Overview of the Program

Both affluent and low-income families struggle with the same issues concerning how to raise a child successfully. Many parents feel alone, too busy to connect with their children, and lacking in support from other adults. Using parent-professional collaborative teams, the Families and Schools Together (FAST) program systematically reaches out to entire families and organizes multifamily groups to increase parent involvement with at-risk youth. Developed in 1987 by Dr. Lynn McDonald of Family Service, a nonprofit family counseling agency in Madison, WI, FAST helps at-risk youth (ages 3 to 14) build relationships through a research- and family therapy-based, multifamily group approach to preventing juvenile delinquency (McDonald, 1993, 1997; 1998; McDonald and Billingham, 1998; McDonald et al., 1991). FAST has been especially successful at involving low-income, stressed, and isolated parents.

For several years, the founder of FAST conducted court-ordered, in-home, family therapy with drug- and alcohol-involved and violent youth who had been significantly involved in the court system. She applied family therapy techniques for delinquents that were developed, researched, and published by James Alexander, Ph.D. (1973; Alexander and Parsons, 1973, 1982) and Salvador Minuchin, M.D. (1979). Using these approaches, 75 percent of delinquent youth could alter their circumstances in 3 months of two to three family sessions per week, with 24-hour backup coverage (McDonald, 1993). This therapeutic work developed into the FAST program for early intervention. The FAST program works with school teachers to identify elementary school children about whom they have developmental or behavioral concerns.

Families and Schools Together (FAST) Program Goals
Enhance family functioning.
  • Strengthen the parent-child relationship in specific, focused ways.
  • Empower the parents to be the primary prevention agents for their children.
Prevent the child from experiencing school failure.
  • Improve the child's short- and long-term behavior and performance in school.
  • Empower the parents to be partners in the educational process.
  • Increase the child's and family's feelings of affiliation with their school.
Prevent substance abuse by the child and family.
  • Increase the family's knowledge and awareness of substance abuse and the impact of substance abuse on child development.
  • Link the family to appropriate assessment and treatment services, as needed.
Reduce the stress that parents and children experience from daily life situations.
  • Develop an ongoing support group for parents of at-risk children.
  • Link the family to appropriate community resources and services, as needed.
  • Build the self-esteem of each family member.

The overall goal of the FAST program is to intervene early to help at-risk youth succeed in the community, at home, and in school and thus avoid problems including adolescent delinquency, violence, addiction, and dropping out of school. The FAST process utilizes the existing strengths of families, schools, and communities in creative partnerships. FAST offers youth structured opportunities for involvement in repeated, relationship-building interactions with the primary caretaking parent, other family members, other families, peers, school representatives, and community representatives. The program builds and enhances long-term relationships to provide youth a "social safety net" of protective factors for getting through difficult times. Specific aspects of the FAST program reduce common forms of delinquent behavior because:

  • Increasing multiple levels of social bonding reduces juvenile violence/crime.
  • Increasing connections, rituals, and resilience reduces alcohol and drug abuse.
  • Reducing isolation and promoting family strength reduce child abuse and neglect.
  • Promoting parent involvement for school success reduces school failure.

FAST works with every kind of family. Because the program respects how each family defines itself, there are no restrictions for admission into the program. The FAST process begins with home visits, followed by a weekly series of school-based evening activities for 12 families (for 8-10 weeks), followed by 2 years of monthly multifamily FASTWORKS meetings. These meetings are run by paid FAST parent graduates (and supported by FAST team members) to consolidate and maintain interpersonal relationships developed during the weekly sessions.

The team structure ensures that parents are included as partners. The certification of each new program site includes a public interview with several parent graduates in front of their FAST team to give feedback on their experience in the program.

Table 1: FAST Implementation Expenditure (estimates per new program)*

Table 1

FAST successfully increases parent involvement with their at-risk youth, other family members, other parents, the school, and the community. Of the thousands of families who have attended one multifamily FAST meeting, more than 80 percent have graduated from the 8- to 10-week program. The percentage is consistent across hundreds of different settings with different types of families from varied cultural backgrounds. Two to four years after participating in FAST, 75 percent of the parents who graduated were still very involved with schools and 86 percent were still seeing friends they made at FAST (McDonald et al., 1997).

FAST increases parent involvement by actively reaching out and engaging stressed and isolated families. Parents learn to monitor their children's behavior, interact through play, and communicate with their children. They also become more involved with social networks of other parents, schools, and communities. Rural, suburban, and inner-city schools develop ownership of their FAST programs. The cost per family is approximately $1,200 for 86 hours of services (30 sessions, including FASTWORKS) over 2 years. The cost for each school that offers 2 FAST cycles per year to serve 30 families is $30,000 (not including evaluation or FASTWORKS). For more information, see table 1.

Ten years after the first multifamily groups were implemented, FAST:

  • Is being implemented in more than 450 schools in 31 States and 5 countries.

  • Has won numerous national awards as a research-based, family-strengthening, family-supporting, collaborative, prevention/early intervention program.

  • Has been evaluated continuously at each new site with the FAST Process and Outcome Evaluation Package (McDonald and Billingham, 1998).

  • Is being systematically replicated with certified FAST team trainers by four States and two national organizations.

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Families and Schools Together: Building Relationships Juvenile Justice Bulletin   ·  November 1999