4 Elements Of Success

There are many ways to structure teen dating violence prevention programming, but our experience and research have shown us that four key elements prove especially crucial to ensuring the success of prevention efforts; engaging those who influence middle schoolers; educating youth in and outside of school; using social marketing strategies; and working on policy and environmental change. These elements work together to tackle the problem from every angle, which is why we made them the core components of our Start Strong: Building Healthy Teen Relationships model.

We believe that all four elements taken together were what made possible the Start Strong program’s deep, lasting success. However, the reality is that many organizations and institutions may not be able to implement the Start Strong model in its entirety, due to limited capacity or budget constraints. That reality should not stop anyone from striving to make change on this issue.

We encourage you to apply the tips in this section as best as you can within the unique challenges and opportunities in your community. If we each do our best to prevent teen dating violence, together we can give all of our children the strong start in life and love that they deserve.

A Promising Approach

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation commissioned the independent research firm, RTI International to evaluate Start Strong, their four-year, teen dating violence (TDV) prevention program. It is one of the few, and largest, studies to take an in-depth look at healthy relationship development and teen dating violence prevention efforts involving middle school students. Its findings are promising and show that promoting healthy relationships has a positive impact in middle school. Read the full evaluation results.

Educate Youth

Young teens are experiencing significant emotional, psychological and physical changes. And, although during this challenging time preteens need adult guidance more than ever, they are also seeking independence and turning to peers.

Middle schoolers learn behavior from those they trust, so it’s important for dating violence prevention programs to involve the people who are not only close to them, but who will have a positive influence over these young teens. As middle schoolers form the relationships that set the stage for future ones, parents, older teens, teachers, coaches, health professionals and others must do their part to help kids understand what a healthy relationship looks and feels like.

The most important thing to know about engaging influencers is that many of them don’t realize the importance of helping young people build healthy relationship skills. Before you can engage influencers, you need to educate them about teen dating violence prevention and help them feel empowered to promote healthy relationships among young teens.

In School: Getting In

School is the best way to reach 11-to-14-year-olds. Research shows that school programs influence healthy behavior in teens, and that kids with healthier behaviors do better in school. For some young teens, the classroom may be the only place in their lives where they receive health information, feel safe, or learn positive behavior.

Here are some tips for how to make room for your programming during the school day.


  • Think Efficiency: Consider what’s already happening in your school system, like existing health programs and curriculum requirements for middle schools, and how healthy teen relationships and dating violence prevention fits into the mix.
  • Incorporate Other Issues: If your school has a health class requirement, your administrators may consider fulfilling it with your healthy relationships curriculum, particularly if it incorporates other related topics like violence, substance use and sexuality.
  • Accommodate Core Requirements: In school districts without a health class requirement, you may need to work with the school district and teachers to carve out time during core curriculum classes. For example, Start Strong Austin got their curriculum (Safe Dates) into classrooms by teaming up with science and social studies teachers and working around their testing schedules. In almost all cases, the teachers decided to implement the curriculum after students had completed standardized testing (April-May). Some teachers spread the lessons out of several weeks, while others saved them all for a dedicated two-week block at the end of the year.
  • Find Your Champion: To be successful in implementing a curriculum, you need to find the right champion in your school or district—whether that be a school counselor, teacher or administrator. Your champion must be both willing to stand up for teen dating violence prevention and motivate others in the school system. Start Strong sites found champions in many places on a campus or in a district.

In School: Implementation Strategy

Another key aspect of working in a school is planning your education strategy and implementation. Here are some tips for making sure that once you get into a classroom, you succeed with both students and staff


  • Choose a Delivery Method: Healthy relationships curricula can be taught either by classroom teachers or trained outside educators, depending on the requirements of the particular curriculum. In deciding which route to take, be sure to consider the pros and cons unique to each approach (see Pro/Con list below).
  • Invest in Teachers: Enthusiastic teachers make anything possible. Start Strong sites found that teachers’ enthusiasm for and comfort with the material was the single biggest predictor of a program’s success at any given school. Ensure curriculum success by investing in teachers through training, support and supplies. To foster interest and expertise among teachers, keep an open dialogue with them. Make sure you are providing motivation through support from school administration or incentives, when appropriate and allowed.
  • Face Your Challenges: Using an in-school curriculum has the potential to impact a huge number of students, yet can also pose big challenges. In Start Strong’s experience, in-school programming requires intensive preparation and troubleshooting. Factors like school staffing and administration changes, testing and budget issues can all disrupt your curriculum delivery. It’s important to know and believe that your program can still make a difference even when faced with unexpected  bumps along the way.

Pros and Cons: Curriculum Delivery

Teachers Deliver Curriculum


  • Have strong connections with students already.
  • Can become champions and hold leverage within the school system.
  • Using existing teaching resources may decrease implementation costs.
  • Increases capacity of school to prevent and respond to TDV


  • Teachers’ comfort levels and willingness to participate may differ greatly.
Outside Educators Deliver Curriculum


  • Gives you more control of the delivery of the lessons (more consistency and fidelity to the curriculum).
  • Insulates program from teacher or administration turnover.
  • Presents opportunity to use volunteers (so long as they are trained).
  • Fresh faces can change the school climate.
  • Younger educators may establish better rapport with students.


  • Can take longer to build credibility, support and rapport with students and staff.
  • Can be more costly.

Outside of School

Healthy relationships education outside of school is an important complement to in-school programming. It offers space for flexibility, creativity, and youth-leadership. But working outside of the structure of a school building and the school day presents its own challenges. Here are some tips for making your extracurricular programs succeed.

  • Work with Existing Programs: Partnering with an existing organization such as Boys & Girls Clubs of America or the YMCA gives you access to existing facilities, infrastructure and standing within the community. In addition to or instead of having your own team run the curriculum, consider training Girl Scout troop leaders or after-school program staff to lead sessions. With training, they can gain the expertise to have an ongoing impact, changing the environment of their program to promote healthy relationship development and taking advantage of teachable moments.
  • Get Active: In out-of-school settings, kids want and need to be physically active. Think about how to weave activity into your programs through dance, games, sports, acting and more.
  • Recognize Limitations: In settings outside of school, attendance can vary widely. Groups change and evolve quickly, making a set curriculum difficult to adhere to. Try to plan freestanding activities that don’t need to be implemented in a specific order.


Date SMART curriculum promoted by Boys & Girls Clubs of America

Engage Influencers

Young teens are experiencing significant emotional, psychological and physical changes. And, although during this challenging time preteens need adult guidance more than ever, they are also seeking independence and turning to peers.

Middle schoolers learn behavior from those they trust, so it’s important for dating violence prevention programs to involve the people who are not only close to them, but who will have a positive influence over these young teens. As middle schoolers form the relationships that set the stage for future ones, parents, older teens, teachers, coaches, health professionals and others must do their part to help kids understand what a healthy relationship looks and feels like.

The most important thing to know about engaging influencers is that many of them don’t realize the importance of helping young people build healthy relationship skills. Before you can engage influencers, you need to educate them about teen dating violence prevention and help them feel empowered to promote healthy relationships among young teens.


Why it’s important to engage them.

When parents talk to their kids about healthy relationships, they help protect kids from dating violence. Middle school is the right time to have those conversations. Even as young teens are moving towards stronger peer influence, they are still listening to what their parents have to say. In fact, an independent evaluation of the Start Strong program showed that positive parent-child communication predicted positive healthy relationship outcomes among youth.

What stands in the way.

Most parents of 11-to-14-year-olds don’t feel prepared to talk to their kids about healthy relationships and teen dating violence. They may not even want to acknowledge that their kids have started dating. And, they may not understand that controlling behaviors and bullying in pre-teen relationships can lead to dating violence and other harm later on.


  • Show Parents Why it Matters: Most parents don’t rank teen dating violence high on their list of concerns, but they are more likely to get involved once they understand that preventing teen dating violence can help protect kids from other dangers parents already worry about, like substance abuse and risky sexual behavior.
  • Build Parent Confidence: Most parents feel uncomfortable talking about relationships or dating violence with their children. They need tools to help them start the conversation—including what words to use and how to recognize warning signs. Parents need to learn to talk about healthy relationships, not just tell their kids what not to do.
  • Make it Easy for Busy Parents: Getting dinner on the table is hard enough! Busy parents need help overcoming practical obstacles to their participation. For Start Strong sites, offering food and childcare at events always boosted parent attendance.
  • Team Up: Partners like school resource centers, parent-teacher organizations, and student performance groups can help you get started. If parents are already coming to the school for an event or activity, see if you can become part of the program.

Download Resources

Start Strong Workshop Guide for Developing Healthy Relationships

Start Strong Workshop Guide for Moving from a Relationship Bystander to a Relationship Upstander

Start Strong Workshop Guide for Parenting in the Digital Age

Start Strong Idaho Workshop Guide for Parents and Caregivers, and their Teens


Boston Public Health Commission (Start Strong Boston) – Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: 10 Tips for Supporting Your Teen

Family Violence Law Center (Start Strong Oakland) – Jane’s 20 Questions: A Card Deck for Creating Conversations

Older Teen Mentors

Older teens have an important role to play as mentors to their younger peers. Middle schoolers look up to high school and college students and trust them to offer knowledgeable, relevant guidance, without patronizing or judging them.


  • Leverage Resources: To get older teens involved, partner with other youth-focused organizations, even if they do not have programs about healthy relationships or teen dating violence. Some of the best successes in Start Strong came through programs that were already connecting with potential youth leaders, whether through the arts, community outreach or at-risk intervention.
  • Build a Great Team: Great teen leaders can come in all packages, and your team should reflect the diversity of voices in your community. Invest in them by giving them the training they need to thrive. It is important to recognize leadership potential in all teens, wherever they are coming from.
  • Give and Take: Recognize that even older teens are still maturing, and use their time with you as an opportunity to offer value to them. This requires focusing adequate resources and attention on engaging older teens in activities that they enjoy and find beneficial to their own development. Investing in training opportunities can help your teen mentors grow into better public speakers, creative campaign collaborators, and experienced project managers. Consider offering resume workshops, training in professionalism and other skill-building opportunities.
  • Give Them a Seat at the Table: Embrace youth leaders and really include them. Invest time into mentoring and  training them on the issues and be willing to incorporate the leadership and vision they offer.  They need to know that they are much more than token participants acting on command. Give them a real role in the program and be prepared to allow for genuine participation.
  • Recognize Teens’ Needs: Youth leadership programs and trainings need to happen during after-school hours. Be cognizant of barriers—homework loads, transportation needs, babysitting for younger siblings, etc. Consider offering stipends if you can. For older teens and college students who might otherwise have paying jobs, even a small stipend can go a long way.



Boston Public Health Commission (Start Strong Boston) – Youth Engagement Process

SafePlace (Start Strong Austin) – Guide to Theater and Video Work with Students

Youth Theater Organizations:

SafePlace (Start Strong Austin) – Changing Lives Youth Theatre Ensemble

RYASAP (Start Strong Bridgeport) – MYO (Mine.Yours.Ours)

Start Strong Indianapolis – Young Actors Theatre

Health Professionals

Health care providers such as school nurses, family doctors, health clinics and medical centers can be key to both intervention and prevention. Health care providers are people that young teens and their parents look to and trust. Engaging the health community takes time for learning, however. Without guidance, many health professionals find it difficult to include conversations about healthy relationships and relationship abuse in routine appointments with teens.


  • Training Needs Vary Greatly: Many health providers, especially school nurses, understand the teen dating violence issue because they see its consequences regularly. But others in the health care system are accustomed to diagnosing conditions based on symptoms and may be uncomfortable talking with teens about healthy relationships as a preventative measure. Some may have trouble identifying symptoms of teen dating violence.
  • Time & Privacy Are in Short Supply: Most school nurses’ offices do not have private places for students to share confidential information and the high student-to-nurse ratio leaves nurses unable to give needy students adequate attention. Doctors and nurse practitioners also may face time constraints—in Medicaid environments, they have only 15-18 minutes per patient. Consider time and space limitations in your programming, and try to offer practical solutions.
  • Embed Your Tools: Help health care professionals overcome time constraints by embedding teen dating violence prevention tools into systems that they already use. Screening for dating violence can be incorporated into patient questionnaires and healthy relationship topics can be embedded in required school and sports physicals.
  • Partner Up: Collaborate with health care organizations and professionals that are already committed to or aware of teen dating violence issues, like health clinics working with teens, teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease prevention programs or local domestic violence nonprofits.

Health Care Professionals Training Checklist:

  • Teen dating violence overview (if needed)
  • How to recognize dating violence
  • How to discuss healthy relationships in a health setting
  • How to respond when a teen is a victim of dating violence


Hanging Out or Hooking Up: Clinical Guidelines on Responding to Adolescent Relationship Abuse – An Integrated Approach to Prevention and Intervention

Health Cares About IPV: Adolescent Health

SafePlace/Seton Family of Hospitals (Start Strong Austin) – Student Health Services Dating Abuse Screening and Response Protocol


Youth organizations and faith communities can be helpful teen influencers. Think broadly about what you may have in common and how you can help achieve each other’s goals.


  • Focus on the Positive: To get faith communities on board, focus on healthy relationships and building a strong, respectful future generation. Frame issues in a positive light, instead of in the light of sexual assault or physical abuse prevention.
  • Look Far and Wide: The specific needs and culture of your community will determine which partners are right for you. Try to talk to as many people in the community as you can—you’ll likely be surprised by some of the places you find allies. Chances are that lots of people in your community want to help.
  • Youth Development Organizations:  If you haven’t worked with teens extensively,  partnering with youth development organizations can be a ready-made source for collaborating with youth and learning how to be more youth centered.

Social Marketing

For prevention to be successful, programs need messages that resonate with young teens, and ways to deliver them that are authentic and captivating.

We found that Start Strong sites had the most success when they applied the principles of social marketing—including building loyalty to their program’s brand, meeting teens where they are, and harnessing cultural trends—to spread their messages and knowledge.

Keep reading for tips on how to use the best practices of social marketing to reach kids online and offline in creative, engaging ways.


These days, our youth have grown up in a 24/7 connected culture. They are the first generation of digital natives and the rapid growth of social media over the last decade has been a defining event of their generation. If we want to reach teens and pre-teens, we have to reach them where they already are. And they are online.

The social media world is full of both risks and possibilities:

– Nothing is private
  • It’s about telling your story
– It’s easy to be mean
  • It’s easy to be positive and supportive
– Digital reputations can be permanent
  • Everyone can create and share


  • Keep it Fresh and Shareable: Frame your conversations in ways that youth will want to hear about, and choose words that attract attention. Know what is happening in the news in your neighborhood and nationally, including in pop culture. Cultural events can be great context for drawing kids in to a conversation.
  • Use Youth Talents: Youth are experts in social media—make the most of their skills. The most effective sites trained youth leaders, then handed them the creative keys while also maintaining a healthy balance between oversight and independence. Involving creative people, taking risks and being prepared to move at youths’ speed are all key to success in using social media.
  • Interactivity is Important: Youths see the internet as a two-way street. They aren’t just consumers—they’re also producers. Your online strategy should invite teens to participate (create, like, comment, re-tweet or share).
  • Layer Your Strategy: Combine your online tools with offline strategies. Your social media profiles should drive people to your events, and your events should drive people to your website and social media profiles. Host an event, workshop, poetry slam or contest, and include a component where teens have to go online to participate—to vote, enter a drawing, watch a video or read a blog.



2013 Pew Report on Teens and Technology

2013 Pew Report on Teens, Social Media, and Privacy

2012 Pew Report on Teens and Texting

2010 Pew Report on Social Media and Young Adults

Media Literacy Tools:

Boston Public Health Commission (Start Strong Boston) – Sound Relationships

Boston Public Health Commission (Start Strong Boston) – TrueView

RYASAP (Start Strong Bridgeport) – “Rated R” Guide for Movies, Music and More

Start Strong Idaho – Hunger Games Gender Empowerment Lesson Plan

SafePlace (Start Strong Austin) – Where Do You Draw Your Digital Line?

On The Ground

Online strategies are most successful when they accompany creative, on-the-ground strategies. Start Strong sites, with the help of creative youth leaders, used the best of marketing techniques to catch young teens’ attention, win their loyalty, and make their messages memorable. Think flash mobs, swag, poetry slams, battles of the bands, chalk art and more—the creative sky is your limit when it comes to on-the-ground marketing.

Policy Change

In order to make real and lasting change, the work you are doing to educate middle schoolers about healthy relationships needs supporting changes in policies and practices. Like seatbelt laws or nutrition labeling requirements for food, policies change what’s seen as normal and expected. Policy change in schools can have that same effect on teens’ relationship behavior and on school climate more broadly.

Crafting a School Policy

Dating violence policies are often found at the high school level and focus on disciplinary and intervention responses rather than prevention. But, research and experience have shown that more effective school policies encourage healthy relationships and promote violence prevention, while also addressing proper responses to teen dating violence incidents.

In crafting and enacting your school policy, your approach matters. Here are a few lessons that Start Strong learned through extensive policy work.


  • Choose Your Words: Language matters, so choose wisely. Loaded terms like “perpetrator” and “victim” are judgmental and conflict with the accepting intent of a healthy relationships policy. Choose terms like “alleged offender” or “accused student” and “targeted student” instead. Words can reinforce values and empower, like using the word “upstander” instead of “bystander.” Also be aware of the climate in your area, and choose words that align your policy with state laws and regional trends.
  • Connect to Other Issues: In the policy realm, it is rare to start with a blank slate. Leverage and find ways to intersect with work that’s already been done or is being done on policies or issues related to teen dating violence prevention.



A Summary of State Legislation on Teen Dating Violence

Break the Cycle: State Law Report Cards

Resources for Schools:

A Guide to Preventing Bullying, Teen Dating Violence, and Sexual Violence in RI Schools

NYC Sexual Harassment (Reg A-832)

Break The Cycle’s School Policy Toolkit

Austin Independent School District’s Respect For All

Improving Your School District’s Policy on Teen Dating Violence and Healthy Relationships: An Advocacy Toolkit

Indiana Department of Education, Model Teen Dating Violence Educational Materials and Response Policies for Schools

Enacting a School Policy

Establishing a positive school environment requires a school-wide commitment and a policy that supports it. With consistent rules and rewards for good behavior, intensive steps for groups of students exhibiting at-risk behavior, and individual services for students who continue to exhibit troubling behavior, culture change can happen in schools. But policy change isn’t easy—it must include implementation support, data collection, monitoring of adherence to the policy, and evaluation.


  • Be Agile: Have a strategy, but be ready to change it. Policy change can leap forward based on current events or unanticipated opportunities. And just as often, policy advancement can stall because of the loss of a champion or the emergence of new priorities such as a budget crisis or local controversy.
  • Find a Champion: Just like in curriculum implementation, having a champion (or champions) is critical to your success. They could be teachers, school administrators, parents, school nurses or even the superintendent of schools.
  • Tell a Good Story: Policymakers respond to authentic voices and stories, whether they come from a youth, staff person or parent of a teen affected by violence. Parents and youth can be especially effective allies and champions, particularly when they are willing to tell their personal stories.
  • Implementing Policy:The existence of a law or policy, whether at the school district, state or federal level is often not enough. Your program can have a role in putting implementation supports in place and making sure people in your community know about the policy.
  • Collect Data: Accurate data is important to help advocates make the case for policy change. To build a strong case for your work, survey and test whenever you have the opportunity.

Policy Change Works

RTI International conducted an independent evaluation of Start Strong on behalf of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Blue Shield of California Foundation. The Start Strong evaluation consisted of two parts: an outcome evaluation and a policy evaluation.

All 11 Start Strong sites participated in the policy evaluation over the course of two years (2010 to 2012). The purpose of the policy evaluation was to assess the adoption and implementation of formal and informal policy related to teen dating violence prevention and healthy relationship promotion in Start Strong sites.

The findings reveal that policy work can make a difference.


Start Strong: Building Healthy Teen Relationships Evaluation Summary