Commentary: Violence-prevention program teaches teens leadership

By Brooke Ophardt

As part of an initiative to promote violence-prevention strategies to teenagers and young adults, Delaware Coalition Against Domestic Violence (DCADV) is working to involve the influential adults and peers in their lives.

Brooke Ophardt

Among the programs currently in use across the state is “Coaching Boys Into Men and Athletes as Leaders.” As the title indicates, “Coaching Boys Into Men” is directed toward male-identified athletes, while “Athletes as Leaders” is geared toward female-identified athletes.

These programs work by helping athletic coaches discuss healthy relationship behaviors and intervention strategies with the young men and women on their teams. Some of the topics discussed during the lessons include respectful behaviors, communication skills, setting and respecting personal boundaries, and how to safely interrupt harmful behaviors.

The goal of “Coaching Boys Into Men and Athletes as Leaders” is to use the powerful impact that sports has on our culture and the meaningful leadership role that coaches have with athletes. When these coaches are able to not only teach healthy relationship behaviors and intervention skills but model them as well, they can begin to shape athletes into leaders who help change the current gender and social norms in their communities, which in turn reduces violent behaviors.

One example of DCADV engaging influential adults and peers is by creating a partnership with The Warehouse, a teen-focused community center that is part of the REACH Riverside community-development initiative in downtown Wilmington.

DCADV has been working with The Warehouse staff and the teens on The Warehouse planning team to be fully trained on the “Coaching Boys Into Men and Athletes as Leaders”curriculum. This collaboration would move beyond the cultural impact of sports, coaches and athletes and highlight the leadership opportunities that influential peers can have in the community.

What makes this partnership with The Warehouse particularly special is that the teens are at the heart of the community center, shaping the programming offered through their input, feedback and voting. These teens chose to participate in “Coaching Boys Into Men and Athletes as Leaders” and found value in offering it to other teens in their community!

Over the past summer, DCADV has worked with the teens to help them learn the programs from the perspective of both a student and a teacher — moving them into the space of being the influential peer leaders that is an integral part of the program! Due to the impact COVID-19 has had on in-person gatherings, most of this work was completed online through remote platforms. Even though there were challenges and technology hiccups, the teens still expressed their appreciation for programs that gave them a space to discuss what healthy relationships look like to them and ways to spread that message to others. A teen named Khi’Aire said: “I like the dialogue we have during the ‘Coaching Boys Into Men and Athletes as Leaders’ program series. … The information we discuss is educational.” DCADV and The Warehouse continue to use the programs and adapt them to the everchanging needs of the Wilmington community.

Another way DCADV has implemented this work statewide is by partnering with Children & Families First’s Behavioral Health Consultant Program, which offers counseling and other support services to Delaware public middle schools and their students.

What makes the partnership with Children & Families First unique is that recent research shows that the earlier violence-prevention programs are introduced to teens, the bigger the effect they will have on future behaviors. This past March, JAMA Pediatrics released a study that showed that when “Coaching Boys Into Men” is introduced to 11- to 13-year-old boys, there are significant positive changes in relationship behaviors as they grow into adults.

With the challenges of COVID-19 still in play, DCADV was able to offer the “Coaching Boys Into Men and Athletes as Leaders” programs to middle school students through a remote learning platform provided by Children & Families First. With this setup, DCADV staff, behavior health consultants and the teens were able to gather virtually once a week and hold discussions around the lessons and how these behaviors impact their lives. The girls who participated in “Athletes as Leaders” had lessons that addressed beauty standards, gender stereotypes and privilege in ways that opened discussions around healthy relationships and being a leader in their communities.

Even with the continued impact that COVID-19 has on our lives, DCADV, The Warehouse and Children & Families First continue to focus on improving the lives of the teens across the state. The Warehouse is continuing to offer online programming through their W.A.V.E. (“Warehouse Advanced Virtual Experience”) Initiative through fall 2020, and Children & Families First’s Behavioral Health Consultant Program has plans to train its staff to run the programs, either online or in person, to meet the needs of the teens they are working with.

Now, more than ever, it is important to continue the work of preventing violence in our communities by focusing on the changemakers — our teenagers.

Brooke Ophardt is a training and prevention specialist for the Delaware Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Go to www.dcadv.org for more information