Program Goals/Target Population
The Better Futures program is designed to increase higher education participation among youths in foster care who have mental health conditions. Eligible participants are those 1) in the guardianship of the state foster care system, 2) living within the project’s geographic area, 3) in high school or a GED program and 1 or 2 years away from completion of secondary education, 4) identified as experiencing a significant mental health condition (defined by receiving special education services for an emotional disability, taking psychotropic medication, living in a therapeutic setting, or receiving mental health counseling), and 5) if living in a locked facility, must be allowed to leave the facility with project staff to participate in program activities. Additionally, they must indicate that they are not opposed to exploring college or vocational school options, and that they have not yet applied.
The Better Futures program is delivered over a 10-month period and consists of three components: 1) a 4-day, 3-night Summer Institute on a university campus, 2) individual, bimonthly peer-coaching sessions in identifying and pursuing self-defined postsecondary and related goals, and 3) five mentoring workshops with peer coaches and professionals with expertise in foster care, mental health, and postsecondary education. The intervention begins with one or two peer-coaching meetings to orient participants to the intervention and help them generate initial thoughts about postsecondary education.
During the Summer Institute, youths live in university dorms and participate in a variety of experiences with near peers, college or vocational education representatives, and other professionals. They may take part in informational sessions, activities (e.g., tours of the university and/or community college campus), and facilitated discussions of higher education preparation, mental health, accommodation needs, and transition resources. Speakers include successful college students with lived experience in foster care and/or with mental health issues and professionals from the local child welfare agency, school district, community college, and university. Peer coaches provide informal debriefing and coaching to youths after informational sessions and they may additionally connect informally during evening social activities. At the conclusion of the Summer Institute, youths share their short-term goals for the coming months and identify activities to work on with their peer coaches during the remainder of the program. A permanent peer coach is then assigned to each youth based on the youth’s interests and personality. A formal graduation and certificate ceremony also provides an opportunity for youths to experience positive recognition for their participation.
Following the Summer Institute, the peer coach meets with the youth’s caseworker and/or foster parent to provide an in-depth orientation to the coaching process, confirm contact information, establish a meeting schedule, and answer questions. Coaching sessions usually take place during unscheduled time at school or a neighborhood location of the youth’s choosing. These individualized, one-on-one peer-coaching sessions occur approximately twice a month for 9 months, with an average of 90 minutes per meeting (a minimum of 27 hours total). Coaches support youths in working toward their goals and managing barriers, including identifying postsecondary goals, strategies, and supports to reach these goals, discussing solutions to barriers, and carrying out activities needed to achieve goals. Coaches also support youths’ engagement in 17 activities considered central to successful postsecondary preparation (e.g., visiting a college or vocational program, reviewing a high school transcript). They also help youths in applying 11 self-determination skills (e.g., identifying personal strengths, exploring future dreams). Coaching sessions can also be supplemented by periodic texting, phone calls, and social network communications. Because peer coaching is tailored to the individual needs of each youth, coaches keep track of the skills and experiences introduced to the youths, the nature of their interactions, and how key elements of the intervention are being implemented (relationship, didactic, and experiential). In addition, coaches and youth discuss and prepare for the program to end.
Five workshops are organized by peer coaches and other project staff. Youths are asked to attend at least four of the five workshops, to provide them with some scheduling flexibility. Mentoring workshops bring together youths and their coaches for discussions and experiences around relevant topics, including an overview of the college application process, review of the senior timeline for college application activities, mental health and self-care, and transition services and resources. All of the workshops also include foster care alumni and/or professionals who present information on a given workshop topic, help youths with activities such as scholarship and college admission essay writing; and provide opportunities for informal networking while participating in a fun activity (e.g., dining and bowling).
An intervention manager provides program oversight as well as training, ongoing supervision, and support to peer coaches and other staff. Peer coaching is provided by young adults (under the age of 28) who are in higher education. In addition to providing one-on-one coaching to youths, peer coaches facilitate workshops and assist with the Summer Institute. Peer coaches are recruited from the local university and/or community college, and receive about 40 hours of initial training in a variety of areas, including foster care, mental health, secondary education, postsecondary issues, support strategies, and resources related to accessing higher education. Coaches participate in weekly individual and group supervision meetings and ongoing telephone support, which is facilitated by the intervention manager. Important qualifications for peer coaches include shared experience with program participants around foster care and/or mental health, experience as a postsecondary student, and positive perspectives regarding the value of postsecondary education (Phillips et al. 2015). Coaches need to be able to provide a consistent, accepting, strengths-based, and transparent relationship presence.
The Better Futures program is grounded in self-determination theory, which posits that an individual’s motivation, behavioral self-regulation, personality development, and well-being are influenced by an inherent predisposition for growth and integration as well as the satisfaction of basic psychological needs for competence, relatedness, and autonomy (Ryan and Deci 2000). By providing supportive conditions that enhance participants’ motivational tendencies and satisfy their psychological needs (e.g., support from older peer coaches, information and experiential activities that support learning and success related to higher education goals, and self-determination skills development), the program is expected to enhance participants’ self-determination (defined as ”having the power to make decisions, to direct one’s actions, to affiliate with chosen allies, and to exercise rights and responsibilities”) related to higher education goals.
The findings from the study by Geenen and colleagues (2015) showed that youths who received the Better Futures intervention had significantly more favorable change over time on measures of self-determination, youth efficacy/empowerment, quality of life, hopelessness, career decision/self-efficacy, barriers to education, postsecondary preparation, and transition planning than those who did not receive the intervention. However, there were no significant differences between the intervention and control groups on measures of self-determination, mental health recovery, and quality of life.
ARC Self-Determination Scale
Youths in the intervention group had significantly more favorable change on the ARC self-determination scale from Time 1 (baseline) to Time 4 (approximately 16 months after baseline), compared with youths in the control group (the associated effect size indicated an impact of medium to large magnitude).
AIR Self-Determination Scale
Youths in the intervention group did not differ significantly from youths in the control group in change on the AIR self-determination scale from Time 1 to Time 4.
Youth Efficacy/Empowerment Scale-Mental Health
Youths in the intervention group had significantly more favorable change on the measure of youth efficacy/empowerment from Time 1 to Time 4, compared with youths in the control group (the associated effect size indicated an impact of a large magnitude).
Mental Health Recovery
Youths in the intervention group did not differ significantly from youths in the control group in change on the measure of mental health recovery from Time 1 to Time 4.
Quality of Life Scale
Youths in the intervention group did not differ significantly from youths in the control group in changes on the measure of quality of life from Time 1 to Time 4.
The Hopelessness Scale
Youths in the intervention group had significantly more favorable change on the measure of hopelessness from Time 1 to Time 4, compared with youths in the control group (the associated effect size indicated an impact of a large magnitude).
Career Decision Self-Efficacy Scale
Youths in the intervention group had significantly more favorable change on the measure of career decision self-efficacy from Time 1 to Time 4, compared with youths in the control group (the associated effect size indicated an impact of a large magnitude).
Assessing Barriers to Education
Youths in the intervention group had significantly more favorable change on the measure of barriers to education from Time 1 to Time 4, compared with youths in the control group (the associated effect size indicated an impact of a large magnitude).
Postsecondary Preparation Scale
Youths in the intervention group had significantly more favorable change on the measure of postsecondary preparation from Time 1 to Time 4, compared with youths in the control group (the associated effect size indicated an impact of a large magnitude).
Transition Planning Assessment
Youths in the intervention group had significantly more favorable change on the measure of transition planning from Time 1 to Time 4, compared with youths in the control group (the associated effect size indicated an impact of a large magnitude).
Geenen and colleagues (2014) studied the effects of the Better Futures intervention on youth outcomes using a randomized control design. A list of eligible study participants (those in foster care within the study’s target area and in the approximate age range for high school) and information on their placement type, mental health services, prescribed medications, and confirmed DSM-IV diagnosis was generated by the state foster care program and cross-referenced with the school district’s data to confirm youths’ grade level and special education status. Youths identified as having a mental health condition were contacted, with the caseworker’s approval, to assess their interest in meeting with program staff to learn more about the program and confirm eligibility.
Upon assent/consent to participate in the study, youths completed baseline assessments and were randomized into intervention (n=36) and control (n=31) groups. The intervention group participated in the three program components: 1) a 4-day, 3-night Summer Institute on a university campus, 2) monthly one-on-one peer coaching sessions, and 3) four to five mentoring workshops. Youths in the control group received typical services (community as usual), including supports available to all youths (e.g., a guidance counselor at school), and specific to youths in foster care (e.g., Independent Living Program) and youths with mental health conditions (e.g., therapy). Following the baseline assessment, youths in both groups completed three additional assessments: after the Summer Institute (approximately 1 month post-enrollment), following conclusion of the intervention (10 months after enrollment), and after a 6-month post-intervention follow-along period (16 months after enrollment).
About half of the study participants (52.2 percent) were female, and the average age was 16.8 years. The race/ethnicity of the study participants was 41.7 percent white, 23.9 percent Native American, 9.4 percent African American, 4.5 percent Hispanic, 1.5 percent Asian, and 9.0 percent multiethnic. There were no statistically significant differences between the intervention and control groups on baseline characteristics.
Outcome data was collected from multiple sources. Information about youths’ foster care experiences (e.g., placement change) was gathered from the state’s child welfare electronic database. School data (e.g., grade, special education eligibility) was obtained from the school district’s electronic database and copies of student transcripts. Information about receipt of developmental disability services was obtained from the county program providing those services. Finally, information on demographics (e.g., age, ethnicity, sex), educational, employment, living status, medication, and mental health services was gathered through youth self-report. Youths also completed measures assessing self-determination, mental health, and postsecondary planning.
To enhance reliability and validity, multiple measures were used for these outcomes. More specifically, self-determination was assessed using the Arc Self-Determination Scale and the American Institutes for Research’s (AIR’s) Self-Determination Scale; mental health was assessed using the Youth Empowerment Scale-Mental Health, a youth-tailored version of Mental Health Recovery Measure and the Youth Self-Report; quality of life was assessed using the Quality of Life Questionnaire; hope was assessed using the Hopelessness Scale for Children; and postsecondary and transition planning was assessed using the Career Decision Self-Efficacy Scale, the Assessing Barriers to Education Scale, and the Transition Planning Assessment. Additionally, a postsecondary preparation questionnaire, used in a previous study of the educational outcomes of self-determination enhancement, was expanded to include 24 key activities associated with preparing for and applying to college (e.g., completing FAFSA, touring a college campus, submitting a college application). Total scores were used for each scale, with higher scores representing more favorable outcomes with the exception of the Assessing Barriers to Education Scale and the Hopelessness Scale, for which higher scores indicated greater barriers or hopelessness.
Linear and nonlinear mixed (fixed and random) model analyses were used to assess differences in outcomes by condition (intervention versus control), time (T1, T2, T3, and T4), and condition by time, controlling for age and gender.