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Taking Abstinence Programs to the Next Level

October 2006
By: Andrew Robinson
You are standing in front of a classroom full of teens. Most of the teens look you over like a new piece of furniture, wondering how well you'll fit in the room. Inevitably there is at least one student whose body language says it all. We all know him. The student that sits in the back of the class, arms folded, eyes looking anywhere but at you, communicating in every way possible that, "Abstinence doesn't apply to me."



As an evaluator and consultant to abstinence-until-marriage programs, I often think of this student, whom I have encountered countless times. My goal in working with abstinence programs is to help them increase their effectiveness by implementing proven methods for impacting teen behavior, even the behavior of the teen I just described. "If you can move that student," I tell clients, "you can move them all." As programs become more effective, they will be better positioned to reach the farthest-out teen and everyone in-between.

In order for the abstinence message to make the greatest impact on the most teens, several things are critical:

Adolescent brain architecture
Research on the teen brain in recent years indicates that the organ is in a state of ongoing development. Far from being in its mature form during the teen years, the human brain is in a state of flux until individuals reach their mid-20s. The Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) of the brain is particularly compromised during these years of development. What is important to recognize is that the PFC is the center for impulse control, logical and rational thought, forward planning, and other critical executive functions. It is no surprise that teens universally struggle in these areas.

I help programs become more effective by evaluating and training abstinence education directors, trainers, and presenters in methods of presenting the abstinence messages that are informed by the research on the teen brain. The more programs accommodate for the adolescent brain in how they deliver their message, the more likely teens are to be receptive and influenced.

For example, because teens have a compromised Pre-Frontal Cortex, they are particularly challenged in their ability to distinguish between options and the pros and cons of each option. The message of abstinence programs is made more powerful by not simply telling teens what to do or think, but engaging teens in a learning process that helps them sort through the pros and cons of various options.


FOR TEENS TO
TRULY BE INFLUENCED
BY AN ABSTINENCE
MESSAGE, THEY MUST
SENSE A PERSONAL,
SIGNIFICANT
CONNECTION WITH
THE PERSON DELIVERING
THE MESSAGE.



The primacy of relationships
For teens to truly be influenced by an abstinence message, they must sense a personal, significant connection with the person delivering the message. Too often we rely on information and curricula to change teens. Information doesn't change teens. People do. If we take a moment to think back on the people that have made the biggest impact on our lives, we remember who they were, what values they held, how they treated people, and how they interacted with us. We remember little about what they said. They impacted us by relating with us in a meaningful way, and it was through this connection that the values of this person transferred to us.

Most abstinence programs acknowledge the significance of relationships with the classroom. What is often overlooked is that for programs to maximize effectiveness, relationships with students need to be primary. Too often programs prioritize the notion that "we have to get through all the information," assuming information is a more powerful instrument for change than the connection between students and the person presenting the message. Information is not insignificant, but programs that learn to prioritize relationships with students will have the greatest impact. It is through this relationship that the values implicative in the abstinence-until-marriage message will transfer.

Creating relationships with students can be as simple as how we ask questions. Closed-end questions or questions that can be answered "yes" or "no" are far less effective in creating connections with teens than open-ended questions, or questions that typically begin with what, when, why, how, and where. These questions encourage teens to actively process the classroom presentation. They also sense that the presenter respects them and their ideas, even if their ideas are in conflict with what the presenter is saying. Open-ended questions help students sense the positive regard we have for them, and they begin to trust us and what we stand for. A relationship is underway!



TOO OFTEN PROGRAMS
PRIORITIZE THE NOTION
THAT "WE HAVE TO GET
THROUGH ALL THE
INFORMATION," ASSUMING
INFORMATION IS A
MORE POWERFUL
INSTRUMENT FOR CHANGE
THAN THE CONNECTION
BETWEEN STUDENTS
AND THE PERSON
PRESENTING THE MESSAGE.


Solid abstinence message
Picture every reason for practicing abstinence as a hurdle between a teen and his or her decision to be sexually active. Programs increase their effectiveness by creatively incorporating a host of reasons why waiting until marriage for sex is best. As programs set up as many hurdles as possible, teens have more tools to weather the storm of influences in their lives. I help programs incorporate into their presentations as many positive motivations as possible for practicing abstinence. Providing this broader message inspires teens to practice abstinence, not merely because of the consequences of sex outside of marriage, but because of the rewards to be gained.

Furthermore, what would teens be if they weren't convinced, "It won't happen to me!"? Most teens don't think bad things can or will happen to them. If our message emphasizes mostly the consequences of sex outside of marriage, we reduce our message to: "Practice abstinence, or else!" Teens may respond in the short-term to this message. A program's effectiveness, however, ought to be gauged not by whether teens commit to abstinence immediately following an abstinence presentation, but whether teens are committed to abstinence months, even years after the presentation.

Incorporating these methods will help abstinence programs increase their long-term effectiveness. Programs that have been shown to be effective will make a greater impact on more teens, even the student that initially thinks, "Abstinence doesn't apply to me."

Andrew Robinson is founder and president of Andrew Robinson Consulting. He can be contacted at: 541.915.6311, or at Andrew@ARobinsonConsulting.com.

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