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A Professional Guide for Parenting Educators: The National Extension Parenting Educators' Framework
H. Wallace Goddard
Jacqueline Kirby Wilkins
Judith A. Myers-Walls
Abstract: Effective parenting education is dependent on the quality of the educator, the curriculum, the educational setting, and awareness of parent characteristics and needs. This article outlines a framework to guide professional development in Extension and in the field of parenting education.
Parenting is one of the most challenging and one of the most important tasks of adulthood (Zigler, 1995). Over time, many parents have become concerned about their parenting skills and abilities, have questioned whether what they are doing is "right" (Smith, Perou, & Lesesne, 2002). Although professionals in home economics and social work advanced much of the early work in parenting education, today parenting educators emerge from a variety of disciplines and institutions, and today's professionals possess different levels of education, experience, and philosophies.
The Cooperative Extension System (CES) has led the way in many of the developments in parenting education, engaging in multi-state collaborations around significant parenting issues, using diverse methods for disseminating parenting information, and evaluating targeted educational outreach efforts. However, to provide a clear direction and a clear educational focus, shared theoretical assumptions about parenting education are needed in the field and within the Cooperative Extension System.
Defining Parenting Education Content
Reviewing the information and educational needs of parent, four Cooperative Extension scholars (Smith, Cudaback, Goddard, & Myers-Walls, 1994) created a model that represented a consolidation of the empirical literature on parenting practices that relate to quality outcomes for children. The National Extension Parent Education Model (NEPEM) was presented as a content guide for parenting educators. NEPEM proved useful to parenting educators; however, there has been limited exploration of the qualifications and competencies needed by parenting educators. Because Extension educators deliver a vast amount of parenting education across the nation, the identification of these competencies is critical. The gap between parenting education content and the skills needed to facilitate parenting education is addressed in this article.
As CES began to look collectively at the way professionals in Extension are recruited, hired, and trained, and their performance is measured, competency-based models emerged as a way to guide these processes. A competency is defined as an area of knowledge or skill that is required to produce identified outputs (Rothwell, Sanders, & Soper, 1999). In 2003, DeBord, Dunn, Zaslow, and Smith found that when they assessed competencies necessary to be an effective Extension Agent working in Family and Consumer Sciences, many of the essential components were not content-related, but rather process-related, including having organizational or communication skills, human relations and team-building skills, or skills in developing partnerships.
Process-related competencies are prevalent in many professional fields, often with one competency relating to technical expertise in a content area (such as child development, nutrition, livestock production). North Carolina Cooperative Extension, for example (http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/pods/comps.html), outlines seven core competencies for Extension staff, including leadership, professionalism, communication, and human relations. These are in addition to technical expertise in a specific subject matter area.
As noted above, in 1994, the NEPEM model for approaching parenting education from a content perspective was introduced. NEPEM included key parenting behaviors targeted for inclusion in parenting education programs (Smith et al., 1994). NEPEM set forth 29 priority parenting practices in six categories to be learned by parents and taught by parenting educators. The categories were identified as Care for Self, Understand, Guide, Nurture, Motivate, and Advocate. As it was conceptualized, NEPEM served as a framework to review, design, and evaluate parenting education programs and as a guide to the key content areas of parenting education. It did not address questions regarding the behavior and practices of parenting educators, however. (For further reading about the NEPEM practices, see: <http://www.cyfernet.org/parenting_practices/preface.html>.)
Development of a Model for Parenting Education Processes
Although NEPEM provided a model for understanding the critical content to be learned by parents and taught by parenting educators, the model addresses only a portion of the issues that make up the complexity of parenting education. An important next step for moving the field of parenting education forward is to describe the competencies and skills necessary for parenting educators.
Taking a similar approach, eight Cooperative Extension faculty undertook the task of exploring the components that should be included in a model of parenting educator practices. A series of online dialogs to query practicing parenting educators about parenting educator qualifications occurred between 1996 and 1999. Following a content analysis of the ideas generated during this process, a systematic exploration of the issues, concerns, and potential components to be included in such a model ensued.
This resulted in a set of six categories of practices that had been identified as critical for parenting educators. Within those categories, 42 specific practices were identified that are associated with high quality educational leadership of parenting programs. The result of these efforts was distributed at conferences and through written and Web-based methods as the National Extension Parenting Educator Framework (NEPEF). Content validity was gathered through a process of expert review.
The initial review was conducted by the eight experts who conducted a thorough literature search and then critiqued each section. An additional 50 experts from multiple states across the nation were queried for their feedback through two national conferences. Experts represented the areas of practice and research in child development, family studies, diversity education, and human development. Comments and suggestions for format and wording were incorporated based on expert review and educator feedback.
The Literature to Support the Critical Parenting Educator Practices
The 42 items that comprise the list of critical parenting educator practices were drawn from the literature addressing educational leadership, adult education, family life education, and parenting education. Six overarching areas identified in the literature include Grow, Frame, Develop, Educate, Embrace, and Build. That literature is described below.
Practices in the category of Grow are based on literature that recognizes that the personal qualities of a parenting educator are a critical part of the educational process. Grow reflects the process by which parenting educators become professionals and associate themselves with colleagues through professional development activities. In order to be effective educators, it is important for parenting educators to develop a philosophical basis for teaching about families and thoroughly reflect upon where their personal beliefs originated (Myers-Walls & Myers-Bowman, 1999; Powell & Cassidy, 2001).
The term "Grow" is used to suggest that the development of these skills begins with the earliest educational and experiential preparations for becoming a parenting educator and continues as an ongoing developmental process. Affiliation, mentoring, supervision, and professional development are all critical to personal growth (Carter & Kahn, 1996; Cochran, 1997; Fenichel, 1992; Katz, 1977; Powell & Cassidy, 2001; Rothenberg, 1992; Schor, 1988).
The category Frame refers to skills related to a parenting educator's knowledge of theoretical frameworks and the ability to evaluate their value and applicability to guide practice in the field of parenting education. Frame includes the ability to effectively conceptualize and apply the philosophies, perspectives, theories, frameworks, paradigms, schools of thought, worldviews, and models that guide educational parenting programs and recommendations for children, parents, and families. Skilled parenting educators draw on appropriate frameworks and assumptions when they develop or choose parenting materials and when they discuss with parents how to deal with difficulties in their relationships with children (Brock, Oertwein, & Coufal, 1993; Campbell & Palm, 2004; Myers-Walls & Myers-Bowman, 1999; Thomas, 1992).
Effective parenting educators understand that some philosophies or frameworks are demonstrably more effective for encouraging healthy development than others. Frameworks are selected to fit the needs and goals of parents, the nature of the child, and the skills and values of the parenting educator (Myers-Walls & Myers-Bowman, 1999).
The Develop category includes the skills used in creating parenting education programs. This category of skills is likely to be clearly recognized by even novice parenting educators, but the skills represented in this category are not necessarily simple. Although there are many packaged curricula available, few of those curricula provide all of the information, materials, and methods needed to effectively meet the needs of a specific audience without the facilitator adapting and embellishing them (Brown, 1998). Such adaptation, if done effectively, maintains the philosophy and intention of the program and increases the likelihood of positive outcomes.
The program development process, especially as it pertains to community-based adult education, has been thoroughly conceived and tested (Boone, 1985; Jacobs, 1988; Rockwell & Bennett, 2000). This body of literature emphasizes the necessary sequence and interconnectedness of needs assessments, targeted outcomes, program design and implementation, progress tracking, and evaluation designed to measure specific outcomes.
Effective parenting education programs are those that (a) include flexible structures and sensitive staff members; (b) respond to participant needs; and (c) use a coherent, research-based training design (Cataldo, 1987). Many scholars recommend a comprehensive program-development process that includes specifying target-audience needs and assets, considering facilitator resources, conducting interventions, considering delivery formats, and designing appropriate evaluation and reporting methods (Brown, 1998; DeBord, 1998; Matthews & Hudson, 2001; Pines, 1991). Medway (1989) and others reinforce the fact that the design of program evaluation is integral to the entire planning process, not a step added at the conclusion. It is also clear that skill in the Develop category of practices is significantly enhanced by building skills in the other areas of the model simultaneously.
Educate is a category that is also not likely to be overlooked by parenting educators. It comprises the skills of being an effective teacher, knowing how to use various delivery methods, helping parents learn, and challenging them to higher parenting goals. Educate includes the process of building relationships with participants to help them more effectively solve problems, resolve conflicts, set goals, and gain knowledge and skills to guide and nurture their child(ren). Educate involves being effective by knowing and using a variety of effective teaching strategies, skills, techniques, and methods. It includes adapting these teaching tools to meet specific learners' needs.
The dimension of Educate recognizes that individual participants within each audience bring different knowledge, skills, expectations, and goals to the program. Participants do not exist in a vacuum; they bring with them a variety of psychosocial experiences that influence their perception of learning as well as their ability to understand and utilize the content and skills taught (Hilgard, 1967).
Galbraith (1991) is one of several authors who have reviewed the specific learning styles that individuals may bring to a learning situation. It is important to understand learning styles and be able to incorporate specific strategies into programs to allow the best learning experiences for the largest number of learners.
Powell and Cassidy (2001) observe that successful educational programs : a) are sustained and comprehensive (over time and over life experiences); b) build in levels of learning that encourage personal transformation and behavioral and attitudinal changes; c) include at least 15-18 hours of learning experience, followed by options for long-term reinforcement; d) incorporate activities for all learning styles; e) engage the learner in praxis (action with reflection); f) apply information to personal life experience and demonstrate immediate usefulness; g) respect learners' experiences, cultures, and value orientation; h) show learning skills that invite discussion and commentary; i) use small group discussion formats; j) involve short "lectures," followed by prepared learning activities and discussion; and k) are based on the assessed needs of the group of learners or individual learners.
The category of Embrace posits that all parenting educators need to be knowledgeable about, and sensitive to, the specific populations with which they are working. Several researchers and authors (Cross, 1996; Myers-Walls, 2000; Ortega & Nunez, 1997; Weissbourd & Kagan, 1989) have outlined the importance of such sensitivity. Some skills are related to an understanding of specific cultural groups while recognizing that differences in parenting style and needs exist among parents, depending on their degree of acculturation or biculturalism (DeAnda, 1984; Wasserman, Rauh, Brunelli, Garcia-Castro & Necos, 1990), their socioeconomic status, and their individual history and background.
Other approaches focus on understanding cultural characteristics that may vary in different ways across subcultures and over time (Myers-Walls, Myers-Bowman, & Dunn, 2003). Time and again, recommendations have been made that teaching be customized to the learner for greatest effectiveness (Arcus, 1992, 1995; Cross, 1996; Myers-Walls, 2000; Weissbourd & Kagan, 1989). By the very nature of their work, parenting educators interact with diverse groups of parents and caregivers who differ in preferred communication and learning approaches, levels of literacy, sexual orientation, family composition, English language proficiency, access to basic resources, and many other dimensions (Doherty, 2000; Ortega & Nunez, 1997).
Involving parents in the design, governance, and delivery of parenting education programs has been found to improve program effectiveness, participant responsiveness, and cultural sensitivity of program materials and activities, resulting in greater family trust and empowerment, greater family enrollment and retention, and positive outcomes for children and families (Ahsan, 1999; Foster 1999). In programs in which families are seen as partners with program staff in an atmosphere of mutual respect, the expertise of families is brought into the educational process, and program effectiveness is increased (Doherty, 2000; Weissboard & Kagan, 1989).
The final category, Build, refers to the parenting education practices of being actively involved in building professional networks, being a community advocate and an advocate for parents and families, and connecting with organizations to expand the field of parenting education. Scholars have suggested that the professional success of the field will depend upon knowledgeable stakeholders coming together to share resources, to work collectively to overcome obstacles, and to meet the challenge of building a public agenda that strengthens parents and families (Shor, 1987; Weiss, 1990).
While many networks are informal in nature, some studies have found that membership in professional associations or organizations provide critical linkages with others in the field working toward similar goals (Arcus & Thomas, 1993; Brown & Rhodes, 1991). Small and Eastman (1991) suggest that, when parenting educators understand how political, educational, legal, and medical systems operate, they can be more effective in selecting information to present to policymakers and others. Building networks and partnerships that support children, parents, and families at local and state levels and sometimes at a regional, national, or international level will ultimately build the field of parenting education.
The Total Framework
The six process categories, Grow, Frame, Develop, Educate, Embrace, and Build, and the accompanying 42 practices provide guidance and structure for the preparation, training, and assessment of parenting educators in many settings. However, when used alone, it does not include the technical expertise that parenting educators must have nor what will they teach. NEPEM, the companion piece that originally inspired this investigation, became the content piece contributing the areas of Care for Self, Understand, Guide, Nurture, Motivate and Advocate. When used in tandem, the six content categories of practices for parents and the six process categories of practices for educators help to define the foundation for the development of a strong professional field of parenting education There is a full discussion of NEPEF online at: <http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/fcs/NEPEF>.
Referred to as the National Extension Parenting Educator's Framework, these components may be used to design and deliver professional development opportunities, to assist with self-assessment of professional progress, to guide curriculum development, and to build and refine certification programs. Figure 1 provides a visual representation of the framework.
NEPEF's Implications for Practice and Contribution to the Field
NEPEF has already been used as a framework to plan graduate curriculum to prepare parenting educators and has been considered by employers, as a basis for what parenting educators should know. At least one state (North Carolina) uses NEPEF to frame their professional credentialing program for parenting educators.
This foundational compilation of essential knowledge and practice can serve as a springboard for Extension and other professionals who identify themselves as parenting educators to use as a self-study to explore the body of knowledge and the repertoire of skills and competencies that are necessary to be effective in their work. The value of NEPEF will lie in its use to facilitate conversations among Extension professionals and other practitioners about best programs and best practices. Through these dialogues, standards for licensure or certification may be articulated, and professional development systems may emerge.
An earlier version of this article was presented at the annual conference of the National Council on Family Relations (2002).
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