Designing Program Workshops for Teenage Parents: Lessons from the Teenage Parent Demonstration. Purposes of the Workshops

12/01/1991

Demonstration workshops addressed three distinct needs:  development of participants' cognitive skills, development of their personal skills, and opportunities for staff assessment of participants.

Workshops Can Provide a Forum for Instruction

As can be seen from the list of program workshops above, program planners designed workshops on topics about which participants need to know something.  Ignorance of basic reproductive physiology and family planning can contribute to repeat pregnancies.  Misconceptions about the importance of child support and procedures for getting it, if they discourage pursuit of support, seriously constrain single parents' income prospects.  Lack of exposure to clear and accurate information about workplace expectations and career choices can make sound choices about education and training impossible.  Workshops were used to teach participants about these and other topics.  In some workshop sessions, the use of basic reading and writing skills was called for; the workshops could thus contribute to overall educational objectives, even though basic skills development was emphasized more heavily in other program components.

Initial Workshops Can Help New Participants Become Accustomed to the Program

The demonstration sites had clearly defined topics and substantive curricula for their workshops, but program staff viewed the workshops as even more important for their contribution to participants' personal development.  Workshops were not structured to require mastery of curriculum material or to gauge what participants learned.  Regardless of the degree of cognitive development achieved by workshops, staff viewed workshops as a valuable way to initiate and socialize new participants to the program, and increase the chances that they would take advantage of case managers' ongoing help and the specific education and training available to them.

For many of the teenage parents in the demonstration, it represented a new set of demands and experiences.  According to program staff, many of the teenage parents were unaccustomed to meeting appointments or adhering to any daily routine or schedule.  Many participants proved to be socially isolated and unaccustomed to situations in which they had to deal with demands placed on them by newly encountered figures of authority, or interactions with a new set of peers.  Program staff were keenly aware that to succeed in any future workplace, the teenage parents would have to learn the personal skills needed to deal with the expectations and tensions generated by both kinds of relationships.

As a result, program staff viewed the initial workshops as a valuable socializing experience for new participants.  At the New Jersey sites, where initial workshops extended over a period of at least four weeks, the sequence of initial workshops was referred to as "boot camp," because it imposed rigorous attendance demands and immersed each new cohort of demonstration participants in a common introductory experience that for some required considerable adjustment of attitudes and habits.  Some site staff viewed this aspect of the initial workshops as more important than their instructional value; although staff hoped that participants would learn information and skills that were presented in the workshops, some felt that the more important successes of workshops were measured by changes in the way participants behaved as they interacted with program staff and their program peers. 

Program staff noted the following changes as indicators of workshop success:

  • Initial hostility and resistance to attending program workshops or other activities softened as participants recognize the supportive attitude of program staff;
  • Participants became less reticent and reserved and begin to express their feelings and thoughts in workshop discussions; and
  • Participants began to form relationships with their peers and develop a common sense of involvement in the program.

Initial Workshops Can Provide an Opportunity for Further Assessment

Demonstration staff reported that workshops also provided useful information about participants that supplemented more structured and formal methods of assessment.  Case managers had to assess the skills of new participants, their interests, and the personal and family circumstances that affected them, and work with them individually to develop a plan of activities to work towards self-sufficiency.  Intake and assessment questionnaires and basic skills tests were used to gather information on educational backgrounds, personal backgrounds, and math and reading proficiency.  However, staff reported that, even with these formal assessment methods, they could overlook important factors affecting participants lives.  Observing and interacting with new participants during initial workshops provided more subtle insights into their strengths and weaknesses and personal problems.  Some case managers led initial workshops and thus formed direct impressions of the new participants they would work with.  Even when new participants were assigned to case managers who had not led any of their initial workshops, the workshops served as a source of informal assessment information.  Case managers' informal discussions with workshop leaders about each new cohort of participants yielded useful advice or information that might not emerge in the case manager's own assessment.