Family involvement programs can look great on paper and yet fail miserably. Programs can have defined goals, a well-defined time frame and program structure, research-based curricula, proven results for a specific target population, and still fail to produce the positive outcomes we expect.
Why do some well-designed intervention programs fail? One common reason is implementation. If families do not sign up for the program or if they sign up but do not show up, the program will fail. This is true for family programs implemented in early education centers and schools, as well as at home. Therefore, before we ask “Is this program beneficial to families?” it is a good idea to first ask “Can we successfully implement this program here?”
The question about implementation might sound easy to answer. Of course, it does! It seems like all programs can be implemented if you have the right combination of material and human resources and a community that could benefit from the program. However, the reality is that many things can get in the way of implementing a program; and this can be the defining moment between a successful and an unsuccessful program. One way to examine whether a program can be effectively implemented is through a feasibility study. In this type of study, we have three main questions: (1) what are the recruitment, attendance and retention rates of the program and how do they compare to similar programs? (2) what are the program strengths and barriers to participation? (3) is there a relation between program attendance and outcomes?
I recently conducted a feasibility study of a new family program called Food For Thought (FFT). The FFT program aims to help Latino parents learn how to foster their kindergarten children’s literacy and math skills through family food routines such as grocery shopping and cooking. Families attend four weekly meetings taking place in the child’s school. I found the FFT program was feasible to implement based on three criteria.
First, I examined the recruitment, attendance and retention rates of the FFT program and found they met or exceeded the expected rates (based on other family programs previously implemented). Second, I found the main strength of the program was the sense of community and comradery among participants; and the main barrier to participation was parent work schedules. Third, I found that children whose parents attended more FFT meetings had larger gains in vocabulary skills at the end of the program. Furthermore, children who started school with low levels of math skills and whose parents attended the FFT program had more advanced math skills at the end of the program. Given the promising results of the feasibility study, I am currently conducting a randomized-controlled trial evaluation of the effectiveness of the program in one of the largest school districts in the nation.
Many lessons can be learned through feasibility studies such as this. Practitioners can look for programs whose feasibility has been tested, to make more informed decisions about which program to adopt. Researchers can conduct feasibility studies and use that information to adapt a program before evaluating the program’s effectiveness. Without feasibility studies, we run the risk of misusing valuable resources, including time and money.
Diana Leyva, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Davidson College, NC. Her research focuses on how parents support the development of children’s literacy and math skills in minority communities, including low-income immigrant families in the U.S. and Latin America. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from Clark University and was a post-doctoral fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and project director of Un Buen Comienzo (A Good Start), a teacher professional development program in Chile. She has published in Child Development, Developmental Psychology, and Early Childhood Research Quarterly, among other top scientific journals. Dr. Leyva’s work is supported by generous grants from the Brady Education Foundation and Davidson College.
This blog series explores issues highlighted in the recent Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences Special Issue Implementation Research and Practice for Early Childhood Development.