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Real Life … Teen Choices program impacting teens virtually

One of the key concerns facing nonprofits as the pandemic limits in-person interaction is

how much impact their virtual alternatives are having on the people they serve.

For FYI’s Real Life ... Teen Choices program, reaching students virtually hasn’t felt as “personal” as it has in years past, thankfully, the education we offer is still hitting the mark for students who have been able to participate.

Real Life … Teen Choices educates teenagers in a school setting on topics such as sexual risk avoidance, STDs, teen pregnancy, internet/media safety, pornography, dating violence, healthy relationships, healthy coping skills, and consent.

At the end of each program, Real Life … Teen Choices asks students to complete a survey asking them what they liked and disliked about the program, what we could do better and what they wish we had spent more time on. We also ask them if anything we talked about during the week changed their opinion on that topic.

“The responses that we get in our student comments since going virtual are similar to what we’ve had before,” said Real Life … Teen Choices Director Rebecca Swearingen. “They give positive feedback about the program and its content. They say things like, ‘These are things that need to be talked about and every teen should know’ and ‘I didn’t realize STDs are so common and so easy to get’ and ‘I didn’t realize dating violence is so common and that it is not just physical.’”

What we are not seeing on their student comment sheets are the personal connection comments, like, ‘She was so fun and engaging” or “I felt like she really cared about me” so we’re not getting the personal impact we did before. ‘I wish it was in-person instead,’ is something the students, teachers and educators all agree on.

“Even when we’re in person, we are all masked, so there is still human interaction we are missing,” she said. “The nonverbal interaction is not there, be it virtual or in-person. At least during virtual classes they see our expressions, which is helpful, even if we can’t see theirs as well. Not seeing the students' faces hinders our ability to read the room. You wonder, ‘Am I giving enough, am I making sense, do they understand what I am trying to say?’ (The students) definitely miss the human interaction, as we do. Despite this, they are still getting the message.”

There are also technological issues that are frustrating.

“When the computer freezes or there’s trouble getting connected to the internet, oftentimes you feel you are not being as impactful,” she said.

In addition to the technology failures we are not able to offer our program in a fun and engaging way, so the teaching feels more like a lecture than an interactive program. Without the use of group activities and games that reinforce the topics, the lecture style teaching can temper the interaction. Some teachers have allowed our educators to take treats and materials to their schools ahead of time. Then while asking questions, the teachers hand out the candy for good participation and give students the materials. Even with all these frustrations there is also an upside.

“For those that may not be willing to go out of their comfort zone and speak up with a difficult question in the classroom setting, they are able to ask that question in the chat box,” she said. “There’s always positives in every situation.”

An added benefit is flexibility when the weather is bad.

“Last week, schools in our area closed Tuesday and Friday because of the weather, but the

school I was teaching at was not closed,” Rebecca recalled. “It wasn’t safe for me to drive on

bad roads to get to Jackson Center, but thankfully, because of this technology I could still teach. We would have only been able to teach two days that week, but because of virtual, we had four days.”

The reception to the adjusted teaching methods has so far been positive.

“Students and teachers have been very patient, forgiving and encouraging,” she said. “They are seeing that we are doing the best we can with what we’ve got.” Deeper connections are still being made despite all the hardships. “We’ve been given the opportunity to have real, honest, open conversations with students in areas that are often difficult to have about their body, STDs and sexual activity - questions they typically wouldn’t ask. I am confident in our educators’ professionalism and medically accurate knowledge in these uncomfortable conversations. I am also thankful they are willing to ask us in a safe setting instead of looking for the answers on the internet. Unfortunately, an internet search regarding sexual activity can quickly result in unwanted pornography sites.”

Rebecca feels there are going to be long-term benefits.

“It’s not preferable, but the more we use it, the more familiar we will be with it, and the more comfortable we will be with it,” she said. “Moving forward, we will learn how to have it as a permanent option.

The Real Life … Teen Choices team is looking forward to serving students for the remainder of the school year, even in the challenging moments.

We are currently looking for people to join our team. To learn more about how to support the Real Life … Teen Choices program, call (937) 845-0903 or email

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