Children should get lessons in school on how to build strong relationships to counteract negative role models and any “Disneyfied” portrayals of love they are exposed to. This is according to experts who similarly stated that learning how to build and sustain a strong partnership should be an integral part of work in schools to promote good health and wellbeing.
The interdisciplinary research – “Learning how relationships work: a thematic analysis of young people and relationship professionals’ perspectives on relationships and relationship education” by Simon Benham-Clarke, Jan Ewing, Anne Barlow and Tamsin Newlove-Delgado – which appeared in BMC Public Health was carried out as part of the Beacon project, funded by the university’s Wellcome Centre for the Cultures and Environments of Health.
Here, experts conducted focus groups with 24 young people from the South West aged between 14 and 18, and 10 relationship professionals. All recognized the importance of schools supporting young people to build healthy relationships.
Relationship distress is associated with public health problems such as alcohol misuse, obesity, poor mental health, and child poverty. As such, children should learn how relationships require work, how to manage expectations and that ‘good’ relationships do not just happen.
Simon Benham-Clarke said that the research shows schools need improved support to run relationships education, including specialist expertise and resources, and guidance on signposting pupils to external sources of help. Positive relationship behaviors should be modeled, integrated and built on throughout curriculums nationally and reflected in a school’s ethos.
“Those we surveyed highlighted the importance of teaching skills such as relating, communication, empathy, respect, conflict resolution and repair and ending relationships kindly and safely,” Benham-Clarke said.
Newlove-Delgado added: “Young people saw schools as offering an unbiased and alternative perspective on relationships, particularly for those who might have more challenging backgrounds, however a desire was expressed for a greater focus in schools on how relationships ‘work’ rather than on sex education.”
“Participants also felt that talking about family and peer relationships should come first, building up to later discussions about romantic relationships in later years at school, with some highlighting links between patterns of relationship behavior. Some young people were concerned about whether education about romantic relationships could put people of their age under pressure if it were too early.”
Meanwhile, Barlow said: “Those we surveyed felt schools could improve relationship outcomes for pupils in other ways beyond the relationship education lesson, such as having someone to talk to, in person and in private. Others wanted signposting and information about sources of help outside the school setting.”
There was strong support for relationships education to start early, preferably in primary schools, exploring what a healthy friendship and relating well to others looks like before moving onto romantic relationships, which would give young people vital life skills. Starting early, in primary schools and with counseling support where needed, was thought to be particularly important for young people whose parents were locked in conflict.