A Theater Intervention to Prevent Teen Dating Violence for Mexican-American
Middle School Students
Ruth Ann Belknap, Ph.D.a, Kristin Haglund, Ph.D.a,*, Holly Felzer, M.S.N.a,
Jessica Pruszynski, Ph.D.a,b, and John Schneiderc
aCollege of Nursing, Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
bDivision of Biostatistics, Institute for Health and Society, Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
cDepartment of Performing Arts, Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Article history: Received June 12, 2012; Accepted February 4, 2013
Keywords: Dating violence; Hispanic; Adolescent; Mexican-American; Intimate partner violence
A B S T R A C T
Purpose: To test a theater intervention designed to raise awareness of the dynamics and conse-
quences of teen dating violence (TDV) and to facilitate creation of nonviolent responses to TDV
among Latino and Latina adolescents. The intervention was based on Theater of the Oppressed,
which advocates the use of theater methods to explore social issues and to allow audiences to
experiment with problem-solving, thereby promoting change.
Methods: This study used a pretesteposttest, no control group, mixed-measures design to study
66 Mexican-American adolescents (mean age, 13.4 ? 5 years). Two plays containing subtle and
overt signs of control and abuse were written and performed. Scripts were based on data from
prior studies of TDV among Latino and Latina adolescents. At baseline, we measured sociodemo-
graphics, personal safety, and ethnic identity. Preepost instruments measured acceptance of TDV,
confidence to resolve conflicts nonviolently, and intentions to use nonviolent strategies to resolve
conflict. We collected qualitative data via essay.
Results: At posttest, participants had less acceptance of TDV (t ¼ ?2.08; p < .05), increased
confidence to resolve conflicts nonviolently (t ¼ 3.82; p < .001), and higher intentions to use
nonviolent strategies (t ¼ 3.35; p ¼ .001). We analyzed 20 essays. Qualitative results provided
context for understanding participants’ changes in attitude, confidence, and nonviolent behavioral
Conclusions: This adaptation of Theater of the Oppressed was an effective way to interact with
Latino adolescents. In a safe setting, participants vicariously experienced TDV, which facilitated
self-reflection and cognitive rehearsal strategies to respond nonviolently to TDV.
? 2013 Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine. All rights reserved.
Latino male and female
significantly higher rates
of teen dating violence
(TDV) than their white
peers. Among Latino and
TDV differ by gender and
acculturation. This study
was therefore culturally
tailored to more specifi-
cally address TDV within
the Latino community.
Interest in romantic partners and dating often begins in
middle school. In a diverse sample of 1,430 seventh-grade
students, 75% reported ever having a boyfriend or girlfriend
. Latino girls and boys have reported their ages at first
boyfriendor girlfriend as 11e13 years [2e4]. Teen datingviolence
(TDV) also occurs among early adolescents. Teen dating violence
is emotional, physical, sexual, or verbal abuse in a teen dating
relationship . In a TDV prevention study for seventh-grade
students, 37% were victims of psychological TDV, 15% were
victims of physical TDV, and 31% were victims of electronic
dating aggression in the past 6 months . Among Latino and
Latina ninth-grade students in the United States (U.S.), 11% of
girls and 9.5% of boys reported being a victim of physical TDV in
the past year . Latino and Latina youths had significantly
higher rates of physical TDV than white peers . Latino and
Latina youths reported that TDV may include name calling,
* Address correspondence to: Kristin Haglund, Ph.D., College of Nursing,
Marquette University, P.O. Box 1881, Milwaukee, WI 53201-1881.
E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org (K. Haglund).
1054-139X/$ e see front matter ? 2013 Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine. All rights reserved.
Journal of Adolescent Health 53 (2013) 62e67
humiliation, gossiping, arguing, cyberbullying, forcing sex or
drug use, physical abuse, intimidation, and exerting control and
Previous studies among Latino and Latina adolescents have
investigated relationships between TDV and gender identity,
gender roles, families, and levels of acculturation to U.S. culture
[2,3,7e11]. These studies revealed that attitudes toward and
correlates of TDV were influenced by cultural views on gender
roles and differed by gender and levels of acculturation. Less
acculturated teens endorsed more traditional rather than egali-
tarian gender roles . Latino males held more traditional views
of gender roles and were more accepting of violence in dating
relationships [7,12]. For Latinas, increased acculturation was
associated with increased dating violence [7,9,11]. Within the
Latino culture, constructs of marianismo, machismo, and fami-
lismo influence gender roles [2,9]. Latino cultural constructs have
also been demonstrated to be protective factors from violence
[9,13]. We based the scripts developed for this study on data
derived from bicultural Latino adolescents, which created an
intervention tailored to address TDV in this population.
This study was a pilot test of a theater intervention with
Mexican-American adolescents. In previous studies, theater-
based interventions significantly decreased aggression and TDV
among ethnically diverse teens and among Mexican-American
adolescents [14e18]. The purpose of this study was to raise
awareness of the dynamics and consequences of TDV and to
facilitate alternative responses to TDV among Latino and Latina
adolescents. Specific aims were to (1) change attitudes about
TDV; (2) increase confidence in ability to resolve conflicts
nonviolently; and (3) increase intention to act nonviolently in
a dating relationship.
We based the intervention strategy for this study on Theater
of the Oppressed (TO), developed by Augusto Boal . The
purpose of TO is to promote social change and human liberation
from oppressive phenomena such as TDV. Theater methods are
used to examine social issues and experiment with problem
solving . The theory underlying TO posits that oppressed
persons who performed emancipatory actions in theatrical
fiction would experience internal changes that would lead to
increased awareness and decreased acceptance of the oppressive
situation, and increase their confidence and intention to perform
those actions in real life . Theater of the Oppressed has been
used to address power relationships, and therefore was well
suited for this study, because power differentials underlie all
forms of violence . In a safe setting, TO allowed young people
to vicariously experience conflict in dating relationships and
reflect on their responses to that situation .
This study used a pretesteposttest, no control group, mixed-
measures design. We obtained human subjects protection
approval from the university’s review board. Participants
received a $5 gift card. Those who submitted a written essay
received a second $5 gift card.
Sample and protection of human subjects
All eighth-grade students from two parochial middle schools
and a coeducational public charter school were eligible for
participation. School staff distributed a letter describing the
study and parental consent forms to parents. To the knowledge
of the researchers, no parents refused consent and all eligible
students were interested in participation. Participant assent was
obtained before baseline data collection.
revealed that a sample of 30 participants would yield 80% power
to detect differences at the level of p ? .05. We obtained a sample
size of 66.
We used data from two prior qualitative studies regarding
perceptions of dating relationships andviolence among male and
female Mexican-American adolescents to develop scripts for two
15-minute plays [2,3]. These previous studies revealed how
adolescents described their understandings of themselves, their
dating relationships, and their perceptions of TDV within the
context of their bicultural identities.
An acting group of four undergraduate students and
a professional theater director wrote, directed, and performed
the plays. The acting group engaged in an iterative process of
discussion, improvisation, and writing. Data from the previous
studies provided the context from which they created characters
and derived some dialogue. One direct quote from a young
woman describing her ideal partner, “I want someone who will
stand beside me, not in front of me or behind me; I want a best
friend,” became a key line in Lily and Jake, the play it helped
Two plays were written. Homeroom explored nonphysical
violence such as coercion, using someone for personal gain,
manipulation, and humiliation. This play depicted a young man,
Nico, who takes advantage of a young woman’s, Maria’s,
romantic interest. Maria believes that a romantic relationship is
blooming. Nico, who has no romantic intentions toward Maria,
takes advantage of her crush to get her to do his homework.
Maria speaks with her friend Isabelle and expresses how hurt
she feels when she realizes what is happening. Isabelle models
how to listen and respond to a friend who is experiencing TDV.
Isabelle also suggests alternative responses to avoid being
a victim of this type of TDV and not be taken advantage of.
Nico’s friend, Tony, challenges his behavior, providing an
alternate view that what he is doing is not funny and not
The play Lily and Jake includes examples of sexual and phys-
icalviolence.The play begins with a sceneinwhichLilyis arguing
with Jake about his persistent pressure to have sex. He picks her
up to carry her to the bedroom, at which point Lily slaps him in
the face. Jake slaps her back. Jake’s male friend questions Jake’s
behavior and models more respectful interactions with a woman
he is just getting to know.
The plays depicts a variety of violent behaviors and portrays
the responses of the victims and perpetrators. In each play,
friends of the couple in the dating relationship provide an
alternate nonviolent view by challenging the behaviors, moti-
vations, and intentions of the involved couple. It was intended
that as audience members identified with the characters, they
would experience vicarious questioning of their own behaviors,
responses, motivations, and intentions. Three performances
were delivered to audiences derived from three schools on three
different days. Performances occurred at the university. Each
performance included both plays and a talkback session with the
actors and director.
R.A. Belknap et al. / Journal of Adolescent Health 53 (2013) 62e67
Independent variables included gender, current dating
partner, generational status in the U.S., personal experience of
violence, perceived personal safety, and ethnic identity. A soci-
collected information about gender, generational status, current
dating partner, and experiences of violence. We determined
generational status in two questions that assessed participants’
birthplace and family immigration history. Current dating
partner was determined with a dichotomous question: “Do you
have a boyfriend or girlfriend now?” Experiences of violence
were determined with seven dichotomous questions. The ques-
tion “Have you experienced violence in a dating situation?” was
followed with a list of six violent experiences including name
calling, embarrassing, pressuring, controlling, and physical and
sexual violence. A “yes” answer to any of the seven items indi-
cated personal experience of violence. Perceived personal safety
was measuredwiththe 5-item
(PSS)eJoyce Foundation Youth Survey . We measured ethnic
pride and respect for differences with the 4-item Ethnic Identity
(EI)eTeen Conflict Survey . The PSS and EI were tested with
youths in grades 6e8. Internal consistency was .63 and .73,
respectively [24,25]. The PSS and EI included a series of “I”
statements. Participants rated how often they would say these
statements using a 5-point scale from “never” to “always.”
Statements on PSS included, “I live in a safe neighborhood” and “I
worry about my safety at school.” The EI had statements such as,
“I am proud to be a member of my racial/cultural group.”
Dependent variables included attitude toward TDV, confi-
dence to resolve conflicts nonviolently, and intention to act
nonviolentlyin conflicts. We measured dependent variables with
the Acceptance of Couple Violence (ACV), Self-EfficacyeTeen
Conflict Survey (SE-TCS), and Violent IntentionseTeen Conflict
Survey (VI-TCS) . The three subscales of the ACV measured
male-on-female violence, female-on-male violence, and accep-
tance of general dating violence. We did not use an overall ACV
score. It was tested with youths in grades 6e8; internal consis-
tency was .74, .71, and .73, respectively . The ACV included 11
statements. Respondents indicated their level of agreement
using a 4-point scale, ranging from “strongly disagree” to
“strongly agree.” The five-item SE-TCS measured confidence to
control anger and resolve conflicts nonviolently. The scale,
ranging from “very confident” to “not at all confident,” was used
to indicate how likely they would be to use nonviolent strategies
such as “stay out of fights” and “talk out a disagreement.” The
eight-item VI-TCS measured intentions to act nonviolently in
conflicts. Level of intention was indicated on a 4-point scale,
ranging from “very likely” to “very unlikely,” to engage in certain
nonviolent behaviors such as “ignore situation” or “laugh it off.”
The SE-TCS and VI-TCS were tested with youths in grades 6e8.
Internal consistency was .85 and .84, respectively .
writtenby the investigators
Preintervention, a sociodemographic questionnaire and the
PSS, EI, ACV, SE-TCS, and VI-TCS were completed. Post-
intervention, the ACV, SE-TCS, and VI-TCS were repeated.
Participants were invited to write a reflective essay post-
thoughts about violence in relationships? How have the plays
changed how you think about violence in relationships? What
ideas did the plays give you about what to do if you see violence
or if you are afraid? Do you think these actions would help or
make the situation worse?” Essays were written within 2 weeks
after the performance. Teachers forwarded anonymous essays to
We used descriptive statistics to analyze the demographic
data. We employed a one-wayanalysis of variance test toidentify
no significant differences in change scores among the three
audiences from the respective schools. There were also no
significant differences on the pretesteposttest scores based on
gender, current dating partner, generational status, personal
experience of violence, perceived personal safety, or ethnic
identity. Thus, data from the entire group were analyzed
together. We used the paired t test to compare scores of the
instruments before and after the intervention. The level of
significance was set at p ? .05.
A total of 19 students submitted one-page essays. An inves-
tigator and a research assistant independently coded essays.
Researchers discussed coded data to arrive at consensus
regarding coding labels and hierarchical coding schema. Coded
data were grouped into categories to support the dependent
variables (attitude, confidence, and intention). Identified themes
qualitatively described the changes noted on the quantitative
A total of 66 students with a mean age of 13.4 (standard
deviation, .5) years participated (Table 1). All were Latino or
Latina; 39% were male and 61% were female. Nearly one third
(n ¼ 18) were first-generation immigrants born in Mexico. The
22 second-generation participants (33%) were born in the U.S.
and their parents were born in Mexico. Finally, 26 participants
(40%) were-third generation or greater, and they and their
parents were born in the U.S.
All participants had high levels of ethnic pride (mean, 18.1 ?
2). Participants lived in neighborhoods in which 56% of residents
were Latino or Latina, compared with 12% of the city’s entire
population . In participants’ neighborhoods, 28% of families
lived below the poverty level . Despite the likely actual low
incomes of the participants’ families, the majority (65%)
described their economic status as “living comfortably,” 29% that
they were “getting by,” 5% were “very well off,” and only 2%
described their family as poor. Participants felt their personal
safety was moderately at risk in their neighborhoods and schools
(mean, 13.5 ? 3).
With regard to dating, 37 participants dated (56%), 18
reported a current datingpartner(27%), and fivehad experienced
intercourse (8%) (Table 2). A total of 30 participants reported
personal experience of violence (46%). Nineteen reported their
role in the violence: six were victims, four were perpetrators, and
nine were both victims and perpetrators. There were no signifi-
cant differences in experiences of violence based on gender.
Three themes characterized participants’ responses to the
intervention. Results of quantitative and qualitative analyzes
were combined to describe themes.
R.A. Belknap et al. / Journal of Adolescent Health 53 (2013) 62e67
Change in attitude: “It made me think”
Postintervention, participants had less acceptance of TDV, as
measured on the subscale acceptance of dating violence
(t ¼ ?2.08; p < .05) (Table 3). Males exhibited significantlyhigher
acceptance of violence at pretest and posttest than females. Both
males and females had higher acceptance of female-on-male
violence than male-on-female violence (Table 4).
Qualitative data also revealed changes in attitudes. The theme
“It made me think” captured this change. A young man wrote, “I
used to think that it [violence] was good once in a while. It’s bad
because violence can take you over. . I thought it [violence] was
good because you let out all that was inside you out and later on
you can forgive.” The intervention led this participant to question
his acceptance of violence as a response to conflict. A second
male also wrote about his changed opinion. He said,
Before, I thought being in a relationship made you cool. I
changed my thoughts afterwatching the plays. They made me
believe relationships are a serious thing. I guess it’s a way to
prepare for marriage. Also, if you want to be in a relationship,
do it for love, not for your satisfaction.
Another young man wrote, “Before I went to this play I used to
think of relationships as just a joke and that men just had
relationships for sex. Now I don’t think so. A relationship has to
have love and care for each other.”
Some described how prior negative attitudes toward TDV
were reinforced. One young woman wrote, “Before, I believed
that violence is not okay, and the plays have convinced me to
never change my opinion.” Another wrote, “After watching the
plays, I am more on the side of no violence. . I believe that all
violence is never the answer. It should never be tolerated.”
Change in confidence: “I would stand up for myself”
Analyses of data from the SE-TCS revealed significant
preepost changes (t ¼ 3.82; p < .001), indicating increased
confidence in ability to control anger and resolve conflicts
nonviolently. Qualitative results revealed confidence in ability to
respond nonviolently in a dating situation. In essays, descriptions
of nonviolent responses to conflict included walking away,
reporting the violence, ending the relationship, standing up for
one’s self, and purposefully refraining from violent responses.
One young person wrote, “I would end it [relationship] because I
know it’s not right to put my body through that. No, I would not
be afraid. I would stand up for myself.” Another advocated for
nonviolent responses, writing, “If your spouse abuses you, don’t
hit them back. It makes you just as low as your spouse. If you hit
them back, it will only make the situation worse.”
Participants identified that self-awareness and reflection
prevented violence. One wrote, “Another way to prevent
violence is to stay true to your self. Don’t change your personality
just because you like someone. If you aren’t ready to take it to the
next level, don’t force yourself.” Regarding reflection, a young
man wrote, “After I saw those [plays], it really got me thinking,
‘Will I ever do that to a girl?’ but then I encourage myself to say,
no I won’t.” Writing was suggested as a means for reflection.
Change in intention: “Tell someone”
Significant postetest changes on the VI-TCS scale indicated
higher intentions to use nonviolent strategies to control anger
and conflicts (t ¼ 3.35; p ¼ .001). The strategy “Tell someone”
was included in 11 of the essays (58%). A male participant wrote:
Select demographics, by school
DemographicSchool 1 (n ¼ 20)
School 2 (n ¼ 30)
School 3 (n ¼ 16)
Combined (n ¼ 66)
Third or more
Family’s standard of living
Very well off
Family socioeconomic status
compared with peers
aFirst-generation persons are foreign born; second-generation persons have at least one foreign-born parent; the parents of third-generation or more persons both
are native to the U.S. .
(n ¼ 25)
11.7 ? 1.6 years
(n ¼ 20)
(n ¼ 39)a
11.7 ? 3.2 years
(n ¼ 18)
Mean age at first
Mean age allowed to
12.4 ? 2.1 years
(n ¼ 21)
14.6 ? 2.8 years
(n ¼ 31)*
Preferred to date
Had started dating
Had current boyfriend
aMissing data for gender, n ¼ 2; *p < .05; **p < .001.
R.A. Belknap et al. / Journal of Adolescent Health 53 (2013) 62e67
“If I ever see violence, I would report it to someone. I wouldn’t be
afraiddit would actually give me courage to do everything to
stop the violence.” Most respondents indicated that “someone”
should be told.Threeindicated thattheywould talk tothe person
who was mistreating them. Two indicated they would talk to the
person who was mistreating another. A few said that a trusted
adult should be notified. A young woman wrote,
If you are afraid you should tell a friend or a teacher. . When
you tell someone that you trust, they will help you out. They
will talk to that person or they will talk to your parents if you
don’t want to. That’s why it is important.
The sociodemographic questionnaire included a list of
persons and asked participants who they would turn to for
assistance with TDV. Most participants (94%) identified at least
one person. Male participants most often identified friends and
male relatives. Female participants identified friends and female
relatives (Table 5). No participants indicated that they would
contact police in response to TDV.
The aims of this study were to change attitudes about TDV
and to increase confidence and intention to resolve conflicts in
dating relationships nonviolently among Mexican-American
early adolescents. Consistent with previous research, this
theater intervention resulted in decreased acceptance of dating
violence and increased confidence and intention to act nonvio-
lently [15,17]. The significant changes on the posttests were
small. One explanation is that participants held disapproving
attitudes toward TDV at pretest. The significant changes indi-
cated that their negative attitudes were reinforced and
acceptance of TDV decreased further. This intervention yielded
no significant differences in dependent variables by gender. The
results support that the cost-efficiency of theater interventions
for a single intervention delivered to mixed-gender groups
yielded significant results.
We found two gender differences. Among persons preferred
for help with TDV, the most preferred one was the same-gender
parent. This finding may reflect the centrality of parents and
family within Latino culture. However, it contrasts with a recent
study in which most participants felt that parents were not
a viable source of support for TDV . Exploring youths’ pref-
erences for assistance from parents and others within their social
networks represents an important direction for future research.
Second, as reported previously, males had higher acceptance of
TDV than females [7,12]. These gender differences are important
for health care providers to understand when approaching teens
regarding TDV assessment and intervention.
This intervention provided a model for creating culturally
specific theater interventions. The scripts were derived from data
collected from bicultural Mexican-American youths, rendering
the findings to others with the same background more likely. This
study fillsagapintheliterature aboutMexican-Americanyouthas
a specific cultural group within the larger Latino population.
The convenience sampling of schools and participants was
a limitation. Inclusion of students from two private parochial
schools may limit generalizability. However, both schools served
low-income families from the neighborhoods surrounding the
schools, and tuition for most was paid through the school-choice
program or grants provided by the schools. Both groups came
from similar backgrounds; results revealed no differences based
Gender differences in acceptance of violence
* p < .05.
** p < .01.
*** p < .001.
Seeking assistance with TDV
Relationship Male (n ¼ 25)
Female (n ¼ 39)
Adult at church
Adult at school
n Mean (Standard Deviation)
Acceptance of couple violence
Male on female
Female on male
aDirection of arrow indicates relationship; *p < .05; **p < .001.
R.A. Belknap et al. / Journal of Adolescent Health 53 (2013) 62e67
on school. Another limitation was a bias toward heterosexuality. Download full-text
The plays included heterosexual couples and instruments
implied heterosexual relationships. The plays also portrayed the
male partner as the aggressor and the female as the victim. Male
adolescents are victims of TDV, although little is known about
male victimization. Further exploration is needed. Participant
responses may have been influenced by social desirability.
Finally, lack of a control group is a limitation.
In the plays, actors were not Latino. Yet, the significant results
provided support that matching the ethnic appearance of actors
and audience need not be a primaryconsideration. The culturally
specific content may have helped the audience to identify with
the characters despite their lack of ethnic appearance. Partici-
pants displayed engagement by leaning forward in their seats,
nodding, laughing, and being silent when appropriate. This quote
from an essay supports the accuracy of the scripts and
This was an interesting play, because this is what it would
look like if you actually followed a normal life of a teenager. It
is true that many teenagers have violence and pressure to do
things they don’t want to. The first act is very common with
people who are popular and unpopular, when one is asked to
do something for someone, but is only using them.
In conclusion, this intervention provided an engaging and
effective vehicle for interaction with Latino youths regarding
TDV. We recommend theater interventions to others engaged in
violence reduction research and intervention with adolescents.
This study was funded by a grant from the American Nurses
Foundation. Ruth Ann Belknap, Ph.D., R.N., was a 2010 Sanofi
Pasteur American Nurse Foundation Scholar.
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