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Bringing Families and Schools Together-- FAST!

Since its creation 12 years ago, Families and Schools Together (FAST) has received more than two dozen awards and is recognized as one of the most effective parent-involvement programs in the country. FAST brings together families to support one another and to prevent potential problems-- school failure, violence, and substance abuse, to name just three-- before they start. Research indicates that FAST works in schools of all kinds, from urban to rural. What is FAST? This week Education World explores the program.

University of Wisconsin-Madison educator Lynn McDonald grew up primarily in Europe and the Middle East, and as the divorced mother of two children herself, she understands firsthand the effects of stress.

"Loneliness when you are raising another human being is not how life is supposed to be," she told Education World. "What I have discovered is that when you are too busy and stressed and pushing yourself as a mother, you forget that with support from others, parenting is a joy."

Frequently when a child's home life is stressful, that child's behavior becomes problematic.

For years, to reduce a child's behavior problems and improve his or her social skills, the traditional mental health approach was to work with just one individual or family at a time. As McDonald watched increasing numbers of children who needed help not receive it-- dropping through the cracks into school failure, school violence, substance abuse, and delinquency-- she grew impatient.

McDonald pulled together bits from domestic-violence, delinquency, and substance abuse prevention programs. She looked into successful social work, family therapy, child psychiatry, and child and family psychology. And she combined that information with common sense. The result: a new two-year early intervention program she called Families and Schools Together, or FAST, for short.

McDonald's program targets four- to eight-year-olds with high incidences of bullying and aggressive behavior, uneven classroom performance, low self-esteem, short attention spans, and hyperactivity. The program aims to reach those children before their problem behaviors become too big for anyone to make a difference.

After identifying a child, a team that includes a parent, a school representative, a mental health expert, and a substance abuse expert aggressively recruits the families. The team-- reflecting the ethnicity of the children being served-- visits the home to establish rapport and to offer a hot meal, prizes, and free transportation and child care if needed so the family can attend a FAST meeting.

"If a family's attendance is spotty, reminder notices, follow-up phone calls, and-- if necessary-- follow-up home visits are made in an attempt to alleviate any obstacle that is causing irregular participation," Joyce Sloan, FAST coordinator in the Atlanta Families First Counseling Center, told Education World. But, she added, "this program is strong enough to keep the families coming once they attend the first meeting."

Some FAST programs are conducted in Spanish, Vietnamese, and Cambodian.

THE FAST APPROACH

Though the approach reflects different cultures and traditions, FAST's two and a half-hour curriculum is much the same throughout the country. Usually ten to twelve families meet in schools once a week for eight to ten weeks. As a symbol of family unity, the group makes a homemade flag that all family members help create and bring with them each week. And each week, one of the families prepares the meal served by the children. Although at home some families may not eat meals together, at FAST programs they do.

Following the meal and some community singing, the families play Scribbles, a draw and describe game. Easy communication is stressed in this game, not the ability to draw, and no criticism is allowed.

Feelings Charades follows this. After participants receive cards with faces expressing different feelings, they act out the feelings. The game leads to family discussions on what happens to make a person feel that way.

The children then play while their parents discuss ways to help them succeed. This 45-minute block of time has no presentation or curriculum; the content is entirely determined by the parents. During the weeks the program runs, many of the parents become friends, offering one another advice and in turn feeling the advice they offer is of value. Those who might have felt socially isolated before, start to feel they are not alone. In follow-up studies, parents report that this activity, which fosters friendships, is their favorite.

CHILDREN LOVE 'SPECIAL PLAY'

"Special play" is next. McDonald believes if a parent spends 15 minutes of undivided time every day with each child, remarkable changes can occur. So the FAST program includes time for parents to learn how to play with their children-- in a way that follows the child's lead, without criticism-- and they are encouraged to practice this on a regular basis at home. In follow-ups, children report that special play is their favorite activity.

In the same vein, husbands and wives (or two single parents) spend 15 minutes per meeting listening to each other but not offering advice.

At the end of each session, the group selects the family who will prepare the next meal. The family chosen wins a basket of prizes with gifts for family members, appropriate toys for children, and cash to purchase the food to be cooked for the next event. Then the families gather in a circle and play Rain, a finger-snapping, thigh-clapping, and feet-stomping game-- all done nonverbally.

FOLLOW-UP CONTINUES AFTER GRADUATION

Those families who attend at least six out of eight (or in some cases, eight out of ten) sessions graduate. At a formal ceremony, the school principal presents a certificate to each, recognizing the family's contribution to the program's success. After graduation, many families choose to join FAST WORKS, a supplemental support program that meets once a month for two years and is run by the families with support from the collaborative team.

"The additional time helps reinforce the key messages of FAST and increases the interconnectedness of the parents," Dr. Robert L. Fischer, director of program evaluation for Atlanta's Families First, explained to Education World.

FAST, recognized as one of the most effective prevention and parent-involvement programs in the country, has received more than two dozen awards. Recognition has come from six unrelated agencies of the federal government, each of which independently identified it as a program that works. The U.S. Department of Education Making Schools Safe and Drug-Free program also named FAST one of four initiatives across the country that effectively addresses the problems of violence and safety in U.S. schools.

However, there are negatives. Most criticism of FAST pertains to the time commitment and the cost. Initial training for the school and its FAST team takes time and costs $3,900 plus travel and expenses. Supplies per cycle cost $1,500. Each community partner receives $1,500 per cycle. Each parent partner is paid $800. And unless it is considered part of the regular workday, the school-based member of the team also receives compensation.

RESEARCH SUPPORTS FAST

Is the program worth it?

"Results after eight weeks show statistically significant improvements in classroom and home behaviors, and self-esteem of the children, family closeness, parent involvement in school, and the reduction of social isolation," states a summary of FAST on the Web site of Joint Venture, a nonprofit organization working on critical issues facing many California communities.

FAST's McDonald points out that follow-ups by certification panels uncovered equally positive findings:

  • 80 percent of FAST parents complete the eight weeks and graduate. That figure is not related to education, income, or marital status.
  • 91 percent of FAST participants report an increase in involvement within their communities.
  • 86 percent report an increase in friendships with people they met at FAST.
  • 44 percent report going back for further adult education.

"The stories I have heard at these certification panels are extraordinary," McDonald told Education World. "Typically, parents, primarily mothers, will say that they found their strength, they found their voice, they found their hope, they found their family again because of FAST. They share transformational stories that inspire everyone.

"FAST has taught me a lot over the last 12 years," she continued. "It has totally changed the way I do my work. I am more respectful of the role of informal social support networks for parents. I have learned especially to respect the positive power of the voice of parents."

MORE SOURCES OF INFORMATION ABOUT FAST

  • "The Best 15 Minutes a Parent Could Spend" This August 4, 1999, Christian Science Monitor article describes in detail how the FAST program is implemented.

    Related Articles from Education World

  • Where Everyone Knows Your Name! -- Special Programs Target At-Risk Students
  • 101 Ways Parents Can Help Students Achieve

    Article by Gary Hopkins
    Education World®
    Copyright © 2007 Education World

    Originally published 11/16/2004
    Last updated 06/05/2007



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