February 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA4

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Colorado and North Dakota Strengthening Marriage and Family Programs Increase Positive Family Functioning Levels

State specialists collaborated in Colorado and North Dakota to determine which educational programs work best with whom. They developed, delivered, and evaluated five different educational programs with 13 different audiences. They used the new Cooperative Extension Program Evaluation survey (CEPES) which provides program results on behavioral changes, tax dollars support, family coping, quality of life, self-esteem, stress, and depression levels. All programs resulted in positive behavioral changes and tax dollar support. Only one program provided higher-level positive family functioning improvements. Participants reported significant increases in self-esteem levels and positive changes on four other variables. The results suggest which program worked best and provide evidence for the use of CEPES by other Extension professionals.

Robert J. Fetsch
Professor and Extension Specialist
Human Development and Family Studies
Colorado State University Cooperative Extension
Fort Collins, Colorado
Internet address: fetsch@lamar.colostate.edu

Deb Gebeke
Family Science Specialist
Cooperative Extension Service
North Dakota State University
Fargo, North Dakota

Across the United States, there is a need for research-based educational programs that enhance positive family-functioning levels. Strengthening the family was ranked seventh most critical and urgent of 33 social and economic issues nationwide and first and third statewide in Colorado (Jenson & Warstadt, 1990; Weigel, Fetsch, Jenson, Yang & Rogers, 1992).

Cooperative Extension contributes to our nation by producing research-based educational programs that invite families to identify their strengths and marshal resources so they can meet family members' changing needs. Because strengthening marriages and families was a critical issue in Colorado and North Dakota, the authors provided preventive educational programs (parenting, communication, problem-solving, balancing work and family, stress and time management). Program results were evaluated via increases in positive family-functioning levels.

Program Objectives

  1. To enhance positive family-functioning levels of voluntary participants (increased self-esteem, family coping, and quality of life levels and decreased stress and depression levels).

  2. To report program results using the Cooperative Extension Program Evaluation Survey (CEPES), which provides impact data on several indicators of positive family functioning, i.e., behavioral changes, tax dollars support, and family strain, family coping, quality of life, self-esteem, stress, and depression levels (Fetsch, 1994). Validity coefficients of the three subscales by Hamilton McCubbin are reported elsewhere (Fetsch & Gebeke, 1994).

  3. To determine which marriage and family strengthening program had the best results using CEPES (Fetsch, 1994).

Program Content

Five different educational programs designed to strengthen marriage and family skills and increase family functioning levels were delivered and evaluated by the authors with 13 different audiences (N = 244). The parenting program selected for evaluation in North Dakota was "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk" (six two-hour weekly sessions in six sites) (Faber & Mazlish, 1990). The single-session programs selected for evaluation in Colorado were: (a) "Adjustment for International Trip and After Returning Home: Communication and Conflict Resolution" (2 hours); (b) "Farming or Ranching with Family Members: Communication and Problem-solving Strategies" (2.5-3 hours); (c) "Stress Management for Foster and Daycare Families" (2 hours); and (d) "Balancing Personal, Work and Family Life" (3-3.5 hours) (two sites) (Fetsch, 1989, 1991a, 1991b, 1992).

The program content of "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk" included helping children deal with their feelings, engaging cooperation, alternatives to punishment, and encouraging autonomy, praise, and freeing children from playing roles (Faber & Mazlish, 1990). Posttests were mailed to participants three-to-four months following the last session of "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk" (Faber & Mazlish, 1990). The content of each of the other four coping skill programs was created by the first author to address specific issues of the group requesting the program. Common components were: current family strengths and coping resources assessment, research-based information, practical experiential skill-building, group discussion, planning for future behavioral application of skills learned, and posttest assessment two or five months later.

All participants completed the CEPES pre-test early during the educational program (Fetsch, 1994). During the workshop, participants were instructed on how to score two subtests (family coping-coherence and quality of life). Participants were provided with national norms to learn how their scores compared with those reported by McCubbin, Olson, Lavee, and Patterson (1985), and providing norms for comparison helped to incorporate the self-assessment component into the content of the educational program and to encourage participants to complete and return posttests.

Evaluation and Impact Data

A key question in Extension programming is whether, two to five months later, participants do anything differently for the better as a result of our programs. In all 13 sites, programs resulted in positive behavioral changes. Fifty to 88% of respondents reported making one to three positive behavioral changes, with the best programs for achieving positive behavioral changes being "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk" (88%) and "Farming or Ranching with Family Members: Communication and Problem-solving Strategies Leader's Guide" (80-81%) (Faber & Mazlish, 1990; Fetsch, 1992).

Because legislators and decision makers want to know why they should continue to fund Cooperative Extension programs, we asked program participants, "Do you want your tax dollars to continue supporting this type of effort?" "Yes," said 73% to 100% of respondents--depending on which group was asked. Programs with the highest percentage favoring continued tax-dollars support were "Farming or Ranching with Family Members: Communication and Problem-solving Strategies" (100%) and "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk" (97%) (Faber & Mazlish, 1990; Fetsch, 1992).

The program with the best overall results, based on higher-level positive family-functioning improvements with 113 adults in six sites, was the "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk" parenting program (Faber & Mazlish, 1990). Self-esteem levels of participants increased significantly (p = .003) (Pretest M = 3.35, n = 113; Posttest M = 3.75, n = 75). The other four higher-level indicators of positive family functioning all changed in the desirable direction. This finding suggests a clear pattern of positive changes not found in the single-session programs:

  1. Family coping levels increased (p = .062).

  2. Quality of life levels rose (p = .157).

  3. Stress levels fell (p = .078).

  4. Depression levels fell (p = .208).


Participants in all five Cooperative Extension strengthening marriage and family programs reported positive behavioral changes two to five months later (N = 244). Evaluation data on impacts show "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk" had the best results (Faber & Mazlish, 1990). Clearly, the series with its structured format, which was about six times as long in content and practice as the others, showed positive family-functioning impacts at higher levels of analysis than any of the single-session programs. While the authors were unable to include a no-treatment control group for comparison purposes, the results suggest which program worked best. The results also provide support for the use of the CEPES instrument by Extension faculty.


We must evaluate Extension programs in a manner likely to be respected by the larger scientific community. Program objectives must be clear and measurable; educational programs must be designed to help participants achieve the objectives; and evaluation instruments must be sensitive to program effects and connected to objectives. Finally, if possible, some form of control group, pre- then post-testing, or other form of quasi-experimental assessment is needed (Weiss & Jacobs, 1988). One option is to delay treatment for one-half of the group. By pretesting the wait-list control group twice before entering the program, experimental-control group changes can be compared and more solid conclusions about program results can be made.


Faber, A., & Mazlish, E. (1990). How to talk so kids will listen & listen so kids will talk. New York: Negotiation Institute.

Fetsch, R. J. (1989). Adjustment for international trip and after returning home: Communication and conflict resolution. Unpublished manuscript.

Fetsch, R. J. (1991a). Balancing personal, work and family life. Unpublished manuscript.

Fetsch, R. J. (1991b). Stress management for foster and daycare families. Unpublished manuscript.

Fetsch, R. J. (1992). Farming or ranching with family members: Communication and problem-solving strategies leader's guide. (Available from author, Department of Human Development & Family Studies, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523.)

Fetsch, R. J. (1994). Cooperative Extension program evaluation survey: Pretest & posttest (CEPES). Unpublished surveys available to Extension faculty from author, Department of Human Development & Family Studies, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523.

Fetsch, R. J., & Gebeke, D. (1994, June). A family life program accountability tool [11632 bytes]. Journal of Extension [On- line serial], 32(1). Available E-mail: almanac@joe.org Message: send joe june 1994 feature 6

Jenson, G. O., & Warstadt, T. (1990, July). A ranking of critical issues facing American families (EC 435b). Logan: Utah State University Cooperative Extension.

McCubbin, H. I., Olson, D. H., Lavee, Y., & Patterson, J. M. (1985). The family paradigm album: Family invulnerability test stress, strengths and adaptation. (Available from Family Stress, Coping, and Health Project and Family Wellness Project, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN 55108.)

Weigel, R. R., Fetsch, R. J., Jenson, G. O., Yang, R. K., & Rogers, D. L. (1992). Issues validation: A new environmental scanning technique for family life educators. Family Relations, 41, 251-255.

Weiss, H., & Jacobs, F. (1988). Evaluating family programs. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.