Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education for High School Students: The One-Year Impacts of Two Versions of Relationship Smarts PLUS in Georgia

Publication Date: September 24, 2021
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Introduction

Research Questions

  1. What is the impact of offering HMRE programming as part of the regular school curriculum on high school students’ relationship skills, attitudes, and knowledge beyond the end of programming?
  2. How does shortening an HMRE program influence the impact on students’ relationship skills, attitudes, and knowledge beyond the end of programming?

Healthy marriage and relationship education (HMRE) programs for youth, and high school students in particular, aim to fill a common gap in what students learn about relationships in school. Although high schools often provide instruction on avoiding teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, few provide information on the social or emotional aspects of romantic relationships.

HMRE programs help fill this gap by providing education on relationships through structured, classroom-based curricula. In the short term, these programs largely seek to change participants’ expectations and beliefs about relationships, as well as improve participants’ communication and relationship skills. In the longer term, many of these programs also aim to promote relationship quality and stability beginning in adolescence and extending into adulthood.

Prior studies have found positive impacts of HMRE programming on students’ relationship skills, attitudes, and knowledge around the time the program ends. However, there is less evidence on whether these programs have sustained impacts on students’ outcomes over a longer period. In addition, providers often find it hard to secure the class time necessary for a meaningful amount of programming, and they may shorten or drop lessons from the curriculum to fit within the allotted time. There is currently no rigorous evidence on the effects of shortening an HMRE curriculum for youth.

Purpose

This report is the second in a series on the implementation and impacts of an HMRE program delivered to students in two Atlanta-area high schools. For the study, trained facilitators from More than Conquerors Inc., a nonprofit social service agency near Atlanta, delivered the Relationships Smarts PLUS (RQ+) Version 3.0 curriculum in health classes for primarily 9th grade students. The impact study compared groups of students who were offered two different versions of the curriculum—the full 12-lesson, 18 hour version and a shortened 8-lesson, 12 hour version developed for this study—against a control group of students who were not offered any HMRE programming.

This report documents the study methods and presents program impacts based on follow-up data collected one year after students enrolled in the study. Exploratory analyses also use data from a program exit survey. An earlier report provides detailed information on the program’s design and implementation. A future report will examine longer-term program impacts based on a follow-up survey of students two to three years after they enrolled in the study. The study was conducted by Mathematica and Public Strategies as part of the Strengthening Relationship Education and Marriage Services (STREAMS) evaluation for the Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Key Findings and Highlights

  • One year after study enrollment, students offered the full RQ+ curriculum and students in the control group reported similar levels on 9 of 10 outcomes related to their relationship skills, attitudes, and knowledge. For one outcome related to unrealistic relationship beliefs, students offered the full RQ+ curriculum were more likely than students in the control group to disagree with the belief that feelings of love are enough to sustain a happy marriage.
  • One year after study enrollment, the impacts for students offered the full, 12-lesson version of RQ+ were not consistently different from the impacts for students offered the shortened, 8-lesson version.
  • Exploratory analyses uncovered small, positive impacts of both the full and shortened versions of RQ+ on students’ relationship attitudes immediately after the program ended, but they did not uncover evidence of impacts on students’ relationship expectations or experiences after one year.
  • Taken together, the overall pattern of results suggests that the program had the expected immediate impacts on some outcomes at the end of the program, but that these impacts faded by one year after the program ended. Offering 12 versus 8 lessons had no influence on the overall pattern of results.

Methods

During two consecutive school years, 1,862 students from 61 health classes in two high schools received permission from a parent or guardian to participate. The study team randomly assigned each health class to one of three research groups: (1) a group that was offered the full 12-lesson, 18 hour RQ+ curriculum, (2) a group that was offered the shortened 8-lesson, 12 hour RQ+ curriculum, and (3) a control group that was not offered any HMRE programming.  For the impact analysis presented in this report, we used data from a one-year follow-up survey administered to students in all three research groups to compare students on 10 outcomes related to their relationship skills, knowledge, and attitudes. For the exploratory analyses, we used data from a program exit survey to measure impacts on students’ relationship attitudes immediately following the program, and we used data from the one-year follow-up survey to measure impacts on outcomes related to students’ relationship expectations and experiences.

Recommendations

The results of this study provide practical guidance for some of the key choices schools and program providers must make in planning an HMRE program for high school students. For both versions of the curriculum, we learned that schools can reasonably expect to have impacts on students’ relationship attitudes around the time the program ends but that these impacts are likely to fade after the end of programming. For schools and program providers that want to increase the chances for sustained impacts after the end of programming, the findings suggest that current program models may not be intensive enough to have a lasting impact on students’ outcomes. Therefore, schools may need to devote more time to HMRE programming or sustain programming over a longer period. Alternatively, providers could choose to offer the program at a time when it may be more relevant to students, such as later in high school when students are more likely to be dating someone than early in high school.

Research on HMRE programs for high school students is still in its early stages. This study was one of the first to use a random assignment design to examine the impacts of HMRE programming on students’ relationship skills, attitudes, and knowledge beyond the end of programming. Future studies should assess long-term impacts of different curricula on the same and different outcomes for youth to provide additional evidence on how HMRE programs may have a lasting impact of adolescents’ future romantic relationships. Additionally, programs should be implemented in various settings to identify those that might have favorable, long-term impacts on youth relationships.

Citation

Alamillo, Julia, and Brian Goesling (2021). Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education for High School Students: The One-Year Impacts of Two Versions of Relationship Smarts PLUS in Georgia, OPRE Report # 2021-151, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.