Foot-in-the-door class activity: Intimate partner violence

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Between spending a lot of time thinking about what people need to know about psychology—and, thus, what we should cover in Intro Psych—and thinking about intimate partner violence (IPV), it is glaringly apparent that IPV belongs in the Intro Psych course.*

One place to address the topic is in the social psychology chapter, right after covering foot-in-the-door.

Ask students to use their web-enabled devices to visit this University of Michigan Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center website or show the website on your screen. Briefly describe each of the eight tactics that may be used by an abuser.

Set aside one tactic to use as an example of what you would like students to do during this activity. Divide your class into seven groups, assigning one tactic to each group. If you have a larger class (or want to use smaller groups), divide your class into, say, fourteen groups, where two groups will each be addressing the same tactic.

Explain that each of these tactics may start with something small and then gradually increase in severity: foot-in-the-door. In one study, "[T]he women described how the violence occurred in a more or less insidious and gradual manner, first finding expression in the form of psychological violence through control, jealousy and disparaging comments about the woman, her relatives or friends, and attempts to circumscribe her existence" (Scheffer Lindgren & Renck, 2008). 

Because of the gradual escalation, the tactics can be hard to see. The goal of this activity is to make that gradual escalation visible, here, in the safety of the classroom. By knowing what to look for, you may be better able to see the warning signs or red flags in your own relationships or in the relationships of a friend or family member.

Instructions to students:

For your assigned abuse tactic, identify what the most severe demonstration of that abuse may be. Next, identify what you think may be the least severe demonstration of that abuse. Finally, fill in at least two intermediary steps.

Using the tactic you set aside as an example, ask students for what the most severe demonstration of that abuse may be. For example, if you chose “Using Isolation,” the most severe may be the abuser not allowing their partner to communicate with anyone. Next, ask students what the initial foot in the door may look like. Perhaps the abuser doesn’t tell their partner when friends have called. Finally, ask students to fill in two intermediary steps, such as breaking their partner’s cellphone and perhaps, next, not allowing their partner to drive anywhere alone.

Now ask students to take a couple minutes to think on their own to identify at least four foot-in-the-door steps for their assigned tactic. Least severe, somewhat severe, more severe, and most severe. Think of these as light yellow flags, bright yellow flags, orange flags, and red flags. A light yellow flag may seem harmless, but it could indicate the potential for escalation.

Next, ask students to share in their assigned groups the behaviors that they identified. The group's task is to rank order the behaviors from least severe to most severe. 

Once discussion winds down, ask groups to share their rank orderings.

Detecting relationship patterns that may be unhealthy can lead to positive outcomes (Wuest & Merritt-Gray, 2008).

Wrap up this activity by sharing with your students community or campus resources they can turn to for support. Be sure to include this national resource for your students’ friends and family who may not be local:

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available to “talk confidentially with anyone experiencing domestic violence, seeking resources or information, or questioning unhealthy aspects of their relationship.” Call them at 1-800-799-7233 or text LOVEIS to 22522. Or you can visit and click the “Chat Now” button in the top right corner of the page.


While these directions are for an in-class or live-video (with breakout rooms) class session, instructions may be adapted for an online class discussion board (ask students to post, say, four behaviors before seeing others' posts) or as a stand-alone assignment.


*Special thank you to social psychologist and intimate partner violence researcher Kiersten Baughman for sharing her expertise with me



Scheffer Lindgren, M., & Renck, B. (2008). Intimate partner violence and the leaving process: Interviews with abused women. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-Being, 3(2), 113–124.

Wuest, J., & Merritt-Gray, M. (2008). A theoretical understanding of abusive intimate partner relationships that become non-violent: Shifting the pattern of abusive control. Journal of Family Violence, 23(4), 281–293.

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.