The Evaluation of Abstinence Education Programs Funded Under Title V Section 510: Interim Report . Abstinence Education Programs Offer More than a Single Message of Abstinence


A common perception is that abstinence education programs focus narrowly on teaching youth the single message of abstaining from sexual activity before marriage.  Observations of the programs participating in the evaluation suggest that many of the programs include multiple components designed to reinforce and support their abstinence message.  For example, the program curricula used by the five targeted programs address a broad range of issues, from building self-esteem to understanding and aspiring to healthy marriages and parenthood, and  to teaching skills that will help youth make — and follow through on — good decisions (Table 2).

Table 2: Curriculum Topics of Abstinence Education Programs Participating in the Impact Evaluation
Building Self-Esteem X X X   X
Developing Values/Character Traits X X X X X
Formulating Goals X X X X X
Making Decisions X X X   X
Avoiding Risky Behavior X X X X X
Maximizing Communication X X X X X
Strengthening Relationships X X X X X
Understanding Development and Anatomy X X X X X
Understanding STDs X X X X X
Withstanding Social and Peer Pressure X X X X X
Addressing Consequences/Self-Control X X X X  
Resolving Sexual Conflicts X X X X  
Learning Etiquette and Manners X       X
Aspiring to Marriage X   X X X
Understanding Parenthood       X  
Source:  Program curricula manuals.

In addition to the abstinence education curricula, program services illustrate the breadth of activities offered to youth.  Weekend summits, community roundtable discussions, lending libraries and websites, essay contests, door prizes at school dances, “abstinence coupon books” for local businesses, summer programs, family retreats, and program recognition ceremonies are examples of the range of activities offered to program participants.

In general, the program curricula, activities, and opportunities provided to youth reflect, either implicitly or explicitly, various underlying theories of adolescent behavior and the implied logic models that explain the knowledge, attitudes, intentions, and behavior of youth.  The most influential theories of adolescent behavior incorporate multiple factors believed to shape youth behavior, including:

  • Youth background and personality characteristics.  Youth background  characteristics include demographic factors, biological factors such as age and physical development, religion, and school and community characteristics.  Important personality characteristics include impulsivity, risk-taking proclivities, sense of efficacy, and youth temperament, which also can influence youth attitudes and behavior (Costa et al. 1995; and Jessor and Jessor 1977).
  • Family attitudes and relationships.  This includes parental attitudes, values, and communication, as well as the influence of siblings.  The quality of relationships and extent of interaction with parents are related to the degree of engagement in risky behaviors (Feldman and Brown 1993; Blum et al. 1987; and Whitbeck et al. 1993).  Siblings, too, influence youth behaviors, including the number and birth order (Rodgers and Rowe 1988).
  • Youth attitudes, values, and knowledge.  Attitudes and values strongly influence adolescent behavior.  Knowledge about risks of certain behavior affect the decision-making and behavior of adolescents.  Youth who perceive their vulnerability as high, the consequences as serious, and the costs greater than the benefits are most likely to avoid risk (Bandura 1977 and 1986; and Rosenstock 1988).
  • Peer relationships and social influences.  Attitudes and values of peers are powerful predictors of adolescent attitudes and behavior (Evans 1976; McGuire 1964; Schinke et al. 1985; and Fishbein and Ajzen 1980).  Avoidance of risky behavior requires that youth understand social pressures and that they have the skills to resist those that are negative.  Interactions of individuals and their environment influence youth behavior (Hawkins and Catalano 1992; and Klitzner 1993).  Negative attitudes, behaviors, and interactions can be risk factors, while positive bonds formed with a school, peer group, or community can be protective factors.

With varying emphasis, abstinence education programs recognize these social, developmental, and community antecedents and mediators of youth behavior and draw on one or more of four complementary strategies for promoting abstinence and other healthy behavior:  (1) Helping youth learn skills to deal effectively with social influences and peer pressure; (2) providing them with information to better assess the benefits and costs of their actions; (3) altering family and community norms and supports; and (4) promoting healthy development through age-appropriate, healthy-activity choices.

Social Influences and Peer Pressures.  All 11 abstinence education programs in the evaluation address social and peer pressures.  Lessons on decision-making and communication, and active-learning exercises (such as role-playing) often are used to help youth develop and apply critical skills needed in situations that involve peer pressure.  Discussions of attitudes, beliefs, and values help youth distinguish themselves from perceived peer norms.  The Teens in Control program in Clarksdale, Mississippi, for example, uses videos to depict teens in relevant situations and then engages program youth in role-playing exercises so that they can apply decision-making and communication skills.

Benefits Assessment.  Many abstinence education programs seek to reduce the motivation to engage in risky behaviors by teaching youth to recognize the consequences of such behaviors and the benefits of avoiding them.  They use various strategies to alter motivation, including exercises to build confidence, self-esteem, problem-solving abilities, and conflict negotiation skills.

The Not Me Not Now program in Monroe County, New York, has as its cornerstone a media campaign that makes adolescents, parents, and the community more aware of the consequences of teenage sexual activity and stresses positive future options for teens to motivate them to remain abstinent.  The media campaign includes paid television and radio advertising, billboards, 5,000 posters in schools, mouse pads for public school students ages 9 to 14, t-shirts, educational materials for parents and schools, and a quarterly newsletter mailed to youth ages 9 to 14.  Parents are targeted through workshops, as well as through a widely distributed pamphlet and video.  The advertisements convey the program’s message by drawing on local youth to act in the commercials.  Local youth also serve on an advisory panel to help shape the media messages and gauge response.

Several of the programs work to alter benefits assessments through teaching about the values in and what constitutes a good marriage.  The very heavy emphasis on the institution of marriage in some of the programs reflects a belief that the lack of understanding of, or role models for, marriage results in its being undervalued.  This undervaluing of marriage is believed to contribute to casual and early sexual relationships.  The ReCapturing the Vision program in Miami, Florida, is an example of a program that attempts to change knowledge about and the perceived value of marriage.  The topic of marriage is covered over a period of more than a month of daily classes in which program participants paint their own small “hope chests,” discuss extensively what makes for a good partner in life, “plan” for their own weddings, and hold a mock wedding at a local hotel.  The selected “bride” draws on the lessons on relationships and partner qualities in selecting the “groom.”  Parents of the bride and groom, as well as program participants from all schools, attend the mock “wedding,” which culminates in vows of chastity until a real wedding.

Family and Community Norms and Support.  Particularly the community-wide programs and the more intensive targeted programs often attempt to enhance youth’s involvement with their families, peer groups, schools, and community through offering a multifaceted set of services, activities, and educational and training opportunities.  They may be designed to mobilize broad, interrelated factors within the larger community to strengthen positive influences on individual behavior.

The Families United to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (FUPTP) program in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the ReCapturing the Vision program in Miami, Florida, for example, both work hard to improve parent-child communication and to enhance participants’ involvement with their families through means such as monthly parent meetings, a weekend family retreat, and home visits.  The ReCapturing the Vision program seeks to develop positive peer relationships by running a class-appointed “court system” for students who cause problems and an annual Teen Talk Symposium in which teen and celebrity panelists address questions on relationships and sexual issues.

Both FUPTP and the ReCapturing the Vision programs aim to strengthen participants’ commitment to school through a heavy emphasis on school performance, with report card checks and dedicated homework/tutoring time.  Both programs are intensive; they meet daily throughout the school year and offer program participants the opportunity to enroll for more than one year.  They address skills needed to support community engagement, with opportunities for community service and lessons on social etiquette through dining at local restaurants.  These programs aim to provide youth with a value system that will help them develop their decision-making skills, communication skills and relationships, and goal setting.  In addition to participants’ attitudes and values, they also focus on self-esteem.  For example, one strategy used by ReCapturing the Vision, an all-girls program, is to provide participants with “makeovers” to improve their self-image.


  • I, of the Families United to Prevent Teen Pregnancy Program, promise not to become a teen parent.
  • I will abide by the rules of Rosalie Manor Incorporated, my parents, teachers, and community in which I live.
  • I will not become a part of illegal drugs, drug abuse, crime, or gang-related activities.
  • I will forever carry myself as a future leader and illustrate FUPTP pride.

Developmental Needs.  Many programs offer age-appropriate activities and supports designed to fill unmet psychological and emotional needs, develop psychosocial competence, and ease teenagers’ transition to positive, independent, and productive adulthood.  For both the ReCapturing the Vision and the FUPTP programs, a primary vehicle for engaging youth is giving them a strong sense of identity with a group that embraces positive values, such as community, responsibility, leadership, trust, and respect for others.  This group identity is achieved in a number of ways.  In the ReCapturing the Vision program, a local business pays to have suits designed and tailor-made for each program participant.  Both programs help foster a sense of identity in the public’s eyes through highly publicized public rallies to support the choice of abstinence.  In the FUPTP program, participants write their own “raps” that reflect what they’ve learned from the program and each day recite a program pledge.