October 1997 // Volume 35 // Number 5 // Ideas at Work // 5IAW3
Backpack Buddies: A Newsletter Series for Parents
Family and Consumer Sciences educators continually have parents expressing need for information to help them deal with the challenges faced in raising children. These same parents, however, are often reluctant to attend formal parenting classes. "Backpack Buddies" is an innovative monthly newsletter series designed to send home in the backpacks of kindergarten students. A survey of parents receiving the newsletter for one year revealed positive findings. Seventy-seven percent of respondents liked receiving parenting information in the newsletter format and 85% found the information helpful in coping with child rearing challenges.
Parent education is an essential component of Extension family life programs. Our system's recognition and response to the challenges confronting contemporary parents is illustrated by the national initiative concerned with children's well-being, Children, Youth, and Families at Risk, the US Department of Agriculture-funded National Network on Family Resiliency, and the recent publication of the National Extension Parent Education Model (Smith, Cudaback, Goddard, & Myers-Walls, 1994).
Although we have recognized the value of parent education, reaching parents is an on-going challenge. The demanding and complicated circumstances in which many parents are raising their children not only increases the importance of providing them with information and strategies, but also increases the difficulty of doing so. Traditional classes are valuable tools, but not a practical method to reach many parents.
In response, we developed a newsletter series, Backpack Buddies, and distributed it to parents of kindergarten children enrolled in public schools in Adams, Brown, and Highland counties, Ohio. We chose this method for several reasons. First, newsletters designed to reach a clearly identified audience have proven a useful tool for parent education (Smith, et al 1994). Age-paced newsletters have been effective, for example, with parents during the first year after their child is born (Cudaback, 1986; Riley, Meinhardt, Nelson, Salisbury, & Winnett, 1991). Like the first year of a baby's life, a child's entry into elementary school provides a window of time in which parents may be especially receptive to new knowledge and parenting strategies.
In addition, by delivering a newsletter through school classrooms, we incorporated into our program another strategy that has been effective in reaching parents -- bringing the program to them through the institutions or activities that are a routine part of their lives rather than asking them to come to the program. Parent education materials have been disseminated, for example, at child care settings (Weigel, 1993), in the workplace (Ohio State University Extension, 1991), and in children's meals at fast food restaurants (Syracuse, Kightlinger, & Conone, 1993).
Finally, the distribution of a parenting newsletter through the classroom provides a link between parents and the school. Parental involvement with their children's school is positively associated with greater achievement (e.g., Astone & McLanahan, 1991; Reynolds, 1989).
One key assumption underlying the National Extension Parent Education Model is that parental involvement and contributions to programs enhances the effectiveness of parent education (Smith, et al, 1994). In keeping with this assumption, we gathered suggestions from parents and school personnel at a focus group in Highland County and from a survey in Brown County. Participants included parents, elementary school teachers, school administrators, family and consumer sciences teachers, grandparents, a health educator, and community service representative.
The groups identified several disadvantages to parenting classes (for example, time commitment, child care) and responded positively to the concept of receiving parenting information in a written format such as a newsletter series. Major challenges facing parents of young children identified included: effective discipline, self-esteem, enhancing school achievement, child safety, balancing work and family, changing family structures, decision making skills, sibling rivalry, nutrition, time management, after-school safety, reading readiness, quality-time with children, and parental involvement in the learning process. Respondents also suggested that newsletter issues be short, eye- catching, easily identifiable, and easily readable.
Using the input from the parents and school personnel, we created the Backpack Buddies newsletter series for parents of kindergarten children. The series consists of seven one-page issues on the following topics: daily routines; ways to stay in touch, informed and involved; time together and reading in your daily routine; holiday stress management; nutrition; children's self concepts; and safety. The front of the newsletter contains information for parents; the back of the newsletter includes an activity for parents to do with their children.
The newsletter was printed on brightly colored paper and distributed monthly during the school year to public schools in Adams, Brown, and Highland Counties. Kindergarten teachers sent the newsletters home with their students.
Backpack Buddies was initially funded by an innovative grant through Ohio State University Extension. The $4,600 grant was used to collect data and to develop, distribute and evaluate the materials. Photo-ready copies will be available in 1998.
Ninety-seven parents completed a questionnaire evaluating Backpack Buddies. Parents were asked to complete the questionnaire at the time of their second term parent-teacher conference and given a children's book upon completion.
The majority of respondents were female (85%) and married (78%). Half of the respondents were between 30 and 39 years old (50%); a third were between 20 and 29 (29%). Half of the respondents had completed only high school (53%); a little over a third had attended or graduated from college (37%). Half of the sample was employed or self-employed (52%).
Overall, the parent ratings indicated the newsletter was very successful. For example: 92% of the respondents found the information in the newsletter easy to understand; 85% felt the information was helpful; 81% felt the newsletters contained the right amount of information; 77% prefer receiving parenting information from newsletters such as Backpack Buddies; and 74% found the topics of interest.
Several teachers and a principal spontaneously asked if Backpack Buddies would be offered the following year. Building on the very positive response to the first year of Backback Buddies, we currently are developing and distributing a first-grade edition as well as again distributing the kindergarten series.
Astone, N.M., & McLanahan, S.S. (1991). Family structure, parental practices and high school completion. American Sociological Review, 56, 309-302.
Conone, R., Spiegel, M., Miller, A, & Beckham, K. (1993). Balancing work and family: A Cooperative Extension Service evaluation. Journal of Extension, 35.3.
Cudaback, D. J. (1986). Age-paced parent education newletters. Human Relations, 11 (5).
Reynolds, A.J. (1989). A structural model of first-grade outcomes for an urban, low socioeconomic status, minority population. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 594-603.
Riley, D., Meinhardt, G., Nelson, C., Salisbury, M.J., & Winnett, T. (1991). How effective are age-paced newsletters for new parents? A replication and extension of earlier studies. Family Relations, 40, 247-253.
Smith, C.A., Cudaback, D., Goddard, H.W., & Myers-Walls, J.A. (1994). National Extension Parent Education Model. Manhattan, KS: Kansas Cooperative Extension Service.
Syracuse, C.J., Kightlinger, D.Y., & Conone, R. (1993). Teaching parenting at McDonalds. Journal of Extension, 31.
Weigel, D.J. (1993). Parent education through child care providers. Journal of Extension, 31.