Educator Lynn McDonald knows that sometimes the simplest ideas work best. Her much-heralded program, FAST (Families and Schools Together) demonstrates that if parents spend 15 minutes of undivided time every day with each of their children, remarkable changes can occur.
"Parents report that this makes an amazing difference in their lives," says Linda Wheeler, director of FAST at the Alliance for Children and Families. "This is very, very powerful for children because the child feels understood and gets to be in charge."
The program also adheres to the simple premise that parents know their children best, says Ms. McDonald, head of FAST/International in Milwaukee and senior research scientist for FAST training at Edgewood College in Madison, Wis.
"This is quite different from clinicians who think parents need to be taught parenting skills or who believe in treatment or intervention," says Peter Kirkup, school program manager for the Family Service Agency in Sacramento, Calif.
FAST is not therapy, treatment, or teaching. Behind each eight or 10-week program at a school is a collaborative team of professionals forming a partnership between the school, community agencies, and the families.
"In other programs, a lot of lip service goes to this kind of collaboration," says Mr. Kirkup, "but I've never seen a program that establishes such standards with measurable outcomes of success."
FAST offers a structured approach using specific games, one-on-one sharing, families eating together, music and singing, talking shop among parents, and joining in group activities. The point is to target young children and their families before problem behavior becomes violent or someone turns to drugs, which renders help costly and can make change nearly impossible.
Several follow-up studies by FAST and government agencies praise the program's effectiveness in improving classroom and home behavior of children, family closeness, involvement by parents in the school, parental self-sufficiency, and reducing social isolation.
"I would say that the 15 minutes of 'special play' in the program is the heart of FAST," says Lana Jewett, the FAST coordinator for the Burnett Institute for Children and Youth at San Diego State University.
"Special play" means that for an uninterrupted 15 minutes, a child has his or her parent's nonjudgmental attention in child-initiated play. Parents are coached to follow the child's lead and not teach or direct the play.
"We ask that they do this at home, too," says Ms. Wheeler. "Usually one or two families are successful at this the first week, and they come back and tell the others, 'You can't imagine how special play is working. Every day my child knows he will get [at least] 15 minutes, and they let me talk on the phone now.' "
Every weekly program at a school - always with the FAST collaborative team on hand - begins with each family placing its homemade flag on the table. Each member has contributed something to the flag. "This tells the family we are one, we are whole," says McDonald.
One of the families prepares a meal, which is served by the children. "Because a lot of families don't eat together at home," says McDonald, "this supports the family as a unit."
After the meal, singing leads to "Scribbles," a draw-and-talk game where family members draw shapes and then describe them. Says one parent of the game, "I can't draw, but I found out my children didn't care as long as we were drawing together."
Next, prompted by cards with faces, parents and children act out certain feelings without using words. Within a few weeks, children and parents are asked what made them feel a certain way, and what they did about it.
A 45-minute parent-group time is designed to help foster friendships and serve as a support network for parents. At the same time the children get some run-around exercise away from their parents followed by structured play.
Next comes the all-important 15 minutes of special play between parent and child.
Following this, the group determines who cooks the meal for the next meeting, and this family wins a basket of prizes including a toaster oven or a blanket, etc., and appropriate toys for children.
"Because every family eventually wins," says McDonald, "one of the lessons here is that waiting your turn results in a prize."
Finally, the evening ends with all families gathered in a circle for "Rain," a nonverbal exercise of finger snapping, thigh clapping, and feet stomping that rises and falls until the sun symbolically comes out as everyone raises hands over heads.
"This fosters a feeling of closeness, safety, and unity," says McDonald.
FAST allows parents to experience change from within each family's differing needs. "I was pretty isolated as a young mother," says Tammy Conrad, who went through FAST with two children in Madison, Wis., and is now a FAST trainer with a master's degree in marriage and family therapy.
"My husband and I married young, so we were children raising children," she says. "But FAST changed our lives, and as a family we are much closer. And I am more of a person in control and in charge of my destiny."
After completion of the eight- or 10-week program during the school year, many parents take the next step and join FASTWORKS and go on to meet once a month for two years, including summers.
Criticism of FAST usually centers on the cost of reaching the families and the intense staff training. Training stretches over four months and costs a school or agency $3,900 plus travel and expenses.
FAST receives funding from a number of government agencies and private foundations. The DeWitt Wallace Reader's Digest Fund has given $2.4 million for national replication through the Alliance for Children and Families. In turn, the alliance has helped local agencies raise $21 million to fund FAST.
"Other programs have a one-day training session and say 'good luck,' " says McDonald. "We get highly predictable outcomes because we take the time to make site visits, so FAST fits and adapts to local issues and the differences in schools."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society