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Recognizing the importance of stable, supportive families for the healthy development of children, the federal government has supported healthy marriage and relationship education (HMRE) programs for more than two decades. Many questions remain about how best to serve participants in these programs. The Office of Family Assistance (OFA) and the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation (OPRE), both within the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), are committed to building the evidence base to strengthen both HMRE and responsible fatherhood programming. To systematically identify current gaps in the knowledge base for these programs, ACF undertook the Fatherhood, Relationships, and Marriage – Illuminating the Next Generation of Research (FRAMING Research) project.
On June 25, 2019, ACF convened the first meeting of the FRAMING Research HMRE technical work group. The group included research experts on relationships, marriage, and HMRE programming, as well as HMRE practitioner experts. This brief describes the discussion at the meeting, which focused on three topics: (1) the effects of HMRE programs on child well-being, (2) increasing participation rates in HMRE programs, and (3) strengthening HMRE programming for low-income unmarried couples. These topics emerged from the project team’s review of the relevant literature and discussions with ACF about agency priorities. The day concluded with technical work group members participating in a brainstorming session on HMRE research priorities.
Key Findings and Highlights
- HMRE programs and child well-being. A central motivation for federally funded HMRE programming is to improve children’s well-being. When discussing HMRE programs and child well-being, TWG members’ key points included:
- Research on the effects of HMRE programs on children should examine a broad range of measures.
- Researchers should focus on outcomes that HMRE programs are most likely to affect directly and within the study follow-up period.
- Research should examine whether parents use the communication skills they learn in HMRE classes with their children and whether they teach these skills to their children.
- Qualitative research on HMRE programs could document the community and cultural context in which these programs operate and explore how structural determinants of poverty and health could influence program effectiveness.
- Increasing participation rates in HMRE programs. For HMRE programs to be effective, participants must have substantial exposure to them. However, achieving high rates of participation can be a challenge for these programs. When discussing this issue, TWG members noted that:
- Program staff should be immersed in the issues that participants face in their daily lives. Participants are drawn to programs in which staff demonstrate empathy and an understanding of their circumstances.
- Programs should aim to be highly responsive to participants. A lengthy lapse in follow-up could adversely affect participation.
- Program staff should work to promote group cohesiveness because this can encourage regular attendance.
- Incentives can be an effective tool to promote program participation, but programs should balance their use with other strategies for encouraging attendance.
- Strengthening HMRE programming for unmarried couples of low income. Recent research has suggested that HMRE programs have been more successful in improving outcomes for married couples than for unmarried couples. When discussing this pattern, TWG members noted:
- Low-income unmarried couples with children have diverse relationship circumstances with differing levels of commitment.
- For some low-income unmarried couples, their parenting relationship came before they had both committed to their couple relationship. This kind of start can make it hard for the couple relationship to succeed.
- It can be a distraction for some unmarried couples with children to focus on maintaining the romantic relationship rather than focusing solely on fostering a good co-parenting relationship.
- Future HMRE research priorities. TWG members identified three top priorities for future work, which included:
- Refine how HMRE programs address child outcomes; target research more directly on the child outcomes these programs aim to address.
- Examine grantee organizations’ capacity to implement HMRE programming successfully.
- Conduct formative research on how to provide HMRE services to couples in a mix of relationship circumstances.
Wood, Robert G. “Highlights from the First FRAMING Research Healthy Marriage Technical Work Group.” OPRE Report 2020-87. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020.