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Character Development in Russian Orphanages:
A Pilot Program
Beryl Hugen, Lauren Vander Plas Baker, and Anastasia Konovalova Calvin College (Grand Rapids, Michigan) and the Russian-American Institute (Moscow) conducted anoint research study in the summer of 2008 designed to test the effectiveness of “Life at the Crossroads. “This curriculum, developed by Campus Crusade for Christ, seeks to foster healthy relationships, positive character development, faith-based sex education, and the development of critical life skills.
Why a Youth Development Program?
Russia’s public care system has responsibility for nearly one million children. These youth usually leave public care at the age of 16, homeless and jobless, within most cases only crime, suicide, prostitution, and HIV/AIDS awaiting their futures. During the 2007-2008 school year, the non-profit organization Children’s Hope chest offered the “Life at the Crossroads” curriculum to meet needs in 20orphanages in the Kostroma, Vladimir, and Ryazan Regions of Russia. Adult volunteers were trained and matched with students as mentors, and activities and games were used as often as possible to engage students with the material. Orphanage students ranged
in age from 12 to 17.
Curriculum Review: What Works?
First, a positive approach needs to be an essential part of any youth development program. Research indicates that, in any type of prevention program, risk factors and protective factors must both be addressed. Risk factors focus on avoiding negative outcomes, while protective factors focus on the potential for positive outcomes. In other words, it is appropriate to teach students to stay away from drugs, but they should also be taught how to get involved in community service. Likewise, youth develop morally in both cognitive ways—doing what is right—and emotional ways— Believing what is right. Morality is inextricably linked to character, a complex set of psychological characteristics that includes moral action, personality, and reasoning.
Teaching life skills is a large part of youth development programs, with the goal being to help students build good character by becoming productive and giving back to their community. In life skills training, students practice saying “no,” but also learn steps in making good decisions. With increasing age, the capacity of youth for moral development increases. Major influences are parents, the number of a youth’s other adult relationships, and peers, with whom youth spend the greatest amount of time. Because relationships are crucial to the moral development of youth, character development must focus on building quality relationships. To succeed, curriculum needs to be coupled with an environment in which students feel they can be vulnerable and honest.
“Life at the Crossroads” is a comprehensive community-based approach to youth development that includes aspects of many other strategies. It focuses on teaching students to build “social capital,” that is, positive relationships.
According to the Ansell-Casey Foundation (Seattle, Washington), whose methods were used in this study, the effectiveness of a program is determined by measuring program goals and outcomes. Social skills, educational and vocational development, finances, housing, transportation, physical development, and self-care are typically the best indicators of change. In 20 orphanages in the Kostroma, Vladimir, and Ryazan Regions of Russia, students were paired with adult mentors to complete the “Life at the Crossroads ”curriculum. Changes to the material were minimal and solely for the purpose of adapting it to the Russian context.
In Phase One, prior to the introduction of the “Life at the Crossroads,” students were asked, along with their mentors and caregivers, to rate themselves in several areas of development. Phase Two involved the teaching of the curriculum over the course of an entire school year. In Phase Three, students, mentors, and caregivers were once again surveyed using the same Phase One questions. Sample questions from the pre-test and post-test follow.
• I explain how I am feeling (angry, happy, orworried).
• I ask questions to be sure I understand what’s been said.
• I can explain how to prevent pregnancy.
• I can take care of minor injuries and illnesses.
• I show appreciation for things others do for me.
• I avoid relationships that hurt or are dangerous.
• I think I have a good sense of humor.
• I feel that I am a likeable person.
• I know what is important to me in relationships.
• I can plan and invite peers to social activities.
The limitations of the study included high attrition—one orphanage actually closed mid-way Through the study. Also, it took longer to complete the program than originally planned or expected, and the gender demographics of students across regions were not similar .
Findings: Was the Program Effective in Creating Positive Change?
The study documented overall positive change of 14.28 percent (6.96 point increase) measured from pre-test topmost-test.
Four of five specific categories showed positive change from the pre-test to the post-test. The exception was the self esteem category, which may be the result of harsh but realistic assessment by youths of their abilities and knowledge.
Other notable findings were revealed through questionnaires completed by students after each unit.
- • Students overwhelmingly agreed that good relationships are vital. They ranked family, education, and relationships as their greatest needs; success, fame, and money were ranked least important.
- • Students commented that they learned the most about respect and responsibility. They especially appreciated learning about setting boundaries for self and others.
- • Students concluded that the chief reason to remain sexually abstinent is to avoid diseases. They were especially influenced by learning about the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases.
- • In learning about judicious decision-making, students indicated that their friends had the greatest influence and that it is important to learn how to say “no” firmly. Students reported insights gained in building future relationships.
- • In evaluating the entire program, student comments included: “Helps my future,” and “Helps with responsibility and provides knowledge of diseases.”
- • Fifty-eight percent of students felt comfortable interacting in a classroom setting.
- • Eighty-six percent thought that the program was useful and practical for their lives.
- • Sixty-five percent said that the topics covered were interesting.
Mentors reported good youth participation and were often able to follow up the lessons with personal conversations. Much evidence was found to support the fact that healthy relationships with adults are extremely important in the development of youth.
In summary, the “Life at the Crossroads” program led to positive outcomes in the 20 participating Russian orphanages, despite the fact that positive developmental maturation is seldom attributed to Russian orphans. Youth reported significantly increased knowledge relating to value-based decision making, positive relationships, and developing and living a healthy lifestyle. Youth found the lessons both informative and useful for their current life circumstances.
Findings underscored the importance of supportive relationships in the lives of youth. The length of time youth experienced being in a relationship with both their caretakers and their mentor was positively correlated with higher program outcome scores.
Additionally, both mentors and youth reported the importance of their relationships in the overall success of the curriculum. All participants in the program emphasized the central role trust and mutual respect played in the implementation of the curriculum. Given the fact that the program was primarily a voluntary group activity, the high levels of attendance over an extended period of time speak to the strength of the relationships developed and nurtured throughout the program. ♦
Edited excerpts published with permission from Beryl Hugen, Lauren Vander Plas Baker, and Anastasia Konovalova, “Building Youth of Character; A Program Evaluation of ‘Life at the Crossroads: Life Skills for Character Development Curriculum in Russian Orphanages,’ ” Summer 2008.
Beryl Hugen is director of the Social Work Program, at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan; Lauren
Vander Plas Baker is a bachelor of social work research assistant at Calvin College; at the time of the study Anastasia Konovalova was a social work research assistant at the Russian-American Institute, Moscow, Russia.
Editor’s note: For additional information on the “Life at the Crossroads” curriculum, see Matt Kavgian, “An HIV/AIDS Ministry Partnership in Eastern Europe and Russia,” East-West Church and Ministry Report 15 (Fall 2007): 1- 3