Going to Great Lengths To Keep Parents On Board

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Susan B. Dell talks about standing on a street corner in a housing project at sundown, just to get the phone number of someone who has moved away.

Susan B. Dell talks about standing on a street corner in a housing project at sundown, just to get the phone number of someone who has moved away.

She has driven for hours just to get a parent to sign a consent form or to fill out a survey. And she's offered reluctant parents cash if they'll just answer a few questions over the phone.

That's how important it is to her, and to the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, that parents stay involved in the project.

"I've really been taking the time to just hang out with the moms," says Dell, who is the site coordinator for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's study at the University of Virginia here and is the only person at this location who has known the children in the sample since they were born.

When 1,364 families were recruited for the study at two local hospitals in 1991, researchers expected to follow the children only until they were 3 years old. Now most of the 1,100 children who remain in the sample are entering 4th grade, and the researchers are going to great lengths to keep them.

"There is some burnout" among the families, Dell says. "But I try to enroll them in the overall vision of this thing."

Coordinators such as Dell have been told to track down any child who was first visited at 1 month old but has since dropped out, with an eye to persuading the family to rejoin the study.

So she's used her detective skills to find families that have moved to other states, even to other countries. She also tries to work out compromises in situations where the children are no longer interested in participating.

"I say, 'We'll just do the parent stuff,'" she says. "I try to get them not to back out completely."

The Charlottesville study office set up a toll-free telephone number to make it easier for the families to call the researchers, a suggestion Dell has made to the other nine sites involved in the study. There's even been talk of giving electronic pagers to some of the hard- to-reach parents.

But Dell has also been told by some mothers never to call them again.

Participation Seen as Plus

Parents, the researchers say, are often enthusiastic about such studies when their children are young and the challenge of raising a child is new. But as the children grow, it becomes more difficult to squeeze home visits and study-related trips to the lab around such activities such as lessons, sports, and other family commitments.

One mother involved in the project says that her daughter's nine years as a research subject has been only a minor inconvenience.

She appreciates the efforts the study team has exerted to make her and her daughter feel important, such as the yearly birthday cards and the video they made of her daughter when she was younger. Parents also receive a newsletter to keep them updated on the progress of the study.

Participating in the study, the mother says, has taught her a lot about her daughter and has been reassuring to her as a parent.

Her daughter says she hasn't grown tired of the activities yet, but she's not sure she wants a researcher following her when she's in high school.

"It's fun, but sometimes I want to go to my friend's house," says the girl, who cannot be identified by name.

She says one of her favorite tasks was when the researchers wanted to test her patience by offering her a small pile of M&M candies right away or a larger pile when the session was over.

"I got under the table so I wouldn't have to look at the M&Ms," she says.

Money Used as Motivator

Some families, Dell says, have grasped the overall importance of the project: Their cooperation, they realize, could guide educational policy in the future.

Others, she says, are badly in need of the small payments they receive along the way. Checks ranging from $30 to $50 are given to the parents each time they fill out a survey, allow someone into their home, or answer some questions over the phone. For poorer families, the NICHD tries to make the payments "more meaningful," says Sarah L. Friedman, the scientific coordinator of the project at NICHD.

This is also the first year that children in the sample will receive money. When they wear a small device around their waists to monitor their activity for a week—and promise not to get it wet or let someone else wear it—they receive $25.

Elise Townsend, a research specialist here, says that when she gives the children the activity monitors, she tries to "present it in a way so that they think they're special agents."

The children are also now being asked to sign their own consent forms before participating in certain aspects of the project.

"I think," Townsend says, "that this is going to be as much about keeping the kids happy as it has been about keeping the parents happy."

Vol. 19, Issue 42, Page 44

Published in Print: July 12, 2000, as Going to Great Lengths To Keep Parents On Board
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