As the requests for support in converting to the delivery of virtual groups exceeds our staff capacity, we are offering these guidelines and strongly encourage group facilitators to read this information and begin their own exploration of how to meet the needs of their clients given the resources they have at their disposal.
When planning for its Spring 2020 parenting groups, Parenting Journey (PJ) did not anticipate needing to make a last-minute decision to cancel in-person groups. We were caught off-guard and like so many others, we continue to ask ourselves: how does one plan when each day the environment is changing and what seemed like a possibility yesterday is off the table today? And how does one plan when that scenario repeats?
During this time, when humans are being called upon to go against their nature and stay apart from each other; a time when we truly need to re-affirm our connection to each other to mitigate centuries of systemic racism and support each other through our fears and uncertainties about COVID-19; how do we as human service professionals navigate the delivery of services while taking care of ourselves?
In answering that question, the beauty and strength of Parenting Journey groups is also its greatest challenge: PJ groups appeal to a wide range of parents/caregivers (single parents, co-parents, step-parents, teen parents, multi-generational families, etc.) and are delivered in a wide range of settings (Head Start, foster care, family resource centers, community health centers, prisons, etc.). And now, the number of moving parts multiplies, as many parents have their children at home 24/7, may have had a shift in employment status, may or may not have the technological ability to participate virtually etc.
It took PJ several years to “perfect” the structure and content of in-person groups. Our approach centers the need to be responsive to and provide value for a wide range of parenting and family configurations and dynamics. To assume that the transition to virtual program delivery could be done in one fell swoop and guarantee the same outcomes for program graduates is unrealistic. One size does NOT fit all!
Currently, PJ is in a place of exploration and experimentation in delivering PJ groups virtually. We don’t have all the answers – but we do have recommendations on how any trained PJ facilitator should approach transitioning to the virtual delivery of PJ (V-PJ).
Getting Started: The initial steps in shaping your virtual PJ group
- By thoughtfully engaging in the following considerations, you will develop a foundation upon which to structure your PJ group(s). We strongly recommend not doing this in a vacuum– brainstorm and troubleshoot with your colleagues and parent advisory council.
- Assess the resources your organization has to deliver a virtual PJ group. Do you have a secure online platform to deliver the group? Do you have the technological skills to deliver virtually? Is there clinical supervision available?
- Get input from the parents you will be serving. Survey parents and be sure to include question on days/times they are available, access to technology, privacy/safety concerns and childcare needs.
- Map out the sessions you will offer. Again, incorporate as many people as possible in determining what modifications to group sessions will be made to best meet the needs of your parent population.
- Document your process. This is a learning experience for all involved! Keep track of what worked well and what needs further consideration.
CONSIDERATIONS FOR GUIDING VIRTUAL PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT
As stated above, this is not a “one-size fits all” response. It is important that adjustments to content, as well as structure, honor the emotional and logistical capacity of your individual group members and the collective capacity of your group. The success of PJ is deeply rooted in the strength of a positive group process.
The core of the group process is trust among group members. A foundation of trust is key to each participants ability to share vulnerably, ask for support and keep coming to group.
Your group participants’ relationships with each other
It is important to assess the level of trust among group members to promote group cohesion. Answering these questions before launching virtual delivery will shape how you modify exercises/activities.
- How well do participants know each other?
- If your organization has already started the group in person, how many group sessions were held before switching to virtual delivery?
- What is participants’ level of safety and familiarity with each other?
- Do members of this group know each other outside of the group experience? For example, do they all live in the same neighborhood or work together?
- Are they complete strangers?
For participants who know each “less well”, consider what will help them to build trust in a virtual environment. You may need to put more energy into leading activities such as the developing the contract exercise. You may need to call on participants rather than do popcorn style responses. You may need to point out connections and similarities among participants to develop that sense of “we are all human.”
Participant’s relationship with facilitator
Part of building trust requires assessing the participant’s previous or existing relationship with the group facilitator(s).
- Are participants “clients” of the facilitator? Does the participant get support from the facilitator on a consistent basis through other services? For example, is the facilitator their case manager, therapist, or parent advocate?
- Does the facilitator otherwise relate to the participant in another professional capacity, as the child’s teacher or health care worker?
Prior relationships have pros and cons. Be sensitive to the fact that you will now be seeing participants’ homes and they may be seeing yours. If you have pre-existing relationship, the hope is that there will be a higher level of trust, and it is worth having a direct conversation prior to the start of groups.
Smooth implementation requires understanding what supports and/or challenges participants may have when they are participating from home. This knowledge will influence how you structure activities/exercises, issues that should be addressed in the contract and in some instances whether a parent/caregiver is able to take part in a virtual group.
- Does the participant have a private space in which to take part in an online format?
- Does moving to an online connection pose a safety risk for any participants? Is there bullying in their environment or intimate partner violence? Are you able to engage with participants who need help in devising a safety plan? Is there someone to supervise the participant’s children while they participate in a virtual group?
- Does the “usual” time you have group work when participants are at home? For example, PJ runs groups at dinner time because we provide dinner in-person, but this doesn’t necessarily work when participants are home and trying to manage family meals.
- Do participants have the technology needed to engage in an online format? Does your organization have the capacity to provide support in accessing the necessary technology?
- Do parents have materials needed for any given activity, like paper, pens, etc.?
- Will you be mailing out supplies to participants? (Some orgs mail a box containing workbook, crayons, note paper, etc., while others serve clients in areas where boxes are often stolen off porches.)
Participant’s Personal Support and Needs
Facilitators need to be prepared to respond to a wider range of unmet needs. Understanding the additional stressors your participants are experiencing, as well as what other supports they have or do not have access to, should shape the content and structure of your virtual groups.
- In this incredibly stressful time, how can facilitators use online sessions to help participants expand their toolboxes for dealing with stress in healthy ways and bring that to their parenting? Perhaps you want to include stress reduction strategies in your closing ritual each week.
- Are your participants now home with their children 24/7? Do participants have children in placement for whom visits are no longer possible?
- Is a two-hour time slot still feasible?
- What is the literacy level of your participants? If you are using session posters etc. for discussion, how will you ensure that all participants are included?
- Do participants have a support, outside of the group, for processing emotional reactions that come up during group? Will facilitators provide that or does your organization have resources to connect parents to?
MEASURING IMPACT – TRACKING INNOVATION
Parenting Journey recognizes that learning and feedback are critically important as we launch new programming and for reporting to stakeholders like funders. PJ’s recommendation at this time is to focus on capturing data about modifications that are made and feasibility/accessibility of delivery.
Instead of using Parenting Journey’s Pre/Post Survey to measure impact, PJ is prioritizing the following to track this innovative format:
- Weekly structured journaling to be completed by each facilitator to track how modifications are implemented, challenges that arise in delivery and note any opportunities for change or improvement.
- Regular convening of all PJ group facilitators to share successes and receive support for things that didn’t work well.
- Brief surveys to parents about their experience of the group. PJ does not recommend using traditional pre/post tools because the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to affect baselines and post-results. Additionally, the virtual delivery may impact outcomes.
Note: Organizations may adapt tools already in use or launch a qualitative pre/post survey that is relevant to your organization’s goals.