitudes (Gardner et al, 2004). This attitude scale consisted of eight questions answered on a 4-point scale from strongly agree (1) to strongly disagree (4). Questions were designed to assess the circumstances under which the students felt divorce was justifiable. Each question was asked for two situations: when a couple had and did not have children. Sample questions include: "It's O.K. for a couple with no children to divorce if one spouse cheats on the other;" and "It's O.K. for a couple who fight all the time to divorce if they have children." Possible scores range from 8 to 32 with lower scores indicating a more favorable attitude toward divorce. The reliability coefficient was α = .78 at pretest, α = .85 at posttest, α = .86 at 1-year follow-up, and α = .90 at 4-year follow-up.
Marriage attitudes (Gardner et al, 2004). Two questions assessed attitudes toward marriage with a 4-point scale ranging from strongly agree (1) to strongly disagree (4). Questions include: "Marriage is a good and desirable thing;" and "I will likely get married some day." Possible scores range from 2 to 8 with lower scores indicating a more favorable attitude toward marriage. The reliability coefficient was α = .58 at pretest, α = .71 at posttest, α = .73 at 1-year follow-up, and α = .84 at 4-year follow-up.
Attitudes toward counseling (Gardner et al., 2004). Four items asked about student attitudes toward premarital counseling, marital counseling, and marriage enrichment programs. Responses ranged from strongly agree (1) to strongly disagree (4). Sample questions include: "I will go to premarital counseling with my fiance before I get married;" and "After I'm married, I will attend a marriage enrichment class with my spouse." Possible scores range from 4 to 16 with lower scores indicating more favorable attitudes toward these activities. The reliability coefficient was a = .81 at pretest, α = .83 at posttest, α = .84 at 1-year follow-up, and α = .81 at 4-year follow-up for not married participants and α = .78 at 4-year follow-up for married participants.
Resisting sexual pressure (Gardner et al, 2004). This scale asked about student perceptions of their ability to resist sexual pressure and consisted of five questions answered on a 5-point scale from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (5). Sample questions include: "I feel good enough about myself that I can say 'no' to sex even if my friends are pressuring me to say 'yes';" and "I intend to say 'no' if I am being pressured to have sex." Possible scores range from 5 to 25. Higher scores reflect more perceived ability to resist sexual pressure. The reliability coefficient was α = .44 at pretest, α = .54 at posttest, α = .61 at 1-year follow-up, and α = .56 at 4-yeat follow-up.
Rosenberg Self Esteem Scale. Reliability and validity have been established for this popular measure and are reported in Silber and Tippett (1965). This scale measures adolescent self-esteem and is based on nine statements using a 5-point Likert scale from almost never (1) to almost always (5). Sample statements include: "I feel that I'm a person of worth, at least on an equal basis with others;" and "I feel I have a number of good qualities." Possible scores range from 9 to 45. Higher scores indicate higher self-esteem. The reliability coefficient was α = .86 at pretest, α = .88 at posttest, α = .89 at 1-year follow-up, and α = .88 at 4-year follow-up.
Family Adaptability and Cohesion Evaluation Scales. The Cohesion subscale of the FACES III was used to measure family connectedness. This subscale has 10 items that measure emotional bonding among family members. Scores range from 10 to 50. In FACES III, the reliability coefficient of Cohesion is α = .77 (Olson, 1986). For this study, the pretest reliability coefficient was α = .87, and at 4 years, α = .90.
Variables Shown to Be Significant in Past Studies
Behavioral indicators. For Hypothesis 1, the results were broken down into behavioral and attitudinal indicators. A major goal of any effective curriculum is to affect current and future behavior of the students. Specific behaviors shown to be impacted in our past studies were: reported use of violence, verbal aggression, and reasoning as ways of resolving conflicts with a spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, or best friend; and parent-child communication (the likelihood of talking to parents about serious relationships and other issues). It would be expected that some of these behavioral changes would continue to be affected well after the end of the curriculum. The results showed that for use of violence in resolving conflicts, the groups were not significantly different from the posttest until the 1-year follow-up (see Figure 1). However, the Time X Group interaction from the 1-year to the 4-year follow-up was significant, F(1, 69) = 4.92, p < .03. The Connections group decreased their use of violence during the time period of 1 - 4 years after taking the course, whereas the Control group used more violence in resolving conflicts with boyfriends or girlfriends or best friends.
For the remaining variables in this section, the statistic of interest is the significance of the repeated measures analysis of variance with posttest, 1-year, and 4-year follow-up scores as the repeated measure (see Table 1). For use of verbal aggression, the two groups maintained their posttest differences with the Connections students reporting lower use of verbal aggression, but these differences did not remain significant during the follow-up periods, F(1, 65) = 2.43, p = .124. Similarly, the groups showed no significant differences in terms of how often they used reasoning as a tactic for resolving interpersonal conflicts, F(1, 66) = A.63, p = .206. In past studies, the Connections students also reported more communication with their parents. This difference did not remain during the 1-year and 4-year follow-ups. The groups showed a nearly identical level of communication with parents, F(1, 65) = 0, p = .98.
Attitudes and intentions. A second major goal of this evaluation of Connections was to assess changes in attitudes that may affect future behaviors. Previously, the following attitudes were shown to be positively affected by the Connections curriculum: attitudes toward marriage, divorce, and premarital and marital counseling, and marriage enrichment. Again, the statistic of interest to understand was if the main effect for the group remained significantly different from the posttest through the 4-year follow-up (Table 1). Results showed that for the Marriage Attitudes, no significant differences were found between the groups and at the 4-year follow-up, the students had very similar attitudes toward marriage, F(1, 65) = .228, p = .64. For the Divorce Attitudes, no significant differences emerged, F(1, 66) = .759, p = .39.
For attitudes about participating in marriage preparation, marriage counseling, or marriage enrichment, the differences between the groups failed to reach statistical significance, F(1, 60) = 1.48, p = .23.
Another goal of the evaluation was to assess how students may change their attitudes and intentions toward adolescent pregnancy risk factors. Apart from having poor communication with parents (results reported above), one's perceived ability to assertively reject sexual advances was shown to be positively affected by the Connections curriculum in our past studies. Again, the differences were not statistically significant throughout the follow-up period, F(1, 28) = 1.89, p = .18.
As the participants in this study averaged approximately 20 years of age at the time of the 4-year follow-up, it was possible to assess some more objective outcomes. Specifically, for Hypothesis 2, we assessed the rates of affairs, cohabitation, premarital sex, and out-of-wedlock births of the participants (the South Dakota students did not have some of the questions on their questionnaire).
The main purpose of high school marriage education curricula is to provide students with the information and skills necessary to have happy and successful marriages. In these cases, it was expected that if the curriculum was truly effective, then participant behavior would be affected well beyond the actual class. There was no significant difference between the groups in their affair rate, χ^sup 2^(1) = .43, p = .35. Participants reported having lived with a boyfriend or girlfriend outside of marriage at identical rates (12 of 35 for both groups). The control participants reported 24 of 36 had sex before marriage, whereas the Connections students reported 29 of 36 students had sex before marriage. This difference was not statistically significant, χ^sup 2^(1) = 1.8, p = .18. Last, there was no difference between the groups in terms of the number of out-of-wedlock birdis. Control participants had 3 births out of 34 participants in the group, and Connections participants had 2 births out of 34 participants in the group, χ^sup 2^(1) = .216, p = .64.
It was also expected that the curriculum would positively impact the long-term self-esteem of the participants (Hypothesis 3) as well as have a positive secondary effect on the participant's family. Self-esteem for the Connections students showed steady improvement compared to the Control group over the duration of the study (see Figure 2), but the differences were not significant until the 4-year followup, Control M = 37.69, SD = 5.30; Connections M= 40.30, SD = 5.25; F(1, 66) = 4.18, p = .045. Family cohesion was measured only at pretest and at the 4-year follow-up. There was a significant Time X Group interaction effect with the Connections group increasing in their family cohesion over time and the Control group decreasing, see Figure 3; F(1, 36) = 4.18, p = .045.
Past studies have shown youdi relationship education curricula to be effective in changing student attitudes, knowledge, and behaviors (Adler-Baeder et al., 2007; Gardner, 2001; Gardner et al., 2004; Kreitzer, 1992). This study helps to answer the question of how long such impacts remain after taking such a class.
We hypothesized that the variables shown to be impacted by the Connections curriculum in past studies would continue to show an impact of the curriculum over a 4-year follow-up period. Many of the group differences on outcome variables that existed at posttest fade by the 1-year follow-up. These include: attitudes and intentions such as positive attitudes toward marriage; attitudes toward divorce; attitudes toward marriage preparation, marriage enrichment, and marriage counseling; and perceived ability to resist sexual pressure. In these areas, positive gains by the Connections group over the course of the curriculum either diminish, or the Control group "catch up" to the Connections group in the year following the curriculum. It appears that the results are similar to the Postponing Sexual Involvement program in which significant effects fade by the 17-month follow-up (Kirby et al., 1997). Here too, it may be that the program was either too short or had too narrow a scope to have long-term impacts on these attitudes and behaviors.
The one variable that did show a significant difference between the groups at follow-up was dating and relationship violence. During the course of the curriculum, the Connections group had clear declines in their use of violence, whereas the Control group had a modest increase. By the 1-year follow-up, the Control group decreased their usage of violence so as to mirror the low level of the Connections group (see Figure 1). During the time period between the 1- and 4-year follow-ups, however, the Connections group again decreased their usage of violence, and the Control group increased their incidence of dating and relationship violence.
It is interesting that the two groups differ when the students are 16 years old (on average), then the groups converge in terms of their use of violence at age 17, and then again we see an increase in violence at the 4-year follow-up when the students are on average 20 years old. One potential reason for these changes may be that there are fewer of the control participants that are in serious relationships at the 1-year follow-up (40% for the Control group vs. 50% for Connections). Then, again at the 4-year follow-up, the groups are more equal in terms of those in a serious relationship (53% Control, 55% Connections). As students begin developing more serious relationships (ages 18 - early 20s), the Connections group may have the knowledge of healthy conflict tactics and conflict resolution skills to avoid violence in their relationships, and the Control group does not. In addition to communication and conflict resolution skills, students taking the curriculum learn other skills that may help them avoid violence, such as learning to set and openly discuss dating expectations, distinguishing healthy relationships from unhealthy ones, and considering their ideal relationship. This is obviously a vital finding. Larson and Holman (1994) found that one of the two most important factors in predicting marital quality and stability was couple interaction processes such as conflict resolution.
In Hypothesis 2, no significant differences emerge between the two groups on more objective outcome measures such as rates of affairs, cohabitation, premarital sex, and out-of-wedlock births. Apart from having an impact on dating and relationship violence, one could reasonably expect to see group differences on these variables over a 4-year period. The students do not differ significantly in their affair rate nor do they show a significant difference in out-of-wedlock birth rate or premarital sex rates. It may be that it is too soon to accurately measure these variables. For example, only five students had out-of-wedlock births at this point, and only one third of students had cohabited.
Hypothesis 3 focused on an increase in self-esteem as a potential long-term impact of the curriculum. It is interesting that group differences in self-esteem emerged slowly over the course of the various phases of the study not showing statistical significance until the 4-year follow-up. This makes sense that self-esteem would take time to improve after the initial impact of the curriculum. Self-esteem in the teen and young adult years is greatly impacted by the quality of one's romantic relationships (Conger, Cui, Bryant, & Elder, 2000). Thus, as a student's relationship competence and confidence increase because of an increased knowledge and relationship skill repertoire, self-esteem improves.
Last, we hypothesized that the curriculum would have a systemic effect not only impacting the individual but also their family. Our original impetus to study the impact of the curriculum on the family came from anecdotal stories from teachers that some students were requesting multiple copies of the student manual. When one such student was asked by her teacher why she needed a third student manual, she reported that she had given one to her mother, and men after talking with her grandmother about the class, her grandmother had also requested a manual. This certainly fits with system theory's notion of interconnectedness in families (White & Klein, 2002). Figure 3 suggests that the Control group deteriorates in family cohesion over the 4 years of this study, which seems consistent with research that finds that during the middle school and high school years, family cohesion decreases linearly (Baer, 2002). The Connections group appears to show improvement in their family cohesion, which may be a result of the positive family concepts taught in the curriculum (i.e., how relationships and families change over time, the influence of family-of-origin on communication patterns, the power of compromise, how to change negative statements into positive ones, how to send clear messages, and guidelines for good listening, principles for successful marriages, the impact of children on marriage, how to manage a family crisis, and the importance of family time together). This finding also fits with Persosa and Persosa (2001) who pointed out that communication skills such as communication expressiveness, clarity, and problem solving are related to family cohesion. This finding has broad implications for positive outcomes for adolescents as cohesion has a direct linear relationship to many positive life outcomes (Farrell & Barnes, 1993).
Implications for Practitioners and Policymakers
First, although this study does show some limited effectiveness of the curriculum, it is important to note that most of the outcome measures did not show an impact of the curriculum over 4 years. Even variables on which the students differed immediately after taking the course showed no differences 4 years later. Practitioners should consider that in order to have lasting impacts, "booster" sessions may be necessary in order to maintain the gains made by the participants. Second, much of family life education rests on the assumption that education has shortand long-term impacts on individuals, couples, and families. In this case, we have some limited evidence that this assumption is accurate in the case of youth relationship education. It does appear that a time-limited (3-4 month) marriage education curriculum can be taught in the high schools with some positive long-term impacts. Third, relationship education programs like Connections can decrease dating and relationship violence over a 4-year time period. This is crucial because of the reality that 1 in 11 youth report having experienced dating violence (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2006). Further, given the fact that dating violence in adolescence carries over into future relationships, including marriage (Wekerle & Wolfe, 1999), it is imperative that youth relationship education curricula become part of our intervention program efforts as well as of our violence prevention policy efforts. Fourth, although many youth programs attempt to increase self-esteem, this study suggests that one effective way to do so is to focus on teaching knowledge and skills regarding quality romantic and familial relationships. Fifth, teaching youth about relationships and marriage not only has a positive impact on the individual student but on their family as well. Practitioners can increase family closeness by teaching one member of the family positive relationship skills, which will then overflow onto the rest of the family.
The most pressing public policy questions regarding youth relationship education are regarding the allocation of scarce federal and state dollars to such programs. The federal government awarded monies to some youth programs as part of their Healthy Marriage Initiative (Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, 2007). Some states (e.g., Florida and Oklahoma) have also begun funding these programs (Brotherson & Duncan, 2004). The current study informs such policy in two areas. First, given the positive finding in violence reduction, youth relationship education ought to be part of a comprehensive plan to decrease domestic violence. Second, aldiough youth relationship education has been shown in the past to be effective in the short term, this study suggests that most of these short-term effects fade over time. Therefore, more research is needed to explore effective ways to ensure a long-term preventative effect before concrete policies should be made.
Limitations and Recommendations for Further Research
Much can occur over a 4-year time frame after students complete a course. In an effort to control for external influences on the variables in question, we limited our final sample to include only those who had not taken any additional marriage or relationship course during those 4 years. Nevertheless, other extraneous variables could come into play in our outcome variables. It is also possible that the experimental and control groups were not similar at the outset of the study. Without random assignment to the groups, it is possible that factors external to the curriculum resulted in the statistically significant differences seen. However, the groups were matched on family type (cohesion) in order to alleviate as much initial group differences as possible. The groups did not differ on any other demographic variable except for age at the outset (age was not shown to be significantly related to any outcome variables). Future studies could benefit from the use of random assignment to groups from the beginning. Additionally, given the large number of analyses performed, it is possible that some of the significant findings could be spurious because of the likelihood of an increase in the family-wise error rate.
We should note that this sample was largely women (80.6%). Although there were no gender differences between the Connections and the Control groups, the results reflect a primarily female perspective. The gender imbalance was likely because of the fact that these courses (both the Connections and the Control classes) were elective courses (primarily Family and Consumer Sciences courses), which traditionally are more likely to be selected by women. Thus, caution is recommended in generalizing the findings to men and future studies should include a more equal distribution of men to women.
This study advances the field of marriage and relationship education research by providing a better understanding of the impacts of such curricula up to 4-years postcurriculum. The results suggest that although there are some long-term impacts of the curriculum, most of the short-term impacts of the curriculum have deteriorated by Year 4. The next logical step in this field is now to follow participants well into marriage. This will provide information on any impacts of such curricula that do not fully emerge until later in committed relationships (such as its impact on mate selection). Although we collected data on marital satisfaction and marital communication, no students remaining in the final sample were married yet. Second, Adler-Baeder et al. (2007) pointed to the need to identify curriculum components that are most beneficial and for whom the curriculum is most impactful. For example, are various ethnic or socioeconomic groups differentially affected by the curriculum? This fits well with the recommendations of Hawkins, Carroll, Doherty, and Willoughby (2004) that we develop marriage education with greater specificity in content and target population. Finally, future research on this and other curricula could benefit from augmentation of the self-report measures with more objective behavioral and observational (Carroll & Doherty, 2003) measures.
* This research was supported in part by the Agriculture Experiment Station at South Dakota State University and by the Dibble Institute for Marriage Education. Special thanks to Sally Gillman for reviewing the manuscript.
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Scott P. Gardner Rila Boellaard**
** Scott P. Gardner is Professor in the Department of Home and Family, Brigham Young University, 223 Clarke, Rexburg, ID 83460-0665 (email@example.com). Rila Boellaard is an instructor in the Department of Human Development, Consumer & Family Science, South Dakota State University, Box 2275A, Brookings, SD 57007 (firstname.lastname@example.org).…