October 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 5 // Feature Articles // 5FEA1

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Creative Approaches to Parenting Education

Although Extension professionals have been conducting parenting education programs for decades, there are new concerns among parents, greater diversity among families, and a need to learn how to plan for specific parent needs and evaluate the success of the parenting initiative. The National Network for Family Resiliency (NNFR) has provided some direction in program evaluation by providing an evaluative decision framework. This article describes two Extension agents' efforts to apply the concepts of the NNFR framework to parenting education programs. One pilot project used focus group interviews and a summative paper and pencil evaluation while the second group used a pre- and post-test measuring parental self-esteem and child development knowledge. What resulted from both programs were gain scores, reports of plans to use newly learned skills, positive comments about the planning process and involved parents willing to attend, learn, and to seek additional information at the completion of the program.

Karen DeBord
State Specialist, Child Development
North Carolina Cooperative Extension
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, North Carolina
Internet address: karen_debord@ncsu.edu

Jacqueline D. Roseboro
Family and Consumer Science Extension Agent
Columbus County
Whiteville, North Carolina

Karen M. Wicker
Family and Consumer Science Extension Agent
Moore County
Carthage, North Carolina

     "The parents that need parenting information won't come!"

     "Parents don't have time to come to parenting classes."

     "We need parents to know more about their child's learning,
      but how do we get them interested?"

These statements represent concerns of parenting educators who are sought by social service agencies, court judges, schools, homeless shelters, and others to teach parents about their children and encourage positive relationships. Many curricula and teaching guides exist for parent educators to use in supporting parents' understanding of topics such as a toddler's surging independence or an eight-year old's defiance. Other materials address parental skill building teaching techniques to restore "order" to family life or to use effective discipline strategies.

However, all parents do not have the same needs, nor experience the same problems with child rearing. They have specific problems. Using generic approaches for specific needs may create some group awareness but most likely will not change any specific practices by parents. There is a great deal to consider when designing and evaluating parent education programs.

The National Network for Family Resiliency offers the Parenting Evaluation Decision Framework by DeBord, Stivers, Fetsch, Goddard & Ray (1995). The critical first step in designing effective parenting education programs is to assess specific needs of particular audiences. A first step to understanding may be to examine local demographics, such as child abuse rates, school drop-out rates, or other factors that put children or families at risk of not succeeding in school or society. Taking demographics a step further, learn more about the audience, assess their needs more in detail, and seek to plan effective programs in which changes in parenting practice can be evaluated. Conceptual information about this process, can be found at this web site: http://www.agnr.umd.edu/users/nnfr/pareval.html or http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts.fcs/nnfr.

Two Pilot Parenting Education Projects

To test the assessment and planning process and learn more about designing programs that meet the specific needs of parenting audiences, two pilot efforts were conducted in North Carolina's Moore and Columbus counties. County Extension family and consumer science agents volunteered to pilot a process of assessing the needs of targeted parent audiences. They then designed a program to meet the needs of those parents. Each program used different a approach.

Moore County: Parenting for success for Hispanic parents

Moore County is located in the Sandhills region of North. Carolina and over the past 5-10 years has experienced an influx of Hispanic parents. These families are not migrants, but have chosen to reside in the area to raise their families. The 1990 Census reported the Hispanic population in Moore County was 886 (1.3% of the total population) with 85% of Hispanic families migrating from Mexico, with others from Puerto Rico and other Latin countries. Estimates are that this figure will be considerably higher in the next census. Most of these families work in the northern part of the county in the poultry and manufacturing industry. This area of the county is made up of rural communities with a strong tradition of family and community. In the local elementary school 50% of the children are Hispanic.

The Extension agent in Moore County started by hosting a focus group of Hispanic parents of school-age children, targeting the northern part of the county. Parents were invited to participate through personal invitation by school personnel working with Hispanic school children and through a flier announcing the meeting.

The focus group was held in mid-June with 12 parents and 22 children attending. There were four males and eight females in the parent group. Most had lived in the area for 12-15 years. A few (3) had obtained or were working toward their high school degrees. Eight parents were working in manufacturing jobs. To create comfort during the focus group interview, an evening meal was served, child care was provided, and two interpreters were available.

A state Extension child development specialist designed the questionnaire, then sought the assistance of a rural health Extension specialist, originally from Puerto Rico, who speaks Spanish fluently. He conducted the focus group interview completely in Spanish.

Through the focus group, key issues were identified. First language barriers and communication difficulty was identified. Parents who are not able to read with children nor communicate with teachers, merchants, and health professionals are severely limited in their involvement in schools and community.

Secondly, issues related to children's school success were discussed as problematic. Parents discussed problems with their children having to stand on school buses and not knowing where or how how to advocate for children with special needs, such as a child with kidney problems who needed to urinate frequently. The teacher did not understand the health conditions and parents were not able to clearly communicate these needs to the teacher.

The third concern was community relations. Parents described feelings of discrimination and also noted that the community offered poor transportation services. The community where these parents live is approximately 20-25 miles from the hospital, most department stores, and recreation centers. Most families do not have their own transportation and rely heavily on each other and agencies for support.

Lastly, parents expressed concern about their own parenting skills. They particularly discussed difficulty managing both family and work and coping with teenagers dropping out of school.

Based on these results, a community-based empowerment program was designed for Hispanic families with a focus on school success. A second group session was held with parents and conducted using easel paper with questions written in both Spanish and English to prioritize learning topics suggested as a result of the focus group. The parents discussed each issue and reached a consensus on the topics about which they wanted information to help build their confidence as parents. It was decided to hold four group sessions: Home a place to learn, Communicating with school staff, Locating and using community resources, and Improving relationships with children.

To encourage continued parent involvement and reinforce learning, a resource notebook was developed, child care offered, nutritional snacks provided, and certificates of completion awarded. Additionally, a Spanish/English newsletter was developed and distributed to participating parents and other Spanish- speaking parents in the community.

At the beginning of each of the program sessions, parents were asked to share what they learned from the previous week and to share new parenting skills they had used. Of the parents, 95% reported using at least one new skill or idea each week.

In a written survey after the last class, parents were asked to check responses on what they learned and plan to use. Results indicated that 100% reported that they plan to use positive feedback with their child and that they plan to use new resources in the county. Additionally, 85% reported that they plan to become more active in preparing their children for school.

As a result of this community process, several additional developments have occurred. An on-going community support group for Hispanic parents has been formed. Additionally, a task force has been organized of representatives of various agencies to discuss how to work together in supporting and reaching the Hispanic communities in Moore County

Columbus County: Individualized education for Head Start parents

The second pilot study was conducted in Columbus County located in the southern part of North Carolina near the state's southern tip. The population is 57,268 with 67% white, 30% Black, and 2.5% other.

The need for parent education was identified by the Extension Advisory Leadership team and documented by other groups in the county, including a Family Resource Center, the Columbus County Partnership for Children, and Chadbourn Elementary School Advisory Council. Parents of children in the Head Start preschool enrichment program were selected for the pilot project. Head Start cooperated by providing the training site, assisting with recruitment, and transporting parents to any learning sessions that Cooperative Extension could arrange.

The local Extension family and consumer educator recognized the importance of having parents determine their own learning topics to meet specifics needs and interests. One difficulty with this open-ended approach is that parents who need additional information do not have enough knowledge about the range of topics in order to suggest them, so a different approach was recommended.

In early May, the family and consumer Extension educator met with all Head Start parents to discuss topics about which they would like to learn more. The following week, a team of three Extension educators met with a group of 12 parents in the Head Start Center. There were eleven women and one man, all of whom were African-American.

Parents met to complete three brief assessment scales. The scales used were an abbreviated version of the Harter Self- perception scale to assess self-esteem, a Personal Learning Style Inventory, and a 10-item Child Development Knowledge assessment. The child development assessment was constructed using simple child development facts presented as multiple choice. The questions concerned safety, cognition, and stages of social development such as independence and initiative. There were three separate child development knowledge questionnaires - for birth through age 2, age 3-5 and age 6-12. Parents completed a child development assessment corresponding to the developmental age of their child.

A few parents needed considerable assistance with reading and understanding the assessment instruments. Others worked through the instruments rather quickly. There were no complaints about the instruments and some were quite interested in the graphing of profiles based on how they had responded.

Following the assessment, a profile was drawn reflecting each individual's esteem, knowledge of child development, and their preferred learning style. Later in May, an individual conference was held with each parent to discuss their profile and obtain their verification that the results from these tools represented their needs. During this conference, the educator recommended several individual steps to learn more about parenting. Based on their individual learning style, she either left an Extension educational bulletin or suggested materials that parents could use that were supplied to them at a later date.

In addition to working with parents independently, there were indications from the Learning Styles Inventory that these parents would like to learn together in a group. A series of learning sessions were planned based on their gaps in child development knowledge and their needs to boost self-esteem. Parents requested that the group sessions be held from 10 a.m. - 1 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday. Six group sessions were held at one of the Head Start Centers. Transportation, child care, notebooks, and lunch were provided for participants. The project also provided materials and books for individual participants to check-out.

Group topics included Health and Safety, Learning Through Play, Appropriate Guidance for Young Children, Effective Communication, Child Development, and Community Resources for parents. Following the series, a celebration was held with lunch and a presentation of framed certificates and gift bags with parenting books. The certificate and gift bag were met with a great deal of enthusiasm and appreciation.

Following the educational intervention, the original assessment tools and a questionnaire were mailed to participants with a stamped, self-addressed return envelope. The Extension agent conducted follow-up visits with participants.

Post assessments showed that participants felt more positive about themselves as parents because they better understood what they should expect from their children. They scored a higher number of points on the child development assessments with gain scores between 10 and 30 points. Parents noted that they were putting into practice what they learned in the sessions and were sharing new skills and parenting books with their friends and other family members.

The one male participant's comments summed his experience " I thought the sessions were very educational. I was highly impressed with the quality of information that was taught. I would highly recommend the program to all of my friends with pre- school children. The program was undescribably beneficial to a single father raising a little girl. Everything that was taught was new to me. My whole teaching concept has changed. I have had to completely change my ways of doing things with my daughter. Almost everything I did before is now practiced and planned differently thanks to Mrs. Roseboro. A job well done."

As a follow-up, Head Start has requested a new series with more parents participating and an on-going group session with the original parents has been scheduled. They want additional information about children's development and behavior.


These two case studies are examples of how the Parenting Evaluation Decision Framework (DeBord et al., 1995) can guide parenting educators as they plan effective parenting programs. The process involves parents in their own learning, which appears to serve as motivation to attend and learn. Parents made the decisions with the assistance and guidance of a parenting educator who understood adult learning and was familiar with resources available in the community. Each program occurred over a four-month period and reported several unplanned successes including on-going community support and extended learning sessions requested by parents.

The introductory excerpts that " parents who need the information won't come," or that " the parents don't have time to attend" may be false assumptions based on the fact that parent educators may not have approached parents in a way to include them in their learning and offer what they need based on an assessment. As parenting education increasingly is demanded in communities, learning ways to creatively determine specific needs then planning educational sessions to meet these parenting needs is essential to the success of the program and parental effectiveness with their children.


DeBord, K., Stivers, W., Fetsch, R.,Goddard, H., & Ray, M. (1995). Evaluation of parenting education programs: A parenting evaluation decision framework. National Network for Family Resiliency. [http://www.agnr.umd.edu/users/nnfr/pareval.html].