January 1983 // Volume 21 // Number 1 // Feature Articles

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Determining Needs of a Hard-To-Reach Audience

A needs survey combined with participant input in planning can lead to educational programs for a new, local audience.

Cheryl Bielema
Extension Adviser
Cooperative Extension Service
University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign

Andrew Sofranko
Department of Agricultural Economics
University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign.

"Thanks to all of you in Pittsfield that are helping single parents- we do need help (I know I do). Especially with running the home properly and raising our children properly. "
.... I feel there is a real need for education of single parents and community. If I can assist, please notify me. "

These comments from single parents underscore the importance of determining the educational needs of a specific group before implementing a program. The study reported in this article is based on a survey that emerged from a locally expressed concern for providing single parents with educational programs to help them in child-rearing, maintaining households, and improving their self-image and skills.

... the Important lesson learned from this experience was that an educator shouldn't try to directly transfer expressed needs and interests into a program. An intermediate committee or trial stage is a necessity.

The concern emerged from program planning efforts and was reinforced by local school officials and area service providers who were troubled by the increasing from them in the county. The survey had the following objectives:

  1. To identify educational needs of single parents.
  2. To determine their preferences for program delivery.
  3. To identify single parents who would participate in a program, as well as in program planning.1


The Survey

The survey results were obtained from a mail questionnaire sent to 260 single parents with school-age children in Pike County, a rural county in western Illinois. The survey instrument was developed after consulting with specialists and single parents and testing for readability. School personnel assumed many of the research responsibilities because they were required to maintain the anonymity of respondents. After 2 mailings, 96 completed and valid questionnaires were returned. This response would normally be low, but given the constraints under which the research had to be conducted and the reluctance of many single parents to volunteer personal information, we felt it was a satisfactory basis for developing an educational program.

Needs Assessment

A needs assessment is the starting point for all Extension programming. The most direct method of assessing needs is to ask potential learners what their interest level is for a particular educational topic. The survey determined single-parents' interest in 12 different educational topics suggested by the literature, specialists, and single parents. The topics were presented in a Likert-type format and a follow-up question asked respondents to indicate the program topic that was of "most interest."

Program Delivery

It's also important to understand program delivery, which we defined as understanding: (1) use of various information channels to publicize an educational program, (2) preferences for particular instructional modes, and (3) preferences on program format (location, time, length, and child care provisions). Each of these was assessed through questions asking respondents' preferences and perceptions of options available to a program planner.


Program Needs

We discovered that "teaching children responsibility and discipline" surpassed all topics by having "lots of interest" to 66% of the respondents (Table 1). This topic exceeded by 12% those with the next highest levels of interest.

The topic eliciting the least interest dealt with "independent living." Many have apparently adjusted to and accepted their single-parent role, and the responses may simply reflect this adjustment or the length of time they've been single parents.

When we assessed the relative importance of the topics, again the most important was "teaching children responsibility and discipline." This topic represented a 12% difference over the second most important topic ("job hunting/training"). "Legal assistance in estate planning and child guardianship" ranked last.

Table 1.
Single parent's program needs assesment

% Level of Interest
Possible program topics
Lots of interest
Some interest
No interest
Relative importance of topics
Saving time/money in food preparation
Independent living
Housing/equipment repairs
Knowing community resources
Family financial management
Getting loans, insurance and credit
Job hunting/ training
Managing stress
Teaching children responsibility/discipline
Dealing with loneliness
Legal assistance in estate planning/child guardianship
Dressing and grooming
Percentage totals may not equal 100% since some items received no response from a small number of the respondents.

Many of the educational topics identified in singleparent literature as being of central concern didn't emerge as major concerns in Pike County.2 "Family financial management" and "dealing with loneliness" are examples. For each topic, however, a substantial proportion did express "some interest," and it's difficuIt to determine what the response would be if a program were actually conducted in some of the lesser-mentioned areas.

Delivery Preferences

On the basis of responses, the best means of disseminating information about forthcoming programs was through "local newspapers," with 62% saying they'd "very likely" receive information this way (Table 2). The second best way was through a "school letter. "The least effective ways were at P.T.A. meetings (few attend), through the employment office, or through posters in laundromats. Surprisingly, a substantial portion of single parents could be reached through announcements in church bulletins. In the county, organizations have used church bulletins to announce community activities, so people are accustomed to receiving community information this way.

Preferred Instructional Modes. In general, the most widely preferred means of receiving educational information was through a "monthly newsletter" and "small group discussions." Slightly more than a third (34%) said they preferred these ways of receiving program content. "Newspaper articles "and "short courses" were slightly less preferred.

Table 2.
Program information communication channels

Question: How likely is it that you would know about a new single-parent program if it were publicized in (at)...?
Very Likely
Somewhat likely
Not very likely
Local newspaper
TV capsule comments
Radio announcements
School letter
P.T.A. program
Supermarket flier in grocery bag
Poster in laundromat
Church bulletin
Employment office

Preferred Program Format. If a program for single parents is to succeed, it will have to take into account the time schedules of participants and the conditions under which they'd prefer to meet. The preferred (67%) time for holding a group meeting or discussion was the evening. A majority preferred weekly weekday meetings of about an hour. And, a large majority (70%) indicated need for child care or a simultaneous children's program.


In addition to providing information on program needs and preferences, the survey identified 21 single parents who volunteered to help in planning educational activities. They've been involved in a singleparents' steering committee since September, 1981. They've contributed to the planning, publicity, and implementation of a series of single-parent programs dealing with "restoring self-confidence," "making the most of one's income and other resources," "learning basic housekeeping and repair skills," and "handling stress."

The interesting outcome of the committee's meetings has been its reassigning of priorities among program topics. In the survey, topics focusing on children elicited most interest, but both the committee and participants in the early group meetings suggested topics that dealt more with single parents themselves. There was a sentiment, however, that children would benefit from their parent's self-improvement.

We could speculate on any number of reasons for this apparent shift. Perhaps, it's more socially acceptable, and safer, for parents to express their needs through children, or perhaps they came to realize that their ability to deal with their children stemmed from their inability to resolve some of the difficulties they were having with the single-parent role. Whatever the reason, the important lesson learned from this experience was that an educator shouldn't try to directly transfer expressed needs and interests into a program. An intermediate committee or trial stage is a necessity.

The committee adopted the name SPLICE (Single Parents Learning in Cooperative Enrichment). Its motto is: "Help to pick up the loose ends!" An important aspect of SPLICE is that the programs and discussions are a result of the volunteers' input and reflect what single parents themselves want and need.

The first program, "Single Parents Are People Too," was chosen to help build self-esteem and make single parents feel they're not "odd man out." Format for the program included a professional and a panel discussion by single parents "who've gone through the experience." In that way, the single parents could pass on what has worked for them.

Through November, 1982,115 single parents, both men and women, have participated in the program. A money-making project is underway to finance the organization's needs-primarily child care and rent. At a time when self-help is being encouraged as a way to change the state of affairs in our country, SPLICE has done just that. SPLICE is composed of those who need the help they seek to offer. They're the ones who plan the programs and implement the ideas. They've picked up the challenge to serve themselves.


There are some lessons here for others planning similar research or an educational program. We've already argued against directly transferring results from a needs assessment survey into an educational program. Other information in the survey, however, wasn't further modified by the committee or early participants. Planning with data is important, but you should also be open to the possibility that some survey results may not completely reflect the actual needs of an intended audience.

Here are some additional things we learned. First, more steps than expected had to be taken to get authorization and gain legitimacy. Some were necessary because the proposed program was new in a county that has had little experience with efforts along these lines, and others because of the concern among public officials for maintaining anonymity and confidentiality. Once school administrators and social service directors were convinced that the research was well-intentioned, and would result in new, useful programs, they were most cooperative. In fact, they assumed a very useful cost-saving role in the research effort.

Secondly, administrators appreciate follow-up. This follow-up requires additional effort, but if they're kept informed, they can help disseminate information and suggest participants.

And, finally, the research effort has taught us that a limit exists in the number of single parents who can be reached through traditional communication channels. As a result, new approaches should be tried. One of the methods currently employed with the single-parent group in Pike County is to send two copies of all announcements to each person on the mailing list and have them distribute a copy to another single parent they know isn't in the group.


Educational programs, especially among a hard to-identify segment of the population, don't just develop overnight; nor do they spring from a set of data. Surveys are necessary, but not sufficient, to develop a worthwhile, ongoing educational program. One of the major realizations of the effort described in this article was that in terms of time and effort the easiest part was the actual research itself.


  1. Cheryl Bielema, "Determination of Single Parents' Educational Needs in a Rural Setting" (Master's thesis, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, 1981).
  2. P. Bohannan, Divorce and After (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1970) and R. S. Weiss, "The Emotional Impact of Marital Separation," Journal of Social Issues, XXXII (No. 1, Separation," Journal of Social Issues, XXXII (No. 1, 1976),135-46.