Designing Program Workshops for Teenage Parents: Lessons from the Teenage Parent Demonstration. Workshop Design Decisions


These three approaches to integrating workshops in the overall program design differ on several dimensions -- the length of initial workshops, the types of staff used to conduct the workshops, and the relative emphasis on initial and ongoing workshops.  These implicit choices can affect the contribution that workshops make to program objectives, the administrative demands they place on staff, and the resources they consume, as explained below.

Setting the Length of Initial Workshops

The demonstration experience highlighted the implications of decisions about the length of initial workshops for new participants.  Workshop length affects what can be accomplished in the workshops, the administrative complexity and burden of monitoring participants' workshop completion, and the choice of staff to run workshops.  There is no simple definition of the ideal workshop length, but the demonstration helped to identify the factors program planners should consider.

The time devoted to initial workshops obviously affects the potential contribution they can make to cognitive and personal development as well as to staff assessments of new participants.  Extensive initial workshops like those offered in the New Jersey programs provide greater opportunity for socialization and formation of peer relationships, which are important objectives of initial workshops.  For those who participate, it is possible to explore and develop topics in more detail than would be possible in an initial workshop sequence of just a few days.  Longer workshops at the start of the program sequence also offer more opportunity for participants' personal interests, communications and social skills, family problems, and motivation to be clarified before decisions are made about their involvement in an ongoing education or training activity.  On the other hand, some demonstration staff felt that it was difficult to hold the teenage parents' attention and make effective use of the workshop format over a period of several weeks, and that shorter workshops are preferable because they make it possible for new participants to move as quickly as possible into substantive education or training activity.

Workshop length also affects the likelihood that new program enrollees will participate promptly in workshops.  Given the time commitment required for the New Jersey workshops, the Camden and Newark programs had to defer workshop activity for new participants who were in school at the time of enrollment until the next school vacation, and maintain a system for reminding staff to schedule these participants for workshops.  If initial workshops span just a few days, as they did at Project Advance, program staff may be able to arrange for local school officials to recognize the workshops as valid educational activities, so that all new participants can go through the initial workshops immediately.  For most participants, prompt exposure to the issues covered and the guidance offered in workshops is an advantage of a brief initial workshop sequence.

The length of initial workshops is also likely to affect the burden presented by related administrative tasks -- scheduling participants for workshops, monitoring attendance, rescheduling participants who fail to attend, and imposing sanctions on those who do not comply with this aspect of program requirements.  Lengthy workshops involving multiple sessions over a period of several weeks create substantial opportunity for noncompliance; there are simply more days of required attendance and thus more opportunities for participants to fail to show up before the workshop requirement is satisfied.  If the requirement to attend and complete workshops is treated seriously and only minimal absence is allowed, lengthy workshops require careful attendance monitoring and systematic follow-up with participants who miss workshop sessions.  The experience in the New Jersey programs showed that a substantial percentage of participants entering lengthy initial workshops are likely to miss sessions and have to be rescheduled to attend particular sessions they missed or to start an entire workshop again.  Long initial workshops are more likely to give rise to use of formal compliance warnings and sanctions than is the case with short workshops.

Data on workshop completion from the three demonstration sites are consistent with these expectations about long and short initial workshops.(8)  Participants in Chicago, where initial workshops spanned only three days, were more likely to complete required workshops quickly than were participants in the New Jersey programs.  In Chicago, 73 percent of all Project Advance participants had completed at least one workshop within the first four weeks after intake.  In Camden and Newark, in contrast, only 18 and 8 percent, respectively, of Teen Progress participants had completed a workshop within the first four weeks.  Workshop duration clearly contributed not only to differences in how quickly workshops were completed, but also to whether participants completed them at all.  In Chicago, 89 percent of the demonstration participants completed at least some initial workshops, while 57 percent in Camden and 38 percent in Newark completed at least one initial workshop.  Sanctions relating to failure to attend workshops had to be imposed on about 19 and 26 percent of Camden and Newark participants, respectively, and on about 15 percent of Chicago participants.

Choosing the Staff to Conduct Workshops

The decision about the extent of initial workshops also interacts with decisions about which staff should lead them, and the choice of staff has implications for the feasibility of dealing in depth with some issues, the drain on general case management resources, and the value of workshops as a source of assessment information.

The demonstration sites staffed their workshops in three different ways:

  1. In Chicago, Project Advance case managers were entirely responsible for leading the three-day initial workshops.  Most ongoing workshops were led by outside consultants (some paid, others volunteers);
  2. For most Newark and Camden workshops, the programs contracted with other agencies such as Planned Parenthood, JTPA, and community organizations to provide workshop leaders; and
  3. In Newark and Camden, in-house program staff were designated to conduct certain initial workshops, either in addition to their work as case managers, or as part of a broader workshop coordination role.

Staffing decisions were clearly linked to other program design issues.  Most clearly, the approach to staffing workshops hinged on the character of the workshop component.  The heavy input of personnel time needed to conduct the extensive Camden and Newark workshops more or less required that they be led by specially designated staff -- either program staff or contracted topic specialists from other agencies.  Only in a program with very brief initial workshops, as in the Chicago site, is it realistic to assume that case managers could lead workshops in addition to their responsibilities working with individual participants.

Using case managers to run workshops has several advantages.  As they run workshops, the case managers become acquainted with new participants and their problems.  Thus, for those participants who are assigned to the workshop leader's caseload, the workshops become a fruitful assessment opportunity.  Even for those participants assigned to other case managers, the workshop leaders can serve as a valuable source of information to help other case managers understand their new clients.  Workshops led by outside staff can also provide feedback to case managers, but a more conscious strategy is probably needed to elicit assessment information from outside staff, whereas workshop leaders who are part of the case management unit have natural informal opportunities to share information with their colleagues.  Finally, using regular case managers to run workshops -- and limiting the extent of the workshop component -- can hold down program costs.

Relying on case managers to run workshops, however, adds to the strain on case management staff and limits the special expertise available in the workshops.  Using case managers is really only feasible where the case management staff is large enough that responsibility for running workshops imposes only a periodic additional task on each case manager; otherwise the time they have for their own caseloads is too seriously eroded.  However, case managers who ran Project Advance workshops only every two to three months reported that they did not have time to become and remain truly up to date on the topics they were discussing -- particularly with regard to workshops covering issues of physiology, health, and medical care.  If case managers take turns running workshops, program managers should take particular care to provide initial and refresher training to equip case managers to lead such workshops.(9)  Even for the very limited introductory workshops held at Project Advance, some case managers eventually came to the conclusion that it would be preferable to assign special program or contract staff as workshop leaders.

The Camden and Newark demonstration programs tapped various community resources for initial workshop leaders with more specialized skills (and the Chicago site did so for some ongoing workshops).  Under contracts or in some instances no-cost inter-agency agreements, workshop leaders came from local Planned Parenthood Associations for family planning workshops, from county extension services for nutrition and life skills workshops, a non-profit drug rehabilitation program for an AIDS/drug abuse workshop, and several small local non-profit agencies for life skills and grooming workshops.

To the extent that outside staff are used to conduct workshops, care must be taken to maintain communications between these workshop leaders and the case managers who will work with the new participants, to take full advantage of the "assessment input" value of the workshops.  In addition, program staff need to observe workshop sessions periodically, monitor the presentation approaches used by outside consultants, and assess the quality of staff assigned by outside organizations to run workshops and the appropriateness of the curriculum.

A particularly promising staffing approach that combined the advantages of using in-house staff and outside specialists to run workshops was adopted in the Camden program part way through the demonstration.  The Camden program reassigned a case manager to work as an "in-house workshop coordinator".  This person -- a full-time member of the program staff -- led the Life Skills workshop, coordinated the scheduling of all initial workshops, and monitored the content and delivery of workshops led by outside staff.  The workshop coordinator met with individual case managers regularly to discuss special issues or problems pertaining to individual participants observed in the workshops.  This structure seemed to offer the advantages of specialized workshop leaders as well as close in-house monitoring and coordination of workshop curricula and approach.

Deciding Which Types of Workshop to Emphasize

Three workshop formats were used:  initial workshops for all new participants, regularly scheduled "cyclical" workshops for selected ongoing participants, and "special event" workshops open to all participants.  Each form of workshop has different implications for the breadth of participation achieved, the topics to be covered, and the administrative effort required to achieve a given level of participation.

Mandatory initial workshops are the most appropriate format for topics likely to be of importance to most or all new participants, in large part because they provide the surest vehicle for achieving high participation.  New participants can be routinely scheduled for the next cycle of workshops.  Since a clearly and readily identified cohort of new participants is scheduled for each workshop cycle, it is relatively straightforward to treat the workshops as mandatory activities, monitor attendance, take sanction action when necessary, and reschedule participants for the next cycle if they fail to attend the required number of sessions for each workshop.  Problems of scheduling participants into workshops are most manageable for initial workshops; with the exception of those attending school, most new participants should be able to attend initial workshops without delay.

Workshops for selected ongoing participants, however, are more appropriate when the objective is to focus more closely on the needs of particular participants or on topics that are relevant only to some.  For example, requiring all new participants to attend workshop sessions dealing with work place behavior, job applications, and resume preparation may be inappropriate if a substantial percentage of participants are young teenage parents for whom continued school attendance or reenrollment in special remedial classes is likely to be the focus of program activity.  Therefore, for some topics ongoing workshops for selected subsets of the participant population may be more effective.

"Special event" workshops for ongoing participants -- offered in the Chicago demonstration program -- pose special problems for staff in preparing the workshops and promoting attendance.  Whereas initial and cyclical workshops were typically arranged through negotiated contracts or staff assignments, special event workshops required finding appropriate workshop leaders, selecting dates when the workshops could fit into their schedules, and then promoting the event.  Although program staff viewed these workshops as very valuable and important experiences for participants, they did not classify them as mandatory activities, because their infrequent scheduling made it impossible to reschedule participants who failed to attend and insist that they attend a later session.  As a result, staff sometimes made extensive efforts to arrange a special workshop and invite large numbers of participants, but ended up actually delivering the workshop activity to a small group of participants.