This year, Claire Crooks was given the annual WORLDiscoveries Vanguard Innovator of the Year award for her work on the development of Fourth R, a curriculum based on the principle that relationship skills can and should be taught in much the same way as reading, writing and arithmetic.
Crooks is a clinical psychologist, professor in Western’s Faculty of Education and director of the Centre for School Mental Health and works alongside her team to develop, implement and evaluate programs in mental health promotion and violence prevention in a range of school and community settings.
For more than 20 years, the Western-developed, school-based Fourth R program has been working with students, teachers, parents and communities to address youth violence and bullying, unsafe sexual behaviour and substance use. Today, it is used by more than 5,000 schools in Canada and the U.S.
What was the spark of the idea for the Fourth R?
My colleagues and I all had extensive experience working with youth affected by relationship violence and recognized a need for prevention. We saw the importance of building healthy relationship skills instead of just focusing on what we don’t want youth to do.
How does it feel now knowing that the Fourth R program is in more than 5,000 schools in North America?
It is a great step towards our vision of all youth having the opportunity to develop healthy relationship skills. At the same time, there is more work to be done. The contention of the Fourth R is that relationships are as important as the other three R’s, so ideally, all youth would receive healthy relationship education during their school years. We would never settle for knowing that youth in 5,000 schools are being taught to read.
Why is this program so important?
Humans are wired to be relational and to reach their full potential in the context of safe and healthy relationships, but we know youth enter schools with really different experiences and competencies related to relationships. Schools have the opportunity to build these competencies, regardless of where children are starting from. We know healthy relationships are linked to a wide range of positive outcomes across lifespans – lower use of violence and related risk behaviours, improved mental health, and even improved academic and career outcomes.
What’s next in your work with the Fourth R?
We are focused on adapting our evidence-based approaches to different contexts. How can we maintain components that have 20 years of research evidence while adapting our approaches to increase the relevance for all students? Also, how can we use an equity lens to ensure that we focus on developing youths’ skills individually while recognizing youth exist within larger systems that may or may not be safe and helpful for all youth? This work involves constant adaptation and refinement because our cultural context is always evolving.
This story is part of our Endnotes 2022 series which showcases the people behind some of the year’s most compelling Western stories.