Strategies for Building Healthy Relationship Skills Among Couples Affected by Incarceration. Adapting Curricula

03/15/2012

To better engage justice-involved fathers and their partners, grantees made formal and informal adaptations to the content of their relationship education curricula.  Staff observed that most participants and prospective participants (except those already married, who represented a minority in most sites) did not seem to relate to a specific focus on getting and staying married.  The goals of strengthening family relationships, improving parenting, and improving communication between romantic partners and co-parents during incarceration typically resonated well and were emphasized.

Common adaptations to the content of marriage and relationship education curricula included

  • focusing on improving romantic and co-parenting relationships (including marriages, dating relationships, domestic partnerships, and nonromantic co-parenting relationships) rather than focusing specifically on getting or staying married and
  • adding content specific to the psychological impact of incarceration on couple relationships, such as the concepts of institutionalized mind and prisonization and their implications for maintaining closeness during one partners incarceration and reestablishing family dynamics after release.

As noted above, most grantees delivered relationship education jointly to couples, but a few offered separate, parallel corrections-based relationship education classes for incarcerated men and community-based classes for their partners.  Others offered men-only classes in addition to couples-based classes.

Among sites that offered men-only relationship education classes, these sessions were usually limited to men who reported having a committed romantic or co-parenting partner.  Staff and client interview data suggest that men whose partners were unable or unwilling to attend relationship education classes with them may have been less emotionally close to their partners, in less frequent contact, or less certain of the status of their romantic commitment.  Staff delivering relationship education curricula to men-only classes commonly made a number of adaptations specific to that audience, including

  • eliminating breakout exercises designed for couples to participate in together and
  • shifting emphasis from couples-based reflection and planning toward individual skills development, self-reflection, and goal-setting.

Another key adaptation for men-only classes was framing communication and conflict management skills in terms of their applicability to a variety of interpersonal situations beyond relationships.  Several grantees observed that healthy relationship skills broadly apply to many types of interpersonal relationships, including parent-child, employer-employee, and peer-peer.  Emphasizing the manner in which the skills taught in healthy relationships classes could be used to improve these other types of relationships helped to increase the relevance of the course material in men-only classes.

Grantees reported a number of content-related adaptations that were relevant to both relationship education and parenting curricula.  These adaptations included

  • spending less time on information that was less salient for participants, such as the research and statistics that were included with some curricula;
  • spending more time on content that resonated strongly with participants, including communication skills, various exercises involving personality typing (e.g., preferences for the expression of love, such as the Five Love Languages; personality profiling, such as the PREP Primary Colors Personality Tool), and content related to employment; and
  • sharing communication techniques that were applicable even (or specifically) during the fathers incarceration, such as letter-writing skills, skills for interacting during personal visits, and so on.

Finally, staff stressed that, for maximum effectiveness, content adaptations for the prison setting must not be presented as adaptations.  One staff member noted

Its offensive to say, This is how you really do it, but heres how you have to do it on the inside. It makes it seem inferior.

Client and Staff Perspectives on the Most Engaging Relationship Class Topics
During the year 4 site visits, both staff and clients were asked about the topics covered in healthy relationship classes that were most engaging for participants.  Communication and listening skills were most commonly noted as highly engaging for participants.  Specifically, the speaker-listener technique was popular according to both staff and participants.  In addition, participants particularly enjoyed learning through interactive activities.  Other topics that staff believed resonated with participants included
  • understanding preferences for the expression of love (The 5 Love Languages),
  • understanding relationships (especially being attracted to the wrong person),
  • deciding on or sliding into a relationship,
  • uncovering hidden issues in relationships,
  • sharing expectations,
  • forgiving the partner,
  • dealing with sensuality and sexuality, and
  • understanding personality types.

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