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FAST Program Builds Social Capital
FAST Program Builds Social Capital

Lynn McDonald
Lynn McDonald

December 2005

Children perform better in school when their families are supportive and when their parents are involved in school-related activities. Schools offer many ways for parents to get involved in their children’s experience. The traditional method, known as the parent outreach model, places the school at the center, and focuses on bringing the parents into the circle of school resources. It emphasizes the central role of the school and presumes that this role will be supported by the parents.

UW-Madison’s Lynn McDonald has found remarkable results, however, by turning this model on its head. McDonald, a senior scientist at WCER, developed Families and Schools Together (FAST), a program that places parents at the center and helps them to establish their own support system around themselves. Like children, parents need strong relationships, including strong family relationships, relationships with other parents, relationships with the resources of the school, and relationships with community resources.

FAST uses a relationship-based model, rather than a curriculum-based model. Its tenets are:

1. Each child needs a caring, long-term relationship to learn, love and be resilient.
2. Parents need support from other adults to parent successfully.
3. A healthy community needs trusting, respectful, reciprocal relationships, also known as social capital.

FAST builds social capital by creating relationships among parents and between parents and teachers. These relationships help create an environment that supports children’s positive behavior and learning.

In eight weekly multi-family group sessions, groups of 5 to 25 families attend FAST after school and participate in team-led activities. Family meals and games provide opportunities to build relationships with respect, laughter, and time together, through the weekly, participatory activities. Of families who attend once, an average of 80% complete the weekly sessions and graduate in a ceremony; the parents then shift to monthly multi-family group sessions which they themselves organize. Parents who participate in FAST get to know the other families in the program; this increases the social capital of the families and of the school.

A research base

As enjoyable as the activities are, though, they are based on solid research. Applying theories of family stress, family systems, and social ecology of child development, each FAST activity was designed with findings from mental health research in mind. It has been shown, for example, that family stress is buffered by social support; social support can also strengthen the cohesion of families, and reduce family conflict.

The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration identified the FAST program as an evidence-based model. FAST has been replicated for 15 years in more than 800 sites, in 45 states, 5 countries, and five Indian nations. From 1990 to 2000, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction awarded $10 million in state funds to 110 Wisconsin school districts.

Each first implementation of FAST requires training of the local parent and professional collaborative team; repeat implementations of FAST require evaluations of outcomes and process, including quantitative and qualitative data. Teams self-assess, parent graduates provide their feedback, and trainers oversee the implementation of core components for site certification. The nonprofit organization FAST National ( provides training.

In a recent presentation for the 2005 annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, McDonald and graduate student Jen Sandler compared two (see references) randomized controlled trials of FAST: one for the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI), involving rural American Indian families; and a second for the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), involving urban, African-American and Latino families. Findings show that traditional, positive parent outreach does matter. But FAST, as an example of systemic relationship-based parent involvement, is moderately more effective than standard parent outreach


From 1988 through 2002 the average FAST cycle graduated 10 families. (FAST National Training Center requires each multifamily group to graduate at least 5 families to be a certified FAST site.) Each family is called a ‘hub.’ From 2002 through 2004, FAST piloted and replicated multi-hub FAST programs in 20 elementary schools throughout Wisconsin. This model enables universal access across kindergarten/first grade classes.

The benefits of FAST were found to be lasting. Schools reported that high parent involvement rates were maintained. Parents and teachers reported improved relationships across home and community. Teachers noticed improvement in children’s classroom behaviors in just eight weeks and at 1-2 years follow-up, teachers reported academic performance in the classroom favoring FAST vs. the control/comparison group.

McDonald plans an experimental design research on multi-hub FAST to determine whether FAST builds social capital at the school level. She also plans a review of parent involvement intervention research, to compare the outcomes of positive parent outreach parent involvement strategies to systemic relationship-based parent involvement strategies.

For more information, visit the FAST web site.

See also “Families And Schools Together: An Experimental Analysis Of A Parent-Mediated Multi-Family Group Program For American Indian Children,” by Thomas R. Kratochwill, Lynn McDonald, Joel R. Levin, Holly Young Bear-Tibbetts, and Michelle K. Demaray, Journal of School Psychology, Vol. 42, No. 5, September-October 2004, pp. 359-383.