The Fourth R prepares for Dominican Republic expansion

August 16, 2023

Researcher Heidi Luft (standing on the left) is joined by colleagues from the Ministry of Education, Fourth R developers (virtual), and Fourth R project teams from the U.S. and Nicaragua during a multi-day adaptation workshop in the Dominican Republic.

A program designed to reduce risky behaviours in adolescents and promote healthy relationships is expanding its reach to the Dominican Republic.

Developed by Western Education’s Centre for School Mental Health (CSMH), The Fourth R is a skill-focused, relationship-based program that’s delivered as curriculum.

Its name references the three Rs, or the three basic skills taught in schools — Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. The program’s creators believe relationships, the fourth R, can and should be taught in schools the same way as the other 3 Rs are taught – by providing accurate information and lots of opportunity to practice healthy relationship skills. 

More than 5,000 schools in Canada and the U.S. have adopted The Fourth R, and a pilot of the program will be launched in the Dominican Republic during the 2023-2024 school year.

Leading the Fourth R’s latest international expansion is Heidi Luft, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing at The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) and a faculty member of The Center for Violence Prevention at UTMB.

The upcoming pilot was years in the making, says Luft, who first learned about The Fourth R through The Center for Violence Prevention’s founding director Jeff Temple. Temple has previously evaluated and implemented the program stateside.

In 2019, Temple connected Luft with CSMH Director Claire Crooks, who is also a founding partner of The Fourth R. The program’s other founding partners are Education Professors Ray Hughes and David Wolfe, as well as Education Professor Emeritus Peter Jaffe.

Luft, who was based in the Dominican Republic at the time, says she quickly fell in love with the impacts of the program and began promoting it to the Dominican Republic’s Ministry of Education.

“If we could develop evidence that it works, figure out a way to implement it smoothly and convince the Ministry of Education to adapt The Fourth R as required curriculum, that would have enormous reach,” Luft said.

Luft and her team began planting the seeds soon after, with surveys and focus groups aimed at gauging interest and needs regarding The Fourth R from students, educators and administrators in the Dominican Republic.

In the following years, these consultations drew insight from more members of the community, such as parents, religious leaders, lawyers and health care providers, in order to better understand how to implement the program in a new country.

“We found that everybody is working on violence prevention in some way because it’s a huge priority in the country,” Luft added.

From dream to reality

Once the groundwork was laid, Luft’s dream of launching The Fourth R in the Dominican Republic came closer to reality, thanks to new support from UTMB and the United States Embassy.

In May, Luft’s team in the Dominican Republic hosted a four-day adaptation workshop. Attendees included the Dominican Republic’s Ministry of Education, those who helped lead the implementation of the program in Nicaragua and the U.S., along with Crooks and Hughes.

Heidi Luft (sitting on the right at the table) is joined by colleagues during the start of May’s four-day adaptation workshop.

Four schools in Santo Domingo have been selected to host a pilot version of The Fourth R, with the curriculum being taught to a Grade 7 class starting in September.

The schools were selected based on their unique environments. One school, for example, is identified as being highly vulnerable for adolescent risk behaviours, whereas another school is identified as being very religious-oriented.

“We just wanted to get a taste of what some of the different barriers might be, and also how initial effectiveness might look differently depending on the school,” Luft added.

As the school year rolls on, the pilot will be under intense scrutiny from Luft and her team.

This includes asking students, teachers and others involved with delivering the curriculum for feedback after each module. The team will also be examining their own implementation strategies within the school communities.

“There’s a lot built in to troubleshoot as we go and to figure out what we need to change for the next scale up of the adaptation in order to make sure it run smoothly,” Luft said.

Luft hopes this work will prove The Fourth R can be effectively implemented in the country's schools and positively impact the health and wellbeing of Dominican youth, eventually leading to the Ministry of Education supporting use of the program in all public schools.

This project also has the potential to serve as a model for other international adaptation efforts, according to Crooks, The Fourth R founding partner and director of CSMH.

“Most of the evidence about effective teen dating violence prevention approaches has been developed and tested in the global north,” said Crooks.

“We shouldn’t assume that these interventions can be parachuted into other cultures and communities, and Dr. Luft’s thoughtful, partner-engaged approach has the potential to combine evidence-informed programming and local expertise.”

In the meantime, folks can learn more about The Fourth R on the program’s website. There are also a variety of curricula available for purchase online.