Effectiveness of Relationship Education Programmes in Schools for Years 7–13

Effectiveness of Relationship Education Programmes…
01 Aug 2013

International evidence reviews have indicated that school-based relationship violence prevention programmes are one of the few strategies with proven evidence for preventing intimate partner violence.

The Social Policy Evaluation and Research Unit (SuPERU) within the Families Commission commissioned a rapid review of the evidence and relevant literature on ‘what works’ in school-based relationship education programmes both within New Zealand and internationally for Years 7 – 13. 

This review has been used to support work underway in the Ministry of Education to develop guidelines for schools in selecting evidence-based relationship education programmes.


SuPERU funded this review for two purposes:

  1. to support the Ministry of Education in developing guidance for schools on selecting high-quality programmes for students addressing relationship violence and promoting respectful gender relations
  2. to inform other decision-makers and government agencies about best practice in school-based relationship education programmes.

This report builds on The Teaching of Sexuality Education in Years 7–13 report (Education Review Office, 2007a) and the 2008 report for the Ministry of Health on Sexuality Education (Fenton & Coates, 2008). The literature review will support the Taskforce for Action on Violence within Families’ Programme of Action 2012/2013. It will link with other projects led by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Social Development.


A full account of the methods used is available upon request from the authors. A brief summary is provided below.

  • The project plan was finalised in early May 2013 in consultation with SuPERU and Dr Gillian Tasker.
  • The search for relevant material covered academic databases (Scopus, Web of Knowledge, ERIC and PsychInfo), and more general internet sources.
  • Further relevant material was also provided by SuPERU, Dr Gillian Tasker and Alison Green, the project’s topic advisor on Māori relationship education evaluation/research.
  • Searching of academic databases was undertaken at the University of Otago, Wellington. Medical Library staff helped with the development of a search strategy and advised on the choice of databases and search terms.
  • All potentially relevant papers, articles and reports were reviewed for inclusion against agreed criteria. Material that did not directly address the research questions, or was not based on empirical findings, was excluded.
  • All of the included material is summarised in this report. The report draws the findings together, considers the strength of the evidence and examines possible reasons for any inconsistencies.

Key Results

1. According to empirical evidence, which Years 7–13 school-based relationship education programmes and approaches are effective, and for which student outcomes?

A few school-based dating violence prevention programmes have demonstrated effectiveness in reducing relationship violence; Safe Dates and The Fourth R are the programmes most widely agreed to be effective. Others have proven ineffective or even harmful. Most have been evaluated using weak methodologies, if at all, so their effectiveness is not established.

Reviews of school-based ‘social and emotional learning’ programmes show that this approach can produce positive outcomes in various areas, and can reduce risk factors for relationship violence in adolescents. Positive outcomes include improved academic achievement, increased social and emotional skills, improved attitudes to themselves and others, more pro-social behaviour, less problem behaviour and less emotional distress.

There is broad agreement in the sexuality education literature that emotional and interpersonal skills are an important but relatively neglected area in sexuality education. Evidence suggests that comprehensive programmes with a strong focus on relationship aspects may be more effective than others for achieving sexual health outcomes.

2. What are the common characteristics and practices (ie success factors) of effective school-based relationship education? How do success factors differ by age, gender, socio-economic status or ethnicity?

While some success factors can be distilled from the literature, there are still fundamental gaps in knowledge about what works in relationship education. For example, we know little about what works for different age groups, genders, socio-economic groups or ethnicities. What we do know is that programmes need to be sensitive to diversity, and tailored to ensure that content is relevant and culturally appropriate for the target group.

The common characteristics of successful programmes in relationship violence prevention, sexual violence prevention, social and emotional learning and sexuality education are as follows:

  1. informed by theory and evidence
  2. holistic and strengths based
  3. integrated into the curriculum
  4. aimed at influencing specific risk factors/protective factors/core competencies
  5. focused on developing personal or social skills
  6. cognisant of environmental influences
  7. developmentally and culturally appropriate
  8. personally relevant (ie address immediate needs)
  9. use active teaching methods
  10. delivered by well-trained and supported educators, with appropriate skills and qualities
  11. process and outcomes are evaluated.

There is wide agreement in the literature that one-off sessions are ineffective, as are programmes that adopt a ‘lecture’-style delivery, and are focused only on knowledge acquisition.

3. What evidence exists about school-based relationship education approaches in New Zealand? What are examples of programmes of known or emerging effectiveness?

We did not find robust evaluation of the long-term impact (ie more than six months post-intervention) of any classroom-based relationship education programmes.

Violence prevention programmes such as Love Bites and BodySafe have been well received, with evidence of knowledge gains and changes in behavioural intention immediately post-intervention. However, their long-term impact on knowledge, behaviour and attitudes has not been tested.

Social and emotional learning programmes such as Kiwi Can, Life Education and Attitude are all aligned with the New Zealand Health Education and Physical Education Curriculum, and have been positively evaluated, with qualitative evidence of positive behaviour change and skill development.

There is strong evidence from robust studies that school-wide efforts to improve relationships, behaviour and school culture can be very successful, particularly when grounded in Māori relational concepts and practices. For example, research shows that school-wide use of restorative practices leads to improved behaviour and academic outcomes.

There is considerable evidence that sexuality education in New Zealand is poorly implemented in many schools, and does not meet the learning needs of students. However, examples of good practice are also documented in the literature.

The New Zealand literature is rich in studies that explore young people’s sexuality and relationship norms, attitudes and questions qualitatively, and their findings may be helpful for developing or adapting relationship education programmes for the New Zealand context.

4. What is the current thinking and evidence about what works for Māori and Pacific students (Years 7–13) in relationship education?

Māori and Pacific cultures are collectivist, with relationships at the core of their world-views. Although there is little evidence about what works for Māori and Pacific students in ‘relationship education’ as such, there is growing evidence that attention to nurturing positive relationships – between teachers and students, and between schools and families/communities – is crucial to Māori and Pacific success at school.

Certain themes recur in the literature on what works to improve Māori outcomes:

  1. Access to traditional knowledge, including values and practices, is important in supporting rangatahi Māori in developing positive, affirming notions of who they are in relation to their whānau, hapū, iwi and other Māori collectives.
  2. Culturally responsive programmes are grounded in Māori relational concepts and practices such as hauora, mana, whangaungatanga and tuakana-teina.
  3. Māori need to be involved in developing and evaluating programmes to ensure programmes reflect Māori aspirations, values and knowledge.
  4. Educators who can relate well to rangatahi Māori are essential.
  5. Māori potential is undermined by systems and individuals who reinforce a ‘deficit’ view, exert ‘power over’ Māori and have low expectations for Māori achievement.


Research and theory about what works to improve outcomes for Pacific students is less developed, but there appears to be growing consensus on the following themes:

  1. There is no generic ‘Pacific community’; interventions must acknowledge and respond to diversity within and between Pacific peoples.
  2. Strong relationships between school, home and community (often the church community) are essential, and collective ownership of challenges and solutions is important.
  3. Interventions should be grounded in Pacific world-views and ways, bearing in mind that each ethnic grouping has distinct philosophies, traditions and practices.
  4. Positive student-teacher and peer relationships at school foster positive social and academic outcomes for Pacific students.
  5. For young Pacific people, developing a secure identity involves more than just ethnic affiliation.

Some generic programmes such as BodySafe, Kiwi Can and Cool Schools are intended to be appropriate for a wide range of students, including Māori and Pacific, and evaluations give promising results. Although we found no robust intervention studies about effective relationship education specifically for Māori and Pacific learners, there is considerable theory, descriptive research and anecdotal evidence about what works, and what does not work, for Māori and Pacific peoples. There is also considerable literature that explains Māori world-views, and concepts that are relevant to the teaching of relationship education.

Page last modified: 15 Mar 2018