November 27, 2013 - 5:00 AM
VERNON - When Stephanie Mortenson sets foot in a new classroom, she’s never sure what the kids will share with her. One elementary school student told her his mother was physically abused by a boyfriend. A young girl wanted to know if she was frigid because she didn’t want to give her boyfriend a blow job. Another child was confused by a recent visit from a social worker.
Mortenson is there to offer what parents and teachers often cannot: a candid conversation about a taboo topic, healthy relationships. The Violence is Preventable program, funded by the B.C. Society of Transition Houses, aims to break the cycle of domestic violence and teach children how to cultivate healthy relationships. The program is delivered through four one-hour workshops with the class and teacher.
“Healthy relationships are something we never talked about when I was a kid, other than Sex-Ed. No one ever talked about relationships, what your role as a girlfriend is. Nobody ever talked to me about my self-worth; I never heard that word,” Mortenson says.
Ask a child, an adult even, to define a healthy relationship and they may have a hard time. From romantic partners, to friends, teachers, parents, and job managers, healthy relationships are not only a reflection of how we treat others, but how we allow ourselves to be treated.
In discussing healthy relationships, Mortenson challenges students to consider what they would say over text that they wouldn’t say in person. What’s okay and what isn’t?
“Today’s relationships with kids aren’t the conversations they have on the playground anymore,” she says.
Sessions are customized to each classroom and age group, focusing on where education is needed most: violence in the home, substance abuse, relationships. The program is designed to reach students in the safe and neutral environment of the classroom.
“We were shocked by the disclosures we received,” Mortenson says.
“A big piece of the program is supporting teachers. This isn’t something in the curriculum, or something they have a lot of time for.... For this information to come to a teacher with 30 other kids can be difficult.”
Through the program, students, teachers and school administrators are connected with services in the community they might not otherwise have known about. The Vernon Transition House is offering the program to schools throughout the North Okanagan, but gaining traction has taken perseverance. This type of program is new and unfamiliar to schools.
“Getting in the door is the hardest part. People are afraid of what they don’t know,” Mortenson says. “(Schools) find after our sessions, there’s an openness about healthy relationships rather than before it was taboo to talk about it.”
Some parents may think elementary school aged children are too young to discuss violence and healthy relationships, but Mortenson says early intervention plays a critical role in stopping the cycle of intergenerational violence. While the program is open to all grades, Mortenson feels the biggest impact can be made in Grades 5-7.
“The whole point is to be preventive rather than reactive, before they make these choices,” Mortenson says. “(They) are just starting to create their own relationships.... They’re very receptive at that age.”
To contact the reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at firstname.lastname@example.org, call (250)309-5230 or tweet @charhelston.
News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2013