University of Tartu researchers help teachers and adolescents recognise violence

Studies have shown that a third of adolescents’ close relationships involve violent behaviour patterns, such as checking the other person’s phone, restricting meeting with friends, intimidation and influencing. Researchers of the University of Tartu are launching online courses to help teachers and hence adolescents to recognise different forms of violence as soon as possible and prevent the patterns of dating and relationship violence. With the programme “Terved ja turvalised suhted” (“Healthy and safe relationships”), researchers aim to take the topics of violence to the human studies, family education and psychology lessons of all school stages.

For a long time, relationship violence has been rather a taboo in Estonia. While hitting and shoving one’s partner is considered violent behaviour by both adolescents and adults alike, people often fail to understand that also a mental attack is relationship violence. “This includes, for instance, controlling behaviour, in which a person tries to make another person do something against their will by using intimidation, manipulation, threatening, isolation or other means,” explained Kai Part, teaching physician at the Women's Clinic of Tartu University Hospital and the leader of the Sexual Health Research Centre.

Dating violence means that one member of a relationship exercises control and power over the other and uses physical, mental, sexual or economic violence or threatens with it and thus causes harm to the partner. For instance, a person may try to prevent the partner from pursuing his or her hobbies and activities and meeting friends and make demands like “if you love me, you should only want to be with me”. Examples of dating violence include checking the partner’s mobile phone, emails and messages, and non-consensual sex.

“It is important to understand that these are unsafe and harmful relationships,” emphasised Part, adding that it is vital to recognise the patterns of relationship violence in adolescents’ relationships as soon as possible and take action. “This way we can avoid the situation where violence escalates and it becomes difficult to exit a close relationship that has lasted for years.”

Part says most young people want to discuss these topics in a safe learning environment. “In a recent study on sexual abuse commissioned by the Ministry of Justice, the surveyed 16–26-year-olds said that they want and need more information about avoiding abuse and where to seek help than they are offered now,” said Part, noting that young people prefer to get information from school (49%) and prevention programmes taking place at school (40%).

Ability to notice and step in

Estonian teachers can learn methodological skills on relationship violence and get instructional materials in the programme “Healthy and safe relationships” since 2016. The study of a teachers’ test group showed that the programme works. As few as three lessons reduced the teachers’ attitudes tolerating violence and improved their skills and willingness to discuss these topics at school.

A significant positive impact could be also noted in the pupils’ test group: the lessons increased the percentage of pupils able to notice mental violence in relationships and the pupils knew better what to do and where to seek help. The pilot study involved 542 pupils of years 7 to 12.

“The study conducted at the University of Tartu in cooperation with Kadri Soo indicated that some pupils find it difficult to see it as unhealthy controlling behaviour if their date keeps asking them about where they go and whom they see,” said Part. In the pre-study, 24% of pupils found that it is a sign of love if the boy keeps calling the girl and asking about what she is doing. In the post-study, the figure had dropped to 12%. “In the pre-study, most pupils (75%) did not consider such behaviour violent at all or saw it as a healthy and safe relationship. By the time of the post-study, the pupils’ knowledge had significantly improved and 64% of them considered the partner’s constant checking in by phone as violence.

According to Part, taking part in the pilot project improved the adolescents’ attitudes about gender roles and violence. After the pilot lessons, pupils were more prone to value equality and less prone to tolerate and normalise violence. Most significant changes could be noted in the pupils’ opinion on men’s and women’s duties at home and at work, the girl’s duty to be accommodating to the boy who has taken her out, distorting the meaning of a girl’s “no” and the right to decide on what one’s boyfriend or girlfriend is allowed to do.

Online training courses

The training courses on healthy and safe relationships that used to take place in a classroom setting are now offered online. The e-course in Moodle aims to give the learners knowledge about the forms of adolescents’ relationship violence, how to notice violence and where to seek help and advice. Teachers can upgrade their skills of discussing these topics in school lessons using interactive methods and hone their attitudes supporting gender equality and condemning relationship violence.

“Naturally, online courses cannot replace face-to-face courses in which discussions have an important role. But such a format could even be more suitable to some teachers, as we know that it may be difficult to find a substitute and travel to another city for a day to take part in a face-to-face training course. As teachers have recently had to learn a lot themselves about teaching online and taken up new methods, we hope that our online course is not too hard for any teacher. We have also created tools for assessment to ensure that all learners obtain the material of the course,” said Part, encouraging teachers to take part in the course.

Further information:
Kai Part
Teaching physician at the Women's Clinic of Tartu University Hospital
+372 5668 0778