Strategies for Building Healthy Relationship Skills Among Couples Affected by Incarceration. Adapting Style and Delivery

03/15/2012

Grantees relied heavily on traditional modes of information delivery during relationship education classes, including lectures by instructors and the review of written information using slides and workbooks.  These approaches were supplemented with a variety of other teaching tools designed to keep participants interested and make concepts accessible:

  • Participatory exercises:  All sites incorporated interactive learning into their courses to encourage active engagement by participants, including class discussion, role-playing exercises, and games.
  • Individualized interaction:  Instructors at many sites created regular opportunities for individual check-ins to informally assess how participants related to the course material, provide additional support if needed, and allow participants the opportunity to make up missed classes using a one-on-one tutorial.
  • Video tools:  Sites that implemented commercial relationship education curricula used video clips of partner interaction that were provided as part of these curricula.  In addition, these and other sites supplemented with video clips that instructors selected (the Indiana grantee), shared YouTube videos created by reentering men (the Tennessee grantee), or used professionally produced video lectures by experts (the New York grantee).
  • Audio tools:  A few sites used audio-based teaching tools, including public service announcements (the Texas grantee), an original song about incarceration and family relationships (the Texas grantee), and popular music to create a relaxed atmosphere while participants completed individual writing exercises (the South Dakota grantee).

Exercises that generated active personal engagement from participants were an important source of information for instructors.  Using the information that participants shared verbally, instructors could tailor the pace and content of the course to fit participants learning styles, family histories (including family-related cultural values), and current family situations.

Yet, incorporating interactive modes of learning into prison-based courses also required special care.  Staff and participants noted the danger associated with emotional vulnerability in a prison setting and the risk that personal information shared in the classroom would be used on the prison yard.  Staff at the California site noted that confidentiality issues were of such immediate concern that instructors typically devoted 2 hours to this topic during the initial class sessions.  Once an understanding of expectations for confidentiality was firmly in place, staff believed that participants then felt free to share their personal experiences out loud and therefore could integrate concepts more fully.

The MFS-IP grantees felt the need to implement a variety of adaptations to their healthy relationship curricula to increase the relevance of the courses for men and couples affected by incarceration.  Although this process likely resulted in greater engagement among the course participants, it also introduces concerns about how closely commercial curricula were followed and, therefore, the extent to which outcomes attributed to the curricula by the developers could be similarly expected for the MFS-IP program participants.  A few grantees did report working with the curriculum developers in adapting their curricula; however, this process was uncommon.  Most grantees continuously tweaked their courses to reflect their experiences implementing the curricula and feedback received from participants, striving to improve the course each time it was delivered.  This informal and ongoing adaptation process limited the fidelity with which commercial curricula were implemented.  Some types of adaptation, such as eliminating couples-based exercises (which was necessary when partners could not participate with incarcerated men) could presumably decrease the effectiveness of the curricula.  However, the most common adaptations included adding topics specific to incarceration and modifying the language, examples, style, or delivery of the curricula.  Content-related adaptations typically involved downplaying certain topics or making the topics more widely relevant (i.e., changing marriage-focused content to be applicable to other types of relationships), rather than excluding them altogether.  Although we cannot determine the effect that this type of adaptation had, it is possible that such adaptations would not have a major impact on the effectiveness of the curricula used.

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