Building Strong Families (BSF) Study:

The Oklahoma Family Expectations Program 15 Month Impacts

Scott M. Stanley
Co-Chair, Research Advisory Group for Family Expectations Program
Research Professor
University of Denver

I am co-chair of a group of distinguished nationally marriage and family scholars who comprise the Research Advisory Group of the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative (OMI). This group of scholars has given feedback and guidance to the OMI from its inception. As a body, we have actively advised OMI in the planning, development, and implementation of the Family Expectations program, which is the focus of the report being released today. We were strongly encouraging of the decision by OMI to participate in this large, rigorous, federal study of programs like Family Expectations. OMI has a deep commitment to continual improvement based on emerging science; the report being released today is a prime example of this commitment.

A large body of studies by scientists from many backgrounds document that children have the greatest advantages in development, maturation, and life outcomes when they are raised by their own two parents provided those parents are able to maintain relatively healthy, low-conflict relationships. This does not mean that children raised by single parents are unable to thrive nor does it mean that those raised by both their parents are guaranteed success in life. But the fact remains that children are advantaged by greater stability and quality in the relationships of their parents. This makes it an important matter of public policy to discover effective methods to increase the likelihood of young and new families succeeding.

The results of the large-scale, randomized trial of the effectiveness of the Family Expectations program in Oklahoma are exceedingly encouraging about promising practices to strengthen the relationships of low income, disadvantaged couples who are in the transition of having a child. In this, Oklahoma is making important advances in strengthening vulnerable families. Oklahoma’s Family Expectations program has been evaluated as part of a large, rigorous, federally funded study on the effectiveness of such efforts (Building Strong Families: BSF). Family Expectations demonstrated consistently positive, statistically significant impacts for the couples at the 15-month assessment point that are released in today’s report. These findings occurred in the context of the use of the most rigorous experimental methods used by research teams who specialize in such evaluations of governmental programs.

In comparison to a large control group not receiving Family Expectations, couples randomly assigned to receive Family Expectations showed better outcomes on dimensions such as the likelihood of remaining together, happiness, support and affection, fidelity, the ability to handle conflict effectively, co-parenting, and father involvement. While the size of some of the impacts was modest, the number of statistically significant, meaningful positive impacts across a wide range of outcomes is unusual to my knowledge for such initial, large-scale evaluations of experimental government programs designed to improve the quality of life. There will be longer-term follow-ups in this large federally funded study, but these results from the 15 months assessment are quite strong and highly encouraging.

The Oklahoma team excelled in getting most couples assigned to Family Expectations a substantial portion of the planned services. For example, in Oklahoma, 45% of Family Expectations couples completed 80% or more of the relationship education classes provided as part of the overall complement of services. Family Expectations’ couples completed an average of 20 hours of group, relationship education sessions. Simply put, Oklahoma was extraordinarily successful in getting couples assigned to receive the services to participate in those services. In summary, what Oklahoma did in the Family Expectations program worked. Furthermore, apart from the entire BSF study (including multiple sites), the Oklahoma site alone comprises the largest study of its type in the history of this field.

There are a wide range of factors that characterized Oklahoma’s Family Expectations program, that likely played a role in its success.

  • Family Expectations used a wide range of creative incentives (some other sites did some of this as well).
  • Family Expectations’ staff and management made the program inviting and warm.
  • Family Expectations kept people involved with large, regular, and engaging community events.
  • Family Expectations’ management regularly evaluated performance data to improve the functioning of program staff and service provision.
  • The Family Expectations’ team created a family-like connection for people who may not have it otherwise.

The most important question about the Family Expectations’ results is if they can be achieved by others. Typically, the duplication of effective services is difficult if not impossible in many similar circumstances because the services provided are poorly understood, specified, and documented. In other words, the effort cannot be repeated because another group does not have enough information to clearly specify what to do. However, the procedures developed by the team running Family Expectations are, in fact, unusually clearly and tightly documented and specified. Family Expectations utilizes highly structured procedures at every step in the program, from intake to relationship education methods to the provision of various types of guidance and support services. This fact means that other teams could follow the same practices with a high degree of fidelity, with every probability of achieving similar outcomes to those obtained in Oklahoma. However, this in no way means that the procedures of Family Expectations cannot be improved upon in the future. The model employed by Family Expectations in Oklahoma has embedded within it a deep commitment to continual improvement, in both the reach and the effectiveness of the services provided.

The encouraging conclusion from these new findings on this large federal study of Family Expectations in Oklahoma is that there are, indeed, promising practices for increasing the stability and quality of families. This is an especially exciting result when demonstrated with families that have many other disadvantages working against them as they strive to reach their own aspirations in family life.