Breaking the uncomfortable silence

Teach our children well

Developing healthy relationships from a young age

Claire Crooks knows the lessons will reverberate for years to come, far outside the classroom walls.

Teaching children to foster healthy relationships from a young age will not only decrease the likelihood of bullying in classrooms, it will decrease the likelihood of domestic violence. Such lessons will bolster overall mental health. And, they will cut costs in already taxed criminal justice and health-care systems. This is the impetus behind the “Fourth R,” a program Crooks, a psychologist, Western Faculty of Education professor and Centre for School Mental Health director, helped develop.

“Having healthy relationship education is important at every stage and age of development. This emerged from what we call ‘social competence’ and recognizing when children develop social and emotional competencies, they are set up for success in every area of life - in school, in the workplace and in relationships,” Crooks explained.

The kinds of social and emotional competencies we talk about are things such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, healthy relationships and good decision making.

“What a couple of decades of research has shown is you can teach these skills the same way you teach reading and writing. And when you don’t, there’s a big price to pay.”

Based on the idea that education needs to involve more than the traditional three R’s - reading, riting (writing) and ‘rithmetic (arithmetic) - the Fourth R program is implemented into elementary school curricula and emphasizes the importance of healthy relationships in addressing and preventing violence. It was co-developed in 2001 in partnership with the Thames Valley District School Board and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). The program is run out of the Centre for School Mental Health at Western and has been adopted by more than 5,000 schools in Canada and United States.

As a child develops and interpersonal relationships mature and change, having the skills to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy behaviours and being able to recognize what harassment or violence looks like, sounds like and feels like - as well as knowing how to navigate such situations - is crucial in preventing a bad outcome, Crooks noted.

"Kids do better, and can concentrate better, when they have (healthier relationships)."

“When you think about how we teach reading, we teach kids at every age and stage of development. We don’t wait for them to figure things out on their own, then see who has trouble and throw services at them. We don’t teach it once and hope they have it figured out. But with things like healthy relationships, we kind of do that,” she explained.

“We wait until kids are having trouble and kids can have trouble developing healthy relationships for all kinds of reasons. We need to move to teaching (healthy relationships) at every age and stage, and recognize it’s not in competition with academics, it’s actually the other side of the coin. Kids do better, and can concentrate better, when they have (healthier relationships).”

Claire Crooks
Associate Professor, Western University

Crooks is well-aware of the long-lasting effects of teaching healthy relationships early on. Research has shown learning communication skills, how to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy relationship behaviours or how to seek help for yourself or a peer has a positive impact up to 18 years later. It may prevent school-yard bullying, but it could also prevent potentially lethal domestic violence, she added.

An important element in the program is teaching youth how to respond to harassment or violence in their peer groups, Crooks stressed.

“When tragedies happen, the adults may not know what is going on, but peers often do. We talk about what skills are needed to be a good friend, to recognize an unhealthy relationship. If you're a friend of a 14-year-old girl in an unhealthy relationship, can you identify signs of extreme jealousy? Can you have that important conversation with your friend? That’s difficult. It’s a conversation even adults have trouble with,” she explained.

“After teaching these skills, we followed up 2.5 years later. Not only are there lower rates of dating violence but also increased rates of positive communication with peers. KidsĀ are able to navigate tricky situations better and keep themselves safe and making good decisions.”

It’s not enough to teach children to foster healthy relationships, Crooks added. Teaching the teachers to respond and navigate circumstances and situations in which unhealthy behaviours are present is just as important.

“Teachers need to know the warning signs of unhealthy relationships and how to respond effectively. This is true for dating violence and bullying. Historically, some teachers have given pretty rotten advice: ‘Just ignore him, he only does it because he likes you.’ If we are going to teach children and youth to seek help, then we need to mobilize the adults around them to respond effectively,” she explained.

“We do this through Fourth R training for teachers. We teach them about adolescent dating violence, warning signs, risk factors and effective responses. The Faculty of Education is providing this education to pre-service teachers through a Safe Schools course that we developed years ago.”

"Like with any skill, the earlier we start, we can provide an important foundation for healthy relationships."

In the last few years, the faculty has also offered a course on Social and Emotional Learning, addressing some of these components. Through funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada, Western researchers have offered annual training for all pre-service teachers in the Healthy Relationships Plus program.

While the Fourth R is a universal program from which all youth can benefit, it also appears to have a particularly positive effect for children who need it most, Crooks added. A study looking at how children are affected by maltreatment showed a clear dosage effect that was mitigated by the program.

“It’s not the type of child maltreatment that matters as much as stacking up the risk factors. The risk factors add up quickly for kids who have been physically abused, neglected and had a parent who was incarcerated. You see a very steep curve in terms of every negative outcome.

In Fourth R schools, where we're teaching these skills in a systematic way, we didn’t see that sharp increase. It was a safer environment for the most vulnerable kids, which has a big public health impact,” she stressed.

Crooks says the fact the program has been continually funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada and Health Canada is critical and underscores not only the value of the lessons taught, but also that fostering healthy relationships is a matter of public health.

“We’re not going to treat or arrest our way out of this. Ultimately, when we talk about violence, we talk about criminal justice responses, but it’s too late. Somebody’s been hurt. Somebody’s dead.”

How do we swim upstream and really approach it from a public health point of view? How can we change the trajectory, much earlier, in a kid’s development? Like with any skill, the earlier we start, we can provide an important foundation for healthy relationships.”

Linda Barnard

Written by Adela Talbot