CFLE in Context: Relationship Education for Adolescents: Filling in the Gaps
It has been a bit of a winding route becoming involved with relationship education for adolescents. I might even say it was a happy circumstance that presented itself twenty or so years ago and I haven't looked back since. My career began years ago as an elementary teacher, so the roots of what later developed into a passion for helping children understand themselves and others better started early. Even as a fledgling teacher it became clear that problems at home translated into learning and behavior issues at school.
It was later, after being an at-home-mom for a number of years when my own three children were small, that I returned to teaching; this time at the secondary level as a fully credentialed teacher in CA, but with an added degree in Family Studies. It was also at that time I became a CFLE. I briefly considered leaving the field of education to pursue full time counseling, but soon realized that although my students were older now, some of the old problems were still present. The bodies were bigger but the issues they were dealing with were even more complex. Now there was the added dimensions of broken love relationships, teen pregnancy, drug use, and the fall-out from family breakdown. I decided to stay right where I was.
As most teachers do, I too regularly talked with students one-on-one and tried to help them sort through the disappointments of lost loves and friendships, low self-esteem, poor behavior choices, teetering grades, and family divorce. Privately, I wished for a way to reach more young people in a more effective way. It seemed backwards to help with so many recurring problems after they appeared rather than taking a more proactive approach. Why not teach some of the concepts and skills necessary to ward off many of the problems before they developed? It made sense to me. The challenge was how and when to do it.
I was given an unexpected opportunity to teach Psychology at Redlands High School in 1992. At the time it was a one-semester, seniors-only elective class, so the students were in their final year before launching into the adult world. One of the required curriculum topics included a unit on marriage and the family. Unfortunately the book and subject matter was so outdated I knew it wouldn't appeal to my young people. It was then that I began writing new materials based on current information on the topics and presenting it to the students. I taught them what to look for in healthy and balanced life relationships. We discussed the importance of being able to clearly communicate one's thoughts and feelings to another person. They learned what things make relationships work, and what things don't. They learned how to break up if a relationship wasn't the best. I also taught them some of the basic skills they would need to sustain a happy marriage someday should they choose a mate later on.
I was stunned at the student response to the lessons and learning activities. Absenteeism went way down, the students were telling their friends about the information, my classes were soon standing room only; parents were calling the principal's office asking that this be a required course for graduation. When the principal called me to discuss what I was doing, he said, "just keep teaching it!" So I did, for the next 25 years. Whether it was the one semester Introductory Psychology class, or the Advanced Placement Psychology course I taught for 17 years, every class from that time introduced the concepts of establishing and maintaining healthy life relationships including marriage.
The methodology varies, of course, depending on the circumstances and topics being presented. Sometimes the lessons fit nicely into existing curriculum materials and can be taught at different times throughout the semester to expand discussions. Or the lessons can be taught sequentially over a two, three, or four week interval. The lessons can also be combined to cover longer periods of instruction time, for instance block scheduling or after school programs.
Over that period of time I've developed materials that can be taught as individual lessons or as full units of study. The programs; Connections: Relationships and Marriage, Connections: Dating and Emotions, and Healthy Choices: Healthy Relationships, are published by The Dibble Institute and used throughout the country. As a result, I've had the privilege of meeting and working with educators, instructors, and health professionals from coast to coast who are also motivated and committed to teaching young people the principles of healthy lifelong relationships.
Although I have recently retired from classroom teaching, I am still involved in trainings and program development and continue to find new and interesting applications for relationship education among teens.
Starting with Teens
Addressing the relationship skills needs of teens is a key element for overall wellness because they are the adults, partners, married couples, and parents of the future. Until recently, much of the educational focus for children and teens has been on modifying sexual behaviors, reducing STI's and pregnancy, and avoiding the use of drugs and alcohol. There is little debate that these continue to be critical issues; sex and drugs are not a substitute for genuine love and caring and are not helpful for solving problems.
Concern for teens has grown over the past decade and a half regarding their ability to form and sustain meaningful life relationships. The impact of changes within the nuclear family structure, popular culture promoting and in many ways idealizing self-fulfillment versus connectedness, and young people being raised in a technologically global environment has majorly reshaped how adolescents observe, interpret, and experience relationships at all levels.
Adolescents today do have more freedoms and fewer family responsibilities than previous generations, but that has not necessarily translated into a simpler happier lifestyle, or one that offers a more stable emotional climate. Sexual behaviors and drug use have continued to rise despite the educational efforts to the contrary. Those who work with the teens consistently report that more young people show a decline in overall resiliency factors and willingness to form close bonds with others. Often this in turn also translates into behaviors that must be dealt with at home, at school, through law enforcement, and the health community.
Getting on Board
While the issues facing teens are identifiable, the challenge for those who work with the youth population has been what to effectively do about it. There is no one single approach that provides the answers for teens to develop protective attitudes or a more positive world view regarding themselves and how they relate to others. Improving and strengthening a healthy family bond as well as relationships outside of the home can produce powerful benefits. Proposed solutions for helping teens achieve this are as varied and multi-dimensional as the presenting situations, and clearly some programs yield better results than others. But one area of instruction underscored by encouraging research is skill-based relationship education during the adolescent years. It has emerged as an important component when used either as a stand-alone or companion curricula to other educational materials.
Not everyone is comfortable instructing others about healthy relationship building. Initially some thought teens were too young for this type of instruction and they wouldn't fully grasp the concepts. Others questioned whether this education was even necessary because life and love relationship skills were thought to first be learned at home. But that assumption no longer holds true for numbers of teens today. Many adult parents feel less able to be relationship role models for their children because they are victims of broken family or marriage relationships themselves. The skills for successful life relationships are not secret, but neither are they typically innately intuitive. Anyone can benefit from skill-building relationship education programs regardless of his or her existing understanding or previous experiences. That's where the teen programs work best.
Building the Necessary Skills
Certain skills are critical for success in life whether talking about lasting friendships, dating and love relationships, marriage, or family relationships. Among the most important skills that require knowledge and practice are: understanding realistic and unrealistic expectations, communicating clearly and listening attentively, setting personal boundaries, showing respect and empathy, managing anger and strong emotions, resolving conflicts reasonably, and learning to work as a team. These skills are portable and apply across the board, even in the workplace. Discussing each of these topics with teens is good, but not sufficient. They learn best with active practice using the skills in real-life situations that reinforce the concepts over time.
This brings to attention another recognized strength of relationship education programs for adolescents. The materials have been written specifically for that age group and address topics of concern to them. Understandably there are numerous programs available for children of varying ages while adults by far benefit from the largest assortment of relationship materials, but the teen population doesn't fit neatly into either category. And teens can be a tough audience. Youth educators are often at a disadvantage having to either create their own resources or re-work information targeted more specifically at adult issues. Now there are a growing number of best-practices teen relationship education programs that address a broad range of needs including: stress management, addictive love, problem solving, character development, how to break up, and recognizing positive and negative behaviors and their consequences. They also learn about high-risk and abusive behaviors, self-regulation, and how to choose friends or a life mate wisely.
Where to Find Programs
One recognized resource for quality youth relationship education programs is the Dibble Institute founded by entrepreneur Charles Dibble, whose vision was to provide adolescents with educational materials that help build and maintain healthy love and life relationships. The Dibble Institute holds true to that goal by offering a broad selection of curricula materials that are age-appropriate, ready-to-teach, research based, and compatible with other programs being used around the country. All are important features to consider when choosing programs to use with teens. These curricula materials are currently being used successfully in public and private schools, for after-school programs, with the juvenile authority, in teen pregnancy prevention centers, and with private and community youth organizations.
As an author and career educator, I have taught relationship skill building for many years and have seen first-hand how teens respond to this type of instruction. It's what they are interested in and like to talk about, but beyond that, they feel good about being empowered to make informed decisions about their relationship choices. Understanding what makes good relationships happen and being able to recognize when and why a relationship isn't the best also helps reduce risky behaviors and dating violence. It's a win/win for teens.
Char Kamper, CFLE, is a lifelong educator. She has spent the last 25 years teaching Introductory Psychology and Advanced Placement Psychology at Redlands High School in Redlands, CA. Char is married and has three grown children and four grandchildren. She is retired from teaching but still works in the area of relationship education with the Dibble Institute.