To do or to … give up?

In this blog, Sanela Talič would like to share her experiences with the implementation of “Strengthening Families Program (6-11)” in Slovenia. It is a comprehensive family-focused curriculum that includes 14 sessions of parent training, children’s skills training, and family skills training in order to promote behaviour change in high risk families.  SFP has been found to significantly reduce multiple risk factors for later alcohol and drug use, mental health problems and criminal behaviour by increasing family strengths, teens /children’s social competencies and improving positive parenting skills.

It all started in 2011 when our institute (Institute for research and development “Utrip”) received funds for the implementation of the family-based prevention programme Strengthening Families Program (6-11). I have to add that this was in fact a little charity but that the financial inflow corresponded very well to our reality in the field of prevention work: the money is not the problem because there is no money. We had to make the most out of what was available. Of course, the full implementation was only possible because the price of the programme and all the costs associated were reasonable. By the way, lately we were shocked when looking at the high prices of other prevention programmes that we were aiming to implement given the need in our country. The numbers are so high that you forget to breathe while reading it. Maybe this is the topic for another blog.

Anyway, the standard procedures were performed after receiving some financial support: translation of manuals, handouts and other materials, a five day training with Dr. Karol Kumpfer and Dr. Henry Whiteside, recruitment of families etc. All families that participated in the pilot project declared themselves as “normal families”, meaning that as to their own description “they don’t have problems in raising their children, they are well situated and educated, they read a lot about parenting issues and they are regularly participating in lectures and workshops for parents.” The reason why they took part in our pilot was that no extensive and structured programme had existed yet and they were interested to try.

Despite including low-risk families in our pilot, the programme led to significant positive changes in all variables relating to changes in our families’ behaviour. The results relating to the programmes effectiveness obtained in our country were better than those in other studies of the programme carried out in the USA and elsewhere. There were also many improvements observed in the children who participated in the programme with 6 (of 7) variables showing improvement: overt and covert aggression, attention, hyperactivity and depression, and  social skills and concentration. Moreover, the people from our group who delivered the programme realised that there is some space for improvement in our own parenting. Personally, I will never forget the words of Dr. Whiteside, when he said that parenting is about “all these little things” that make magic but because of crazy lifestyle and all the challenges families are facing nowadays, we tend to forget it.

So, we had good results from the pilot, a well-established team of group leaders, the necessary materials and the awareness that the programme is relevant for most families, not only to those at higher risk. The simple logic would be that everyone would accept the programme with open arms but that is not true for our country. For almost five years we have been “knocking on the doors” of relevant institutions trying to raise some funds for the dissemination of the programme. The chamber of social workers gave us a chance to deliver a one day seminar for social workers – and that was all. Then we decided to try at the Ministry of Labour, Family and Social Affairs where we had a chance to implement SFP with foster families and in family centres. But the application was not successful. Afterwards, we approached prison authorities and a network of addiction treatment centres – again without success. We continued with submitting calls for proposals at the Ministry of Health, and Norwegian Financial Mechanism – guess what? No success. In 2013, we even organised a special forum meeting on family prevention and invited relevant stakeholders, and afterwards tried additional opportunities in Europe: Erasmus+, Employment and Social Innovation (EaSI), Health for Growth Programme, Justice, and European Social Fund. In the meantime, we have been promoting the programme and organising seminars, workshops and individual meetings all over the county (centres for social work, ministries, local communities) – BUT without success. All this took us a lot of time and energy and, of course, financial costs. Logical question here would be: is it worthwhile to continue with this or simply give up? To be honest and no matter how crazy this sounds – we never thought about giving up. After so many years of trials, it would be pointless to give up, especially knowing that the solution is waiting just around the next corner.

The rise of the Fenix

And we were right. In all these years being active in prevention we established good relationships with a variety of people in the field. One of these is a teacher in primary school who had previously worked with families. She heard about SFP in one of our presentations and decided to try it. She and three other colleagues are currently implementing the programme with a  third group of families and they love it. This group gave the wings to the programme and currently we have additional four groups of programme implementers in our country. In most cases, those groups are working together with representatives of centres for social work.

This situation raises many new challenges for us – how to keep these groups motivated, how to assure the sustainability of the programme (e.g. how to assure financing, how to keep all leaders on board etc.) and how to promote all good experiences reported from groups to the wider audience and important stakeholders? This is an aspect of my job that I love. The nature of the work does not allow you to fall asleep in terms of professional development and keeping things we are doing alive. The answer to the title of my blog is therefore … “to do”. We will try our best and hope for the best possible outcome. Finally, I would like to share also some things that we have learned. The only “mistake” we made at the beginning of this great journey was that we completely believed in selfless help of relevant institutions. They seemed interested in the dissemination of the programme and promised us to help at the beginning. After realising that none of this will happen it was hard to find motivation and other solutions to continue. But this is something that happens regularly and shouldn’t be a huge surprise for all of us. On the other hand, there were many good things that we realised during these years. Although the program is “American” it showed great results in our small European country. Family attachment, good communication skills within the families, reducing conflicts etc. are important aspects that all children deserve, regardless of where they come from. Further, we should stop abusing this “American thing” as an excuse of not adapting those programmes. Another thing I would like to share is that even though the program is sometimes characterized as drug-prevention programme it has many secondary effects on other behaviours. For example, school teachers reported better work at school, less inappropriate behaviour of children who were in the programme.

My final piece of advice for young scholars looking to build their skills to develop proposals and mechanisms for receiving funding to research such programs is that you need to be creative and adjust your application to the funders priorities. We always discuss as a team how to write the application in order to follow the funders priorities.

Lastly, we would like to thank the Ministry of Health for their trust and substantial funding to create more healthy environments for children and youth.


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