Students Learn about Healthy Relationships by Catherine Russell

Photo:  Oelwein Middle School 7th and 8th grade youth join around the PIAL graduate student group leader as they learned at the end of the “In Their Shoes” story how Cara’s life tragically ended 10 days prior to her 18th birthday.
“No matter how many times we told them it was a real story,” shares PIAL graduate student facilitator Mara Mapes, “they didn’t get it until the end. They said, ‘Wait! This really happened?’”

“One in three teens will experience dating violence, and now they are looking at the relationship between dating violence and school shootings,” remarks Lee. “We saw the need to help students identify unhealthy relationship characteristics and recognize how unhealthy relationships can quickly escalate to dangerous.”

Dating violence doesn’t always involve physical abuse as the stories from “In Their Shoes” illustrate. Sometimes it’s controlling behavior and put downs. Sometimes it’s jealousy and obsession. Sometimes it’s using technology as a means of constant control. Students are often shocked or even angry at these stories.

Occasionally, as they get into the stories, some students reluctantly admit, “That sounds like my boyfriend/girlfriend.”
“It’s a moment of revelation which we hope leads to action,” says Lee, “which is why one of our PIAL team members created a colorful teen safety plan. We encourage each student to fill it out and take it with them before they leave.”

In 2019 from February to April, the Parenting: It’s a Life team traveled across Iowa to 6 middle and high schools, including Oelwein Middle School in which they presented the teen dating violence simulation 30 times, and reached over 800 students! Because of their affiliation with Iowa State University, Parenting: It’s a Life collects data from student surveys for research purposes. The initial data findings show students are more informed and feel a stronger ability to make a difference once they experience “In Their Shoes.”

After discussing what they can do if they or someone they know is in an unhealthy relationship, one student promised to “make sure I'm open and trustworthy to friends so they can come to me.” Another student declared, “I will tell an adult if something happens [and] I don’t feel safe.” Teens’ action plans included ideas ranging from being careful to treating a partner well to getting help from a trusted adult.

Evans concludes, “Thanks to the “In Their Shoes” simulation and PIAL’s debrief materials, we continue to raise awareness and spark conversations about teen dating violence with those who are most likely to experience it.”

“Parenting: It's a Life” is a free curriculum designed for grades 7-12. It introduces teens to the financial realities of being a teen parent, responsible decision-making, healthy relationships, peer pressure, and concepts related to paternity and child support. The teaching materials are a valuable addition to courses in Family and Consumer Sciences, Life Skills, Health, and Psychology. For more information contact the PIAL Leadership Team at or by calling them at (515) 294-9061.

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