Families are often the end users of educational outreach materials and resources. Working with families in mind can greatly enhance your plan, as well as provide important information and resources. Yet, working with parents is a challenge. It is often difficult to reach and involve them in educational efforts. Defining your goals for this audience is critical, as these goals will significantly impact the shape of your efforts, help define your content and evaluation measures, help you determine the best ways to reach families, and ultimately shape the strategies you use to work with them.
If you are considering families as your target audience, there are some critical questions to explore. Why do you want to work with parents? How will working with parents help you achieve your goals? How can you work with parents to optimize achieving these goals? And, significantly, what action do you want parents to take, and is this action realistic? For instance, you may want to help parents support their children's skill development in a specific area, such as literacy or science, or you may want to use parents as a conduit for providing resources to their children. How do you ensure that parents will do what you want them to do (e.g., use your resources in the timeframe you define)? Given that parents is such a broad audience to target, do you need to define a subset more narrowly?
Because parents are extremely busy and have conflicting demands on their time and energy, you need to provide compelling reasons why they should invest their limited resources in your project. This is your "benefits" list. It defines what it is about your project or resources that will help parents be better parents or help their children do better in school, be healthier, or improve their social skills. This is the hook. In developing your benefits list, remember that all parents want the best for their children. They are likely to respond positively to efforts that appeal to this desire. Be clear, concise, and explicit. Help them understand how your project contributes to their children's healthy growth and development, why it is important, what resources are available and what support your project provides, and how the parents' participation supports the process. In addition, give them a clear idea of their role and your expectations in the project. No one likes open-ended time commitments; you need to provide specific dates and times when their services will be needed. Try to provide them with different ways to participate that integrate easily into their already hectic lives.
Where to Find Parents
Now that you have clarified what you want from parents and what you will provide, how do you locate them? Finding parents is not as easy as it looks. It's made even more difficult by the fact that you'll usually want a diverse group of individuals that represent the audience you are trying to serve. Don't reinvent the wheel. One of the most effective ways to reach parents is by partnering with agencies, institutions, and organizations that work with parents on an ongoing basis. Integrate your outreach efforts into their existing programs, and use their expertise to help you develop appropriate content for the target families. In addition, the staffs of these organizations bring invaluable firsthand experiences in working with the parents. They can be key to promoting parent participation since they understand the needs of the population, already have a relationship with parents, and often share a common backgrounds and experiences with them.
Some things to consider: Are you trying to reach parents with children in a particular age group? What is the socio-economic or literacy level of the families you want to reach? Do you need ongoing or one-time-only contact with families?
Preschools, elementary schools, and afterschool programs are good places to reach parents of younger children. Educational organizations can help you reach teachers, and a range of afterschool programs are part of 21st Century Community Learning Centers, Boys and Girls Clubs, and YMCAs and YWCAs. High school kids are involved in programs that are more thematic, so you will have to think thematically. Should you go through student government, sports teams, band programs? What national associations serve these audiences? Another approach is through informal education organizations where parents tend to volunteer, such as Girls or Boys Scouts, 4-H Councils, museums, libraries, and sports teams. Homeschoolers can also be an important audience for your resources. There are several national educational organizations that work with homeschoolers, including the Home School Legal Defense Association, National Home Education Network, and National Home Education Research Institute. Finally, don't forget local PBS stations. They know where to find parents, and work with them regularly.
Evaluation is important for every educational outreach project, and your funding may depend on having a well-defined plan. Treat evaluation as an integral part of your development process rather than an afterthought. Because parents can be challenging to reach and communicate with, it is important to plan your evaluation carefully. Ideally, you will want to work with an independent evaluator who has experience working with parents. Whether you hire someone or plan to conduct the evaluation yourself, think about what is required to evaluate your defined goals. Do you need to conduct pre- and post-tests to measure attitudinal and knowledge changes? How will you ensure ongoing contact with a specific group of parents? How will you collect contact information and reach parents to do follow up?
Again, partnering with an organization that serves parents can help you maintain a long-term relationship with parents. When designing a project targeting parents, if you cannot define an achievable evaluation plan, you may want to reconsider your project goals and even the target audience.