A wealth of evidence shows that family-centered early childhood programs such as ParentCorps can have a massive impact in strengthening parents’ capacity to support their young children’s health and development in the long run – so, how then do we work to increase parent participation in such programs at scale? What factors lead families to walk through the door and participate? What turns families off?
In 2017, an interdisciplinary team of researchers, program developers and program staff came together to explore this question: the results of their study – which drew heavily on the input of pre-K parents and teachers and family support staff – was published in a recent issue of Prevention Science.
As lead author Zoelene Hill, PhD, research scientist at the New York Academy of Medicine, said, the aim of this study was to zoom out beyond a focus on one, isolated decision (“did a family attend the program?”) to a broader understanding of the sequence of interrelated decisions and circumstances (social, psychological, economic, and historical) behind families’ participation, guided by behavioral economics. To do so, talking to parents themselves was critical.
“We conducted focus groups with parents to better understand why families may not want to participate,” Hill said. “Social influences became an overarching theme: the stigma that may come from participating in a ‘parenting program.’ Other programs may have deficit thinking, but that’s not at all how ParentCorps approaches parents – so how do we message around that? How do you capture that you will be valued, welcomed, treated as an expert in your own experience?”
“Other programs may have deficit thinking, but that’s not at all how ParentCorps approaches parents — so how do we message around that? How do you capture that you will be valued, welcomed, treated as an expert in your own experience?”
Informed by these conversations and parallel conversations with teachers and family support staff, the interdisciplinary team moved to action. Taking a close look at ParentCorps’ outreach approach – involving flyers, posters and brochures, welcome events for families, school staff striving to personally invite each pre-K parent to ParentCorps’ parenting program, meals and raffle tickets at the program, and more – the team worked to devise new low-cost, scalable outreach strategies that may further boost participation. Importantly, for program developers, this process presented an opportunity to codify the program’s core approach to build respectful relationships with parents – not assuming that all parents should participate, but that all parents should be offered the opportunity, presented with full information, and invited in ways that affirm their worth and support their autonomy.