Summer 1985 // Volume 23 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA4

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Catch Them When You Can

Sequencing newsletters to capture the teachable moment.

Patricia Tanner Nelson
Family and Child Development Specialist
Cooperative Extension Service
University of Delaware - Newark

Dorothea Cudaback
Human Relations Specialist
Cooperative Extension Service
University of California - Berkeley

New parents face two critical challenges: making the transition to parenthood successfully and giving their babies the care and guidance needed to thrive. Can age-paced parent education newsletters–those keyed to a baby's particular age–help parents meet these challenges? This article discusses a national survey of Extension age-paced newsletters and their impact.

Age-Paced Newsletters

Age-paced newsletters are an attractive format for parent education. Researchers surveying a national population found that reading was the method of learning about childrearing that most parents preferred (regardless of educational level, socioeconomic status, or race).1 Other studies have confirmed that many young parents prefer to receive educational materials in written form at home.2 Age-paced newsletters seem to meet adults' educational needs by addressing a specific need in a way that's accessible, appealing, and understandable.

Age-paced newsletters have a number of educational and practical advantages. Information is keyed to the baby's birth month, so parents receive timely material each month relating to the development and care of babies exactly as old as theirs. The newsletters reach parents in their homes, and so serve those who might not take part in parent education meetings or classes. Because the information is printed, parents can read it at their convenience, share it with others, and save it for future reference. In addition, newsletters are relatively inexpensive.

National Survey

Two years ago, a team of six Cooperative Extension family life specialists conducted a national survey of the use of age-paced parent education newsletters by Extension programs.3 Information was collected by a questionnaire sent to the Extension family life specialist responsible for parent education in each state. We received responses from each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam.

Use of Newsletters

Specialists from 19 states reported use of agepaced parent education newsletters. All were sent without charge to parents who requested them. Issues were typically four to eight pages long.

Use of age-paced newsletters in Extension is a new and growing effort. Of the 19 states currently using the newsletters, 7 states send issues to expectant parents, all send issues to parents of infants ages 0 to 1, 5 to parents of 1-year-olds, 4 to parents of 2-year-olds, and 2 to parents of 3- and 4-year-olds. None of the series has been distributed longer than seven years. Forty-four percent have been distributed 2-4 years, and 19% have been distributed 6 months or less.

State family life specialists base their newsletters on the following clues from research:

  1. Parents with strong self-concepts and realistic expectations are more likely to make a positive transition to parenthood.
  2. Infants who experience optimum development tend to have parents who:
    1. Understand and respond to their babies' developmental needs.
    2. Talk to their babies and encourage responsive vocalization.
    3. Play with their babies.
    4. Encourage their babies to actively explore the home environment.

The newsletters emphasize developmental information about pregnancy, child development, and parenthood. Parents are encouraged to attend to their needs as couples and individuals.

Estimated Impact of Newsletters

Altogether, the 16 states that had been operating their program for more than 6 months reported reaching an estimated 100,000 families in 1981. This is a conservative estimate since in many states master copies of the newsletters are sent to agencies that in turn duplicate and distribute them; for these, no accurate distribution numbers are available. Most of the newsletters are written for general audiences. Two are written specifically for teen parents and one for low-income parents. A Spanish language version is being used in one state.

Three of the states in the survey were selected to furnish evaluation data from parents who have received their age-paced newsletters. These states were selected because their newsletters were distinctive, and each had a fairly large number of subscribers. Of the 880 parents who returned the evaluation questionnaires, most were married, had attended college, and were first-time parents. Less than half the mothers worked outside the home.

Parents checked as most useful those newsletter items relating to their babies' needs (growth, learning, nutrition, and safety). But, they also valued information dealing with their own needs as individuals and parents (family communication, managing stress, caring for personal needs). Most reported that at least one additional person read the newsletter regularly. The majority reported keeping and filing the newsletters.

Two of the three states obtained data on the influence of the series on respondent's knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors. In those states, over 95% said the series had helped them learn more about infant growth, over 65% said it helped them relate to their baby, and 73% said it improved their selfconfidence as a parent. More than 50% said it helped them care more effectively for their own needs.

Summary and Implications

The use of age-paced parent educatnewsletters by state Cooperative Extension programs is widespread and growing. Some newsletters are written for teen and low-income parents; most newsletters reach those who are middle-class, married, and fairly well-educated. These newsletters are practical, inexpensive, efficient ways to provide families with timely and valuable parenting and child development information.

In completing our survey, we've identified some concerns relating to newsletters:

  1. Should newsletters be renamed? Pennsylvania's family sociology Extension specialist, James Van Horn, states:

    The term "newsletter" conveys an idea that the printed material contains news, announcements, etc. I maintain that the material such as the infant series does not contain news as such. Our purpose is to educate .... The goal of a learningat-home program is to instruct. By using the term "newsletter," we place our material in a category that does not emphasize the learning we want to take place .... The use of learn-at-home (homestudy units, etc.) raises our material to an educational level, the perception of which is very different than that of a newsletter.4

    Others suggest that, while the name "newsletter"isn't perfect, it has some advantages. A number of parents say they don't have time to take courses or read books, yet they find time to read magazines, newspapers, and newsletters. People may read newsletters because they expect the information to be short and succinct. Alternative names (such as "learnat-home" or "home-study" courses), while useful to professionals, may sound stuffy and intimidating to those not positively inclined toward education.

  2. Would an interactive element enhance newsletters? Traditionally, Extension home-learning programs have had a feedback component built into the delivery system. Would it enhance our present newsletters to consider expanding them to include interactive features?

  3. Is there a difference in impact when the newsletters are sent out by state versus county staff? In future surveys, we may be able to answer this question.

We'd like to invite comments from Extension co-workers. Possibly, an upcoming Forum section can be devoted to your response to these issues.

In times of fiscal restraint, one of the first Extension line items to be pared in many states is newsletters. As impact data on age-paced parent education newsletters accumulate, there's a growing awareness that these newsletters are vital, efficient aspects of Extension outreach. We believe they deserve a rightful place in overall Extension programming.


  1. E. E. Gotts, D. L. Coan, and C. Kenoyer, "Developing Instructional Television Products for Effective Parenthood: A National Assessment of Parent Educational Needs" (Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Education Research Association, New York, 1977). ERIC Document Reproduction Service, No. ED 136 788.

  2. B. Hennon and B. H. Peterson, "An Evaluation of a Family Life Education Delivery System for Young Families," Family Relations, XXX (July, 1981), 387-94 and, for more complete documentation of research in this area and more discussion of the rationale for parent education newsletters, see Dorothea Cudaback and others, "Becoming Successful Parents: Can Age-Paced Newsletters Help?" Family Relations, XXXIV (October, 1985).

  3. This research was conducted by Dorothea Cudaback, University of California-Berkeley; Cindy Darden, University of Georgia-Athens; Patricia Tanner Nelson, University of Delaware-Newark; Shirley O'Brien, University of Arizona-Tucson; Dorothy Pinsky, Iowa State University-Ames; and Emily Wiggins, Clemson University.

  4. Based on personal correspondence between James Van Horn and Patricia Tanner Nelson, March, 1983.