Risk and Protective Factors

The FAST program assumes that participants are at risk—that families are under stress and need social support—yet never directly focuses on risk. Six research-based strategies are used to build protective factors (e.g., relationships) for youth in the FAST program. These strategies address:

  • Each child's interpersonal bonds.

  • The family system.

  • Parent-to-parent support (bonds between spouses or two other supportive adults).

  • Parent self-help support group (peer social network).

  • Parent empowerment training (putting parents in charge of children).

  • School-community affiliation (involvement in the school and community by parents and youth).

Positive bonds and relationships on multiple levels counteract many youth risk factors and reduce behavior problems correlated with later violence, delinquency, substance abuse, and school failure. Each of the six strategies discussed below applies tested approaches published by various researchers in refereed journals and funded by multiyear Federal grants from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The FAST program integrates child psychiatry, child psychology, play therapy, family therapy, family stress theory and family support, self-help group dynamics, parent empowerment, and community organization into an appealing, replicable, multicomponent approach to prevention.

Each Child's Interpersonal Bonds

Research on delinquency shows that interpersonal bonds inhibit aggression and violence. In FAST, each child receives 15 minutes a day of one-to-one quality play or discussion time with his or her parent with the team's support. The team coaches parents to follow the child's lead in play and not to boss, teach, or correct the child. Parents practice this process at the weekly meetings and then are requested to play with their children one-to-one at home on a daily basis. Research shows this nondirective, nonjudgmental playtime reduces a child's problem behaviors at home and at school while building self-esteem. In 2-year followup interviews, children report "special play" as their favorite part of FAST. Sixty-two percent of parents still do special play once a week 2 years after completing the program. Parents learn that regular one-to-one playtime with their children is valuable and powerful, and often parents report that their children confide in them more and have a more positive relationship with them.

The Family System

Research on treatment of delinquent youth shows that altering the patterns of family involvement reduces recidivism rates (Alexander and Parsons, 1973, 1982). The family unit of the FAST child is systematically strengthened with hour-long weekly sessions at their FAST family table based on family therapy principles of helping the parents to be both firmly in charge of and lovingly connected to their children. For each family activity, the team puts the parents in charge by giving information and support only to the parents. The family activities include having parents delegate a child to serve their food, constructing a family flag, drawing and talking about drawing, play-acting feelings, and guessing each other's feelings. Parents oversee the family communication games at their own family table. Parents allow each person in the family to speak and be heard, which is a basic communication skill for conflict resolution. These exercises develop parental skills in requesting compliant behavior and in monitoring children's behavior. Team members actively support the parents to ensure the success of the family exercises.

Parent-to-Parent Support

Research shows that regular, daily, intimate support from other parents is a protective factor that keeps stressed and depressed mothers from abusing and neglecting their children. Child abuse is correlated with later delinquency. FAST incorporates support for parents by having the spouses, partners, or two single parents who are put together by team members spend 15 minutes at each weekly meeting listening to each other speak about issues of concern. The only restriction is that no advice should be given. This conversation time provides the opportunity for growth of reciprocal, personal support for the primary caretaker.

Parent Self-Help Support Group

Research shows that parents who have been highly trained in behavior modification parenting skills have stopped using those skills 6 months later if they are socially isolated (i.e., they have no one to turn to under stress) (Wahler, 1983). Research also finds that when a family is under stress, social isolation can result in child abuse and neglect (Pianta, Egeland, and Stroufe, 1988). Parents in FAST meet for 45 minutes in each weekly session to help each other assist their children to succeed in school and at home. No didactic presentation on parenting is allowed. The parents determine the content of their discussion. During the 8- to 10-week program, the parent group bonds and serves as a source of ongoing informal support for parents who are stressed and socially isolated. Followup studies on FAST indicate that 86 percent of participating parents make new friends at FAST and that the parent group is their favorite part because it shows them that they are not alone and because they feel that their advice is valued by other parents.

Parent Empowerment Training

When parents are in charge of their children and connected to other parents and the community, they can both increase the safety of their neighborhoods and better monitor youth behavior. FAST activities are structured to increase the power of each parent systematically, within the separate sets of relationships detailed below, through frequent rehearsals of behavior and experiences of success:

  • Family. Controlling one's children without coercion (i.e., becoming empowered within the immediate family).

  • School. Collaborating as a partner in the FAST team and as a cofacilitator of ongoing, 2-year, multifamily group meetings. Interdependent school-based FAST parent networks begin to actively participate in their children's education. For example, parents begin to volunteer in the school, act as advocates for their children, and see themselves as partners in their children's education.

  • Community. Acting as leaders in the community. Parents who know other parents and professionals in local community agencies are more likely to assume leadership roles.

Successful implementation of the FAST parent empowerment program across new settings in many parts of the United States requires values-based team training. Each new FAST team reviews and discusses 10 beliefs underlying the FAST prevention program: for example, that every parent loves his or her child and that, with informal and formal social support, every parent can be the primary delinquency prevention agent for his or her child. The FAST Team Replication Training developed by McDonald in 1990 (revised 1998) for new site teams includes behavioral rehearsals (role-plays) designed to help the team learn how to empower, respect, and support parents rather than undercut parental power. The team partners, as part of their training, act out five scenarios twice—the wrong way and then the right way—and lead a discussion of issues that are relevant to each scenario. Each role-play covers a given aspect of parenting: orienting children, asking for support, celebrating children's success, helping children when they are hurt, and disciplining children without abuse. Each team member experiences disempowerment and then empowerment by acting out the scenarios twice in role-plays.

School-Community Affiliation

A family graduating from FAST in Washington, DC.
A family graduating from FAST in Washington, DC.
The FAST program increases the at-risk youth's and family's feelings of affiliation with the school. Positive, repeated, personal, low-key interactions with school personnel outside the regular school day build relationships that are not based on the at-risk child's problem behaviors at school. Informal interaction during FAST sessions enables parents to establish respectful relationships with addiction counselors, family therapists, and counselors of victims of domestic violence. Over time, this results in an increase in the appropriate use of school opportunities and services by parents. Two to four years after graduating from FAST, parents remain involved: 75 percent of the parents reported increased involvement in the schools. Parents report that they self-refer to family counseling (26 percent) and substance abuse treatment (8 percent). Self-motivated parents are more likely to use appropriate services fully, one of the important outcomes of FAST (McDonald et al., 1997).

Ninety-one percent of FAST parent graduates report an increased involvement in community activities, even though one-third of this sample never attended FASTWORKS. Parent activities 2-4 years after the FAST program include pursuing further education for themselves (44 percent), attending church (35 percent), and obtaining employment (55 percent). Some parents reported greater involvement in more than one activity. After participating in FAST, most families no longer feel socially isolated and both youth and parents report the availability of stronger formal and informal social networks available to assist them in stressful circumstances (McDonald, 1997).

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