Eager to learn more about how you can apply the lessons and facts you’ve learned on this site to your everyday work in your community? Follow the links above to get practical tips from people who were working on-the-ground at some of our Start Strong sites and a host of resources to further your expertise in this important issue, including links to our Start Strong webinars. You’ll also find ways to contact the team at Futures Without Violence and sign up to get updates on news and other violence prevention programs in the future. Thanks for joining us in this effort to ensure that all of our young people enter adulthood with the building blocks for a lifetime of healthy relationships.
Having worked in Austin’s middle schools for 20 years, I am completely convinced: Middle school absolutely matters when it comes to teen dating violence prevention. Unfortunately, many teachers or parents think that if their student isn’t dating in middle school, it must not be the right time for them to start learning about healthy relationships.
The fact is, that whether a student is dating or not, by sixth grade he or she is surrounded by peers who are. By middle school age, dating and all of the issues that go along with it have begun to dominate conversation and culture at school. If a student is going to be surrounded by relationship issues, then it’s important that he or she has a framework and tools for understanding them. We want to start informing students and providing them with the skills they need to have healthy relationships before they simply accept the example their peers are setting, which may be unhealthy or incorrect.
Open hearts and minds with theater
Facts and straightforward messages are not enough to create positive change on a very difficult issue like dating violence. We have to reach into teens’ hearts and connect with them on an emotional level about why this issue matters and why they matter to it.We found theater to be incredibly effective at reaching people’s hearts and at engaging youth in this issue. In collaboration with Creative Action, a local arts organization, we started an ensemble called The Changing Lives Youth Theatre Ensemble. It is comprised of about 25 high school students from across Austin. Every year they write, produce, and rehearse an original theater piece relating to healthy relationships. They do about 15 performances each year, primarily at middle schools. And, the student audience doesn’t just watch—they get engaged. The Ensemble provides a discussion guide for teachers, and facilitates candid discussions with students at the end of each performance.
Over 2,500 middle school students saw last year’s piece, and the Ensemble has become well-known in the community. They’ve been profiled by our local PBS affiliate and received a host of other media coverage. As spokespeople, the youth in the Ensemble have done more than most adults to get this issue into the community and the media. Even though Start Strong has ended, the Ensemble remains an active and successful group.
Foster youth leadership
All too often adults view young teens as problems they have to deal with. We found our teens to be the exact opposite. Our teens were problem solvers that just needed support. They are eager to improve their communities and they have great ideas. We just needed to equip them with the space and tools to put those ideas into action.One way we supported our young teens was by identifying middle and high school student groups that had shown interest in peer leadership– such as student councils or honor societies. We sent our prevention manager in to meet with those groups—she trained each group on dating violence issues, and helped them identify how they wanted to work on those issues at their school. Each group chose an area of focus specifically based on what was happening at their school. They then developed a creative campaign around that issue and worked to execute it.
We also built a leadership development program into The Changing Lives Youth Theatre Ensemble. We realized early on in working with the Ensemble that we didn’t want to lose the talented and dedicated youth that we had recruited each year, so we developed ways for them to stay involved. After students had performed for over a year, we offered them the chance to become peer mentors to new Ensemble members. Over time, we gave them other responsibilities, like facilitating group exercises and planning performances. This pipeline has allowed us to retain our student leaders, and made the Ensemble in to something not just for youth, but also led and directed by them.
Learn more about Start Strong Austin’s youth leaders’ efforts.
Leverage local culture
While working in Austin over the years, we learned that the local hip-hop scene was thriving and very popular with teens. To harness that energy, we planned a yearly event called Riot-the-Silence 2 End Dating Violence to incorporate the local music scene into our efforts to raise awareness about teen dating violence.We invited local artists, like The Cipher – Austin’s Hip Hop Project and Public Offenders, to perform original songs about topics relating to healthy relationships, gender stereotypes, and oppression. The energy was incredible—hundreds of kids attended the event all three years we hosted it. Seeing local artists invested in this issue grabbed kids’ attention in a whole new way. Many students were still talking about the performances days later at school and with family at home.
Build trust with parents
We found that the transition from elementary to middle school is an incredible opportunity to engage parents, who have so many questions at that time. Are the middle schools safe? Will bullying, cyberbullying, gangs, substance abuse, and teen pregnancy be prevalent? Offering workshops for parents and their teens during that transition time was ultimately a huge success. The schools and parents alike appreciated the opportunity to learn about positive parenting strategies and how to support teens in having healthy relationships.The most important thing we learned while trying to engage parents was that trust is crucial. Our early workshops for parents were poorly attended. But once we began to partner with other local organizations that already had the trust of parents in those neighborhoods, suddenly workshop attendance went through the roof. We also enlisted parents to help us plan future workshop content to ensure it would resonate. They became ambassadors of our work in their neighborhoods, and helped us further improve turnout and engagement among parents.
Once we had parents in the room for our workshops, we wanted to make sure they felt safe. So, we gave them lots of time to open up and share their worries, experiences, and insecurities as parents. It was only after the parents truly believed they were in a safe space that we could even begin to try to offer advice or encourage changes in their behavior.
When the parents saw how important trust was to their own willingness to listen, many of them realized that they needed to build that with their kids. They took that lesson home and approached conversations with their kids in new ways, emphasizing listening and empathizing before advising or admonishing.
Bring policy to life
We were fortunate that by the time we began our Start Strong work, the Austin Independent School District (AISD)
already had a strong dating violence policy
in place (which we had helped them develop in years prior). But, just having good policy isn’t enough. Everyone has to know about it and have the tools to make the most of it.So, during Start Strong, we really focused on bringing that school policy to life and making sure that every student and adult felt empowered to leverage it. We tailored trainings about the policy for school staff to fit their particular roles. For example, our training for teachers was different from our training for school nurses, which focused on signs to look for in general health screenings. For students, we focused on making sure they knew how to file a bullying, violence, or harassment complaint using the reporting protocol and form
that the school policy had established. We also helped AISD create a user-friendly site
for educating parents, students, staff, and others on the school policy. Our ultimate vision was that every single student and staff member on every campus in the school district was trained on this policy and how to use it.
When a policy successfully empowers a school community to spot and report unhealthy relationship behaviors early on, it creates a very powerful means for prevention.
When we began our program planning conversations, we made a conscious effort to include middle and high schoolers. We wanted to hear directly from our youth about the kinds of issues they were dealing with every day. What we learned was that while they were getting some good advice about keeping relationships healthy, no one was advising them on what to do when those relationships end. Is there such a thing as a healthy break-up? How can you ensure one? How do you react to one in a healthy way?
Just by listening to our youth, we had found ourselves a great programming opportunity—one that we likely would not have found if we had only talked to adults. We promptly began planning our first-ever Break-Up Summit to bring youth and adults together for workshops and discussions on how to have and handle a safe, respectful and healthy break-up. With over 200 participants, the Summit became a resounding success, and remains a key annual event of ours.
At the Summit, after attending joint activities with youth in the morning, adult participants—most of whom work in after-school programming—attend separate workshops in the afternoon where they learn how to best support teens before, during and after break-ups. We typically have both adult and teen facilitators co-leading each workshop, which provides another way for youth to drive the work.
We want to make sure the Summit remains meaningful and relevant, so we hold focus groups with youth in our area every year before we begin planning. For example, one year we focused the Summit on technology and how to respectfully manage a break-up on social media. The next year, we focused on cheating, a tricky but crucial subject that many middle schoolers and high schoolers encounter.
Social media never stops changing
Many of the main messages we want to deliver to our youth—like respect and responsibility—remain consistent over the years. But, the platforms where those messages matter most change rapidly. That’s just the nature of social media.When we first started our work, we heard from youth that a huge issue was unhealthy interactions on instant messenger chat services, like AOL Instant Messenger. Instant messenger platforms are now no longer as popular. We’re instead talking with youth a lot about how to be respectful with our photos on Facebook and Instagram, a popular photo-sharing site, during a break-up. Our high schoolers, who serve as peer leaders in our program, play a crucial role in helping us stay current on the latest technology and developing activities that address the issues unique to each platform.
Tap into pop culture
We always encourage adults working with youth to tap pop culture as a resource for culturally relevant and age-appropriate scenarios. When the Chris Brown and Rihanna dating violence incident happened, we saw a learning opportunity—for us and the country. We quickly surveyed over 200 Boston teens about their feelings regarding the incident. The results were very surprising. In particular, the fact that a majority of the boys and girls surveyed blamed Rihanna for the incident.The surprising realization that so many of the teens surveyed saw the incident through a “blame lens” sparked commentaries in national media. Those high-profile discussions about why so many teens hold unhealthy views about dating violence—and how to change them—led many educators and parents to open up new dialogues with their kids about the issue.
Involve the whole teen
Whether you’re working with older high school students as peer leaders or directly with middle schoolers as program participants, consider the whole person. Don’t just see kids for the role they’ll play in your organization or campaign. Think about the skills and needs they have as whole people—people who live, work, learn and play in the city you’re serving. For example, offer youth opportunities to develop skills they can put on their resumes, give them access to special conferences or events, or connect them with new mentors.Youth-adult partnerships are crucial to effective, engaging programming. Those partnerships only work when adults involve youth in a deep, genuine way. Young people are more likely to engage if they know you want them to succeed—not just in their role in your program, but also in school and life.
Take it to another level
We found that our outreach and implementation efforts were much more consistent and sustainable when we used our expertise and educational materials to inform policies that were citywide or statewide, rather than policies focused on the individual school level.
For example, we recently collaborated with our fellow city-level agencies to inform a new wellness policy that was approved by the School Committee and will be implemented in schools throughout the city of Boston. The language they adopted draws on important information that we shared about the value of promoting healthy relationships, rather than just reacting to unhealthy ones.
We simultaneously worked with officials in the Massachusetts departments of Health and Elementary and Secondary Education as the officials were updating teen dating violence guidelines for school districts across the state. By educating those officials about the importance of a preventative approach, we changed the framework within which they wrote those guidelines.
Unlike the old guidelines, which focused on protocols for intervention, the new, recently approved guidelines emphasize prevention and positive school climate. This change we accomplished on the statewide level will have an impact on the individual school level, too, because these new guidelines will now be adopted by every school in the state.
Build a strong and creative brand
There’s a saying here that if you can be cool in Bridgeport, you can be cool anywhere. We knew from the start that we couldn’t reach Bridgeport middle schoolers with any old public awareness campaign—with a boring slogan and a generic curriculum. We knew that in order to be successful in our efforts to build healthy relationships, and save and improve lives, we had to think of ourselves as salespeople and our students as “consumers.”
We had to develop a brand for our Start Strong program that would instantly catch these busy teens’ attention and then earn their loyalty—in the same way that companies like Apple and Nike do. We started by giving our program a catchy name (MYO, which stands for Mine, Yours, Ours) and a fresh look and feel (colors, logo, etc). Then, we marketed the heck out of it—everywhere, in every way, at all times.
To build interest from middle schoolers, we engaged high school students as “ambassadors” for our program, which was essential. Decked out in shirts branded with our logo and talking about the program’s merits to their younger peers, they made our program cool and gave it credibility. They also kept it fun, doing everything from wearing full-body spandex suits around campus in our program’s colors to sharing fun photos from our events on Facebook.
Only after we had established a very strong and engaging campaign, did we begin to draw kids to our events and programming efforts. We always led with our fun, cool side, then wove in the more serious and educational content. Students remain much more engaged when they’re excited to be somewhere and a part of something.
Meet kids where they are
Our kids are spending more and more time on social media sites like Facebook and Tumblr. We knew that we couldn’t just do outreach and events offline. We had to find a way to connect with them online, too, and in a seamless way.Whenever we had an offline event, we always found ways to promote it before, during and after by posting content about and from the event on our online platforms. In addition, we also ran a blog and invited our older teens to write there, which allowed us to drive discussions online without having to host offline events or workshops.
Think about the long run
We had great success getting kids interested in our program, but our work didn’t end there. We had to think carefully and creatively about sustainability, from both a programmatic and financial perspective.From a program perspective, we wanted kids to stay involved in our Start Strong efforts long-term. We didn’t want them just moving on after finishing one set of activities or trainings. So, we created a wide range of activities that could build on one another and create a “continuum of engagement.” For example, we developed a leadership pipeline that kids could move along as they completed more of our programming and became more dedicated. They became invested and our program became more sustainable because of that.
From a financial perspective, we knew the funding support we had received initially to start our Start Strong program would end, so we needed to begin developing a financial sustainability plan. We knew we would not be able to find funding to continue every aspect of our Start Strong programming. So, we prioritized finding funding for the elements that had been the most successful and would keep the core of our work sustainable.
We focused on maintaining our Youth Leaders program, through which we train college students to teach our teen dating violence curriculum in middle schools, because that in-school work was so important. Fortunately, we secured AmeriCorps support for it. Having that capacity and those resources has allowed us to continue to grow. For example, some local high schools recently asked us to extend our curriculum into their ninth grade classrooms. We’re thrilled to be able to meet that request!
Don’t assume anything
Whether talking with our middle schoolers, college student teachers, or even parents, we found that teen dating violence is poorly understood, almost universally. We learned that when defining both the problem and the solution, it’s important to start on the most basic level with everyone, no matter their expertise. Always define the terms and language you use. For example, don’t assume that everyone has the same definition of “bad” or “unsafe” behavior in mind. Once everyone has a shared set of terms and standards, conversations become much more productive.
Understand that comfort levels vary
Every teacher likely has a different level of comfort with this issue and the conversations it can elicit. We had some teachers that were very open and encouraged even the most difficult conversations to happen in their classrooms. We had other teachers that became very uncomfortable at even the slightest reference to intimacy.I recommend having conversations early on with every teacher you’re working with to assess exactly what they’re comfortable with and exactly how they would like any difficult questions that arise to be handled. This is particularly important if your team members will be the ones doing the teaching. You want to be respectful of the teacher whose classroom you are using. The earlier and more clearly you can set expectations with those teachers, the more likely you are to maintain their support and trust as vital partners.
Seek input from a range of stakeholders
We made a great effort to get input from a wide array of stakeholders as we made our early programmatic decisions. Department of Education officials, health teachers, health professionals from the American Academy of Pediatrics and others helped guide us.When it came to selecting the in-school curriculum program for Idaho’s 8th grade, we made sure to hear from as many teachers as possible, because they would be the ones responsible for implementing the curriculum. Ultimately, we opted to use “Fourth R” because our teachers liked how comprehensive its content was—it covered not just healthy relationships, but also the full range of issues relating to risk behaviors, from drug use to pregnancy. Our teachers also liked Fourth R’s approach to role play exercises, which they felt was methodologically strong.
Our efforts to involve teachers in that decision-making process paid off. To this day, almost every teacher we trained is still using that curriculum.
Harness the power of the arts
We knew how much positive influence high school students could have over middle schoolers, so we set out early on to bring older youth into our work as leaders and mentors. We were immediately impressed by how dedicated our high school students were and how relevant their ideas were that we began to bring them into our creative and planning processes much earlier on than we had in the past. They became the creative catalysts, and we began to follow their lead.For example, our youth completely spearheaded their “Third Choice” campaign around the Twilight movies, which successfully engaged thousands of their peers in meaningful and critical conversations about the relationship issues those films raised. Without that campaign, all of those young people would have still gone to see the movies, but few would have had a forum to reflect critically and constructively on them. Our youth knew what would get young people involved—they marketed the screenings, chose the prizes to give away, created a vibrant campaign page on Facebook, and even ran an essay contest. They engaged with the substance of the movies and were able to lead discussions that related the fictional movies to the real experiences their generation faces every day in a way that none of us adults could have.
Watching them work, I learned firsthand that young people truly do have the power to create change—especially among their peers.
Tap into trends
We found that working in schools, where we could implement the same curriculum in every classroom and every school, to be easier than working with after-school programs. Although it was more difficult, the after-school setting forced us to try new and unique ways to engage youth and partner organizations. All of our hard work and dedication lead to some great successes.For example, we partnered with Girl Scouts to run an online book club for girls but encountered challenges encouraging girls to consistently participate. But, when we created a “healthy relationships” badge that Girl Scouts could earn by participating in activities, we saw great participation.
We thought coaches at community centers would be another great way to engage kids after school. However, we learned that most coaches were not comfortable talking with kids about these issues and others outside their area of expertise. We discovered a better use of our resources was to build the capacity of leaders and staff in youth organizations to be able to promote healthy relationship skills and behaviors.
Use the after-school setting to try new things
In order to tap into the attention of middle schoolers, we knew we’d have to tap into a trend that they were already captivated by, whether it was a TV show or a band—we just had to find the right one. When the Twilight movie series premiered, it immediately captured the attention of seemingly every teen in America. Even though the series deals with many fictional themes, it also touches on some very real issues, like loss of control and violence in relationships.So, we organized a special screening each time a movie in the series was released. In advance of the screenings, our youth organized an initiative called “Eclipse: Campaign for the Third Choice,” which urged their peers not to limit their choices in relationships in the same unhealthy way that Twilight characters do. Those same youth facilitated discussions about choices and other relationship themes raised by the movies at each screening event. Local organizations we already had relationships with, like the local health department, St. Luke’s Children’s Hospital and the American Academy of Pediatrics (Idaho Chapter), also set up tables at the events with resources related to dating violence. Over 2,000 teens showed up at one of our screening events!
Reinvent how you work with youth
We built almost all of our social marketing campaign events around various art forms—from music to poetry to visual arts. Incorporating art into a serious topic can make it more fun, creative and accessible. For example, we held a poetry contest in our first year that elicited thousands of submissions from students. We published the top 100 poems from that selection in a book and hosted a poetry reading event called The Power of Words.
We also used those poems as inspiration for a ChalkHeart contest that we held at the Boise Art Museum. Over 400 teens and parents came and watched as teams of middle school and high school teens drew chalk art in real-time inspired by their fellow students’ poems. It was even featured in the New York Times!
We also learned that arts events are a great way to bring community businesses and organizations together. Food vendors, radio stations, museums, cafes—lots of places were able to contribute something and rally the community in support of this issue. Arts events also tended to draw big crowds—and in turn media attention—which helped further increase support for our program and this issue.
Building capacity can pay off
When we first brought the Safe Dates curriculum into classrooms, we had to decide whether to facilitate it ourselves or train teachers to deliver it. At first, we opted to have our staff serve as facilitators because we did not want to burden the teachers with that extra responsibility. That approach worked well, and teachers quickly welcomed our program into their classrooms—giving us an opportunity to develop quality, trusting working relationships with the teachers. In addition, we found that because teachers were able to observe the program at first, they were able to see our staff in action—enabling them to appreciate what they were doing at a much deeper level. Many teachers even told us that the curriculum taught them as much as about healthy relationships as it taught their students.Two years later, we trained the teachers to become facilitators. We started with one school, and although it was challenging at first, we ultimately saw a more profound result—the teachers really internalized the content we taught them. They applied the language and tools we equipped them with in every interaction they had—from staff meetings with colleagues, to conversations in the hallways with other students. Their influence reached far beyond the classroom time dedicated to teaching the program. We saw those teachers became true ambassadors of Start Strong—resulting in a much healthier and positive school environment.
Another way in which we have been working to build capacity is by creating professional development programming for school staff across the district. We believe that every person in every school has an important role in helping kids build healthy relationships. Our goal is to equip all staff—not just teachers, but also janitors, counselors, administrators and others—with the skills and tools they need to model healthy behaviors, and identify signs of unhealthy behaviors and respond appropriately.
Give kids a chance to change
While we were doing our Start Strong work, we were also helping to improve Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) discipline policies, which had suspended and expelled a disproportionately large number of students of color over the years. The parents, educators, and staff who work with those students on a daily basis had witnessed overly harsh discipline policies push so many at-risk youth off the path to graduation.As a result, when it came to working on dating violence in the District, we were all eager to find a way to hold students accountable for their actions—while at the same time avoiding unnecessary suspensions and expulsions.
Together, we worked to put in place practices for consistently and fairly identifying and enforcing appropriate consequences for unhealthy relationship behaviors. We also helped ensure that school staff had the resources to support and educate any offending students—giving them a chance to learn and change those behaviors. It’s so important to remember that these kids are young. Just because they make one mistake, that shouldn’t mean that’s who they are for the rest of school or their lives. If programs like ours do our jobs right and provide the proper intervention strategies and support to kids, they can change. We have to remember that.
Another important way we worked to keep kids out of the disciplinary system was to compel LAUSD to codify strong guidelines for violence prevention. Because as great as having fair policies in place for responding to bad behavior is, having good policies for preventing that behavior in the first place is even better.
Reach out to unlikely partners
We recently collaborated with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) probation team on an after-school program aimed at providing support to kids who were having disciplinary problems. It seemed like a natural fit for our Start Strong efforts because many of the kids in it have either witnessed unhealthy relationships and/or been a part of an unhealthy relationship themselves. Because we had a strong relationship with LAPD and we had a shared interest in violence prevention, we were able to leverage that existing program as a way to deliver our curriculum on healthy relationships to some of the district’s most at-risk youth.No matter where they end up in life, every kid can benefit from having the tools to develop safe and healthy relationships. I am so glad that Start Strong’s middle school focus and the community’s support enabled us to reach those kids.
Find and educate your policy champion
We had been trying for over a decade to move individual schools to change their policies to promote healthy relationships and prevent teen dating violence. We saw how ineffective trying to change policy on a school-by-school basis had been and knew that we needed to make change on a districtwide level instead.Our window of opportunity arose when a high school teacher that had been a champion of our work for a long time became a school board member. The national Start Strong team had helped us create a model teen dating violence policy for schools that incorporated our best thinking about what an ideal policy would look like and what research there was to support each aspect of it. We used that to educate the teacher on the importance of school teen dating violence policy and share an example of a comprehensive one. This provided him with the right information and the right tools to inform his colleagues on the school board about the importance of having a teen dating violence policy. As a result, the school board passed a resolution instating such a policy districtwide. Without the teacher serving as an educated, dedicated champion, such a significant change never would have happened so quickly.
Work within budgetary and legal realities
As frustrating as it’s been at times, we’ve had to acknowledge the budget constraints our school district faces. For example, LAUSD had initially liked a recommendation we made that they hire employees dedicated specifically to supporting the implementation of the new dating violence policy they had just enacted. But, those hires ended up becoming a conditional part of that policy—one that they would only implement when they had the funding to do so. They still don’t have that funding, but we’ve found ways in the meantime to still support the policy implementation. Doing so requires more of our staff time, but it’s a valuable investment because we are working with and building the capacity of District staff to carry this implementation work on in the future—with or without those extra conditional staff.We also spent a lot of time tweaking programs and revising recommendations we had supplied LAUSD in order to comply with legality and liability concerns they had. What ultimately motivated their legal team to approve a more proactive dating violence policy was the strong case we made that it was not just in the best of interest of their students, but also their own liability. We educated them about how a proactive policy and strong preventative approach to dating violence would create a culture and a set of norms that would make future incidents—and all of the ramifications they have—much less likely to occur.
The key to navigating these kinds of realities is getting in the mindset of those legal and financial staff and being ready to address the concerns you learn to anticipate they will have. We’ve become very good at that and it’s made our recommendations more appealing and our advocacy work quicker and easier.
Every time we tried a new social marketing tactic, whether it was theater, art contests or music concerts, we found new kids we hadn’t previously reached. And just as we learned that different kinds of events brought out different kids, we also discovered that certain events were more likely to bring parents out, too. Parents, for example, love to see what their kids have produced, so art shows and plays are a good draw for them.
We also learned that tapping in to larger events that are already prominent in the community is a great way to engage community leaders—and in turn the media that follow them. For example, we participated in a big monthly art walk event that we have here in Wichita, which we knew the mayor would attend. He brought a lot of media and other local leaders with him so we were able to get some great exposure for our work. The lesson there was to find events that will attract the people who attract other people!
Every relationship counts
Throw whatever you think you know about “young love” out the window before you begin this work with middle schoolers. You’ll quickly learn that their definition of a relationship may be very different from yours. Their definition is what matters, not yours. During the middle school years, every relationship, no matter how short or casual, is a learning opportunity. Take any chance you can to guide young people as they develop standards of behavior for their peers and themselves. Whether they call it dating, hanging out, or hooking up—they are exploring and learning about relationships.
Find your entry point
Whenever you’re trying to collaborate with a particular partner or group for the first time, start with this small goal: just get your foot in the door. If you keep an open mind and network persistently, that entry point can come from surprising places.When we first started our work, we knew we wanted to work with the school system, but weren’t sure where to begin. I happened to meet with a school’s director of athletics, who I already knew from previous work. We got to talking and it turned out he really believed in this issue and in the power of athletics to influence the character of our kids.
I worked with him to invite former professional football stars, who were well-known in our football-crazed area, to talk with the school’s coaches and their male athletes about respect and character. That one successful collaboration gave us the opportunity to pilot an in-class curriculum on similar topics, but with both genders, in three middle schools the next year. Today, that curriculum is taught to every student at all 18 middle schools in our district.
I never would have imagined that our gateway to Wichita’s schools would be an athletic department. But that was our entry point—and it ultimately led us to many more places. It also of course helps to have a great individual champion, like the athletic director I met, to open that first door for you.
Be prepared to support adults
Dating violence is a powerful, sensitive issue. You never know what struggles and memories will surface when you begin to have open conversations about it. We often found that kids were much more eager and open to having these conversations than the adults in their lives.It’s inevitable that the discussions you start with kids about healthy relationships will seep into the conversations with the adults who teach, care for and coach them. We had some moving incidents in which parents who came to our events to see their kids speak or teachers who taught our curriculum ended up having very profound realizations about their own relationships. Similarly, we had kids unexpectedly open up about very painful and personal experiences. If you’re going to start these conversations, it’s important that you make the right resources available to heal whatever wounds they might reveal or reopen. That’s true for both the kids and adults whose lives your work affects.
Get creative after school
Like other Start Strong sites, we found that working in the after-school setting posed a larger and more varied set of challenges than when working in-school. Establishing any kind of programming—let alone serious discussions about healthy relationships—can be difficult when you don’t see the same kids every day and when they’re not required to enroll in your programming. It’s not hard to predict what a kid will do if given the choice between playing games and sitting down for a discussion on healthy relationships.In order to grab young people’s attention among the competing activities and relaxed atmosphere of an after-school environment, you need to get creative. Some of our most successful efforts ended up being art projects and contests. We also had success inviting after-school programs to join larger community-wide events we had planned, like parades or concerts, where they could easily plug in. Whatever you do, don’t go into an after-school environment thinking you can just duplicate what you’re doing in classrooms.
There are many avenues to engagement
Every time we tried a new social marketing tactic, whether it was theater, art contests or music concerts, we found new kids we hadn’t previously reached. And just as we learned that different kinds of events brought out different kids, we also discovered that certain events were more likely to bring parents out, too. Parents, for example, love to see what their kids have produced, so art shows and plays are a good draw for them.We also learned that tapping in to larger events that are already prominent in the community is a great way to engage community leaders—and in turn the media that follow them. For example, we participated in a big monthly art walk event that we have here in Wichita, which we knew the mayor would attend. He brought a lot of media and other local leaders with him so we were able to get some great exposure for our work. The lesson there was to find events that will attract the people who attract other people!