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Life lessons: Faculty use seed grant to teach teens how to build healthy relationships

A vein in Shay Robinson’s neck is beginning to bulge as she stands in the middle of the Jack R. Wells Boys and the Girls Club.

“I don’t like your girlfriend,” she says to her brother, Deshazzah. “Don’t bring her around.”

“I really don’t care what you think,” he shoots back, waving his hand dismissively.

For a second it seems like the argument could reach a fever pitch, but the audience laughs at Deshazzah’s remark and the two stop bickering. The fight is staged, a demonstration to show the wrong way to argue. It’s part of the graduation ceremony of Relationship Smarts, a community aid program and longitudinal study carried out by UGA faculty with a seed grant from the Office of the Vice President for Public Service and Outreach.

“There were grants coming around for poverty and education, so we talked about doing something for adult relationships, but we realized that so many of the risks develop early and have effects that can last through adulthood,” said lead investigator Tera Hurt, an assistant research scientist in the Institute for Behavioral Research. “Healthy relationships are linked up with so many other outcomes. Financial well-being, depression, anxiety-any number of problems can develop more easily when you have unhealthy relationships.”

The program is designed to instill beneficial relationship practices and values in children who may not have good role models. In 13 lessons spread over seven weeks, the students learn how to create and nurture positive relationships.

“The program does a few things,” said Ted Futris, an assistant professor and family life specialist in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences’ Cooperative Extension. “First, the program helps them understand who they are and what their goals are in life because that can have a big effect on your relationships. Second, we explain healthy versus unhealthy relationships and how sex can create an imbalance in romantic relationships. It also gives them skills to communicate and manage conflicts.”

For many of the students, learning about different kinds of maturity (physical, emotional, etc.) and different kinds of love (romantic, platonic, etc.) is a novel experience that has applications beyond their personal lives.

“They don’t just talk about you and your boyfriend, but your parents and your brothers too and, like, people in your class,” said Petite Borders, 19. “Those are all relationships too.”

Student Delencia Wingfield said the class has changed her outlook on boyfriends and classmates.

“I learned what to look for before you get into a relationship so that you don’t find out it’s bad when it’s too late,” she said. “And I learned how to argue. Well, argue in a better way.”

The study will continue to monitor its effect on these students over the next year to gauge how effective the lessons have been in providing guidance over time. If successful, the researchers hope to repeat the program again with new students and possibly expand its reach.

“We’d love to have more students and do it again,” Hurt said. “But I’d really like to get their parents in here, too.”