Does Youth Relationship Education Continue to Work after a High School Class? A Longitudinal Study*

Article excerpt

Abstract:

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.

Marital distress and divorce have generally been shown to have negative effects on children, adults, and society (Amato, 2000, 2005). There is also widespread agreement that prevention in general is much more effective and desirable than trying to correct problems once they have begun (Durlak, 1997). Prevention efforts, such as marriage preparation programs in general, have been shown to be effective in preventing marital distress and divorce (see Adler-Baeder, Higginbotham, & Lamke, 2004; Carroll & Doherty, 2003; Jakubowski, Milne, Brunner, & Miller, 2004, for reviews). Most such programs, however, are taught to adults who are already in a committed relationship. Gardner and Howlett (2000) have suggested that there are advantages to placing more efforts on teaching marriage and relationship skills to youth while they are in school. Many relationship attitudes and behavior patterns are developed, molded, and solidified by family interactions early in life and then by budding romances in the teen years, well before young adulthood. For example, adolescents learn communication styles from their parents (Coughlin & Vuchinich, 1996) as well as what is and is not "normal" behavior in marriage and what is and is not appropriate in terms of use of violence and coercion. Bandura (1993) also pointed out the importance of self-efficacy in shaping future behaviors. He stated, "efficacy beliefs influence how people feel, think, motivate themselves, and behave" (p. 118). Therefore, as an adolescent participates in relationship education, it might be expected that they would gain skills and knowledge that would increase their own efficacy of functioning within both current and future relationships. Thus, efforts to teach positive relationship skills should begin earlier rather than later in adulthood. Similarly, it is ideal to teach these programs before partner selection has occurred so as to help avoid negative partner selections.

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). …