GALVESTON, Texas – The National Institutes of Health has awarded The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston a $3.07 million grant to evaluate a program designed to help teenagers to learn ways to resolve conflicts, better ways to deal with peer pressure and prevent violence.

Jeff Temple, a psychologist at UTMB, will lead the study that will be conducted in Houston-area middle schools. The study calls for a rigorous evaluation of a new and enhanced version of “Fourth R,” a program previously shown to be effective in reducing risky behaviors among high school students.

“Middle school is a critically important time period characterized by rapid psychological, social and physiological changes,” said Temple, who is an associate professor in UTMB’s department of obstetrics and gynecology. “It is an ideal time to implement this program – we can teach skills that are important in healthy peer and romantic relationships—including respect, equality, supportiveness, warmth and autonomy—at a time when they are likely to be receptive to the content but are not yet engaging in high levels of risky behaviors.”

The Fourth R integrates the promotion of healthy relationship skills and prevention of dating violence into existing school curricula. Similar to teaching the traditional “Reading, (w)Riting and (a)Rithmetic,” the Fourth “R” (for Relationships) uses guided lessons, role-playing exercises and homework to build healthy relationship skills.

The program’s components align with state and federal curriculum requirements in health and can easily be integrated into existing school curricula, thus minimizing time and financial burdens placed upon resource-strapped schools.

Each year, around 25 percent of U.S. teens experience physical, psychological or sexual abuse by dating partners. Many victims of dating violence experience a host of negative consequences, including mental and physical health problems, risky sexual behavior, substance use, academic problems in school, increased risk of suicide and problems in future relationships.

“By the time a student graduates from high school, most will have very little education on what a healthy or unhealthy relationship looks like,” Temple said. The Fourth R is used throughout Canada, as well as several sites throughout the U.S. and Europe, and multiple systematic reviews and national agencies have identified it as one of only a few promising teen dating violence prevention programs. The present study will be the most rigorous evaluation to date of the middle school version of Fourth R.