Parents: An Evaluation Holy Grail

June 5, 2017
Laurie Browne, PhD

Greetings Camp Evaluators, and a thousand thanks for taking a minute to read about evaluation during this busy, busy precamp season. I have a topic for you that is likely very real for you right now, and will remain real throughout the summer. The topic: parents, care-givers, and other adults who are responsible for the children you serve. You know, the ones that call, email, text, show up…anything they can do to talk to you about their children. Except when it comes to surveys — then it is radio silence.

Parents and care-givers are critical to the success of camp programs, and our research shows that dealing with the adults that are responsible for campers is an emerging issue for camps today. Camp directors who responded to the 2017 Emerging Issues Survey shared these challenges:

  • Addressing parents’ concerns about health and safety
  • Communicating with parents (and mitigating overcommunication)
  • Engaging parents in precamp screening and dialogue so campers come to camp prepared
  • Competing for parents’ discretionary dollars

Evaluation can help camps address these issues, and the start of the camp season is the perfect time to think about how to effectively gather information from parents. Parent surveys are not new to most camps: Over 80% of camps regularly administer parent surveys of some kind, but oftentimes parents do not respond to the survey, or they do not provide information that camps can use to improve their programs.

This is why evaluating parents is a holy grail — a mythical source of knowledge that remains just out of reach. This is not to suggest that evaluating parents is impossible. It is simply something elusive. Only the right questions, asked at the right time, and to the right people will yield the information we need for effective decision making. But this holy grail is within reach, and the journey begins with three simple steps you can take this summer.

Engage Your Evaluation Champions

You likely interact with a wide variety of parents throughout the camp season:  helicopter parents, disgruntled parents, anxious parents, free-range parents. And it is likely these parents (or their children!) who demand most of your attention. Unfortunately, your satisfied, appropriately engaged parents are not likely on your radar. However, these are the parents that might be your Evaluation Champions.

Parents who enroll their children session after session, who offer kind words to camp staff at drop off and pick up, who attend camp events and recommend camp to their friends are your secret weapon in your quest of the Parent Evaluation Holy Grail. There are three specific ways your Evaluation Champions can help you get useful evaluation information:

  1. They can participate in a one-on-one interview or a focus group about their experiences with your camp: Why they chose your camp; their perceptions of the enrollment process, staff, and programs; and areas of improvement. Make this interview session short and convenient (immediately after drop-off or right before pick-up, or even over the phone). And offer a small thank you, such as a camp water bottle or small discount. Use what you learned as the framework for a short survey that you send to all parents at the end of each session.
  2. They can talk to their friends about what works and doesn’t work for parent surveys and share recommendations with you. Parents fill out surveys all the time — for schools, sport programs, medical services, hotel stays — so they know what makes them likely to fill out a survey or delete it from their inbox. As an insider, so to speak, your parent Evaluation Champion is likely to get honest information about when, where, and how parents are most likely to fill out a survey.
  3. They can spread the word. You’ve heard the camp expression “It only takes a spark to get a fire going"; so true with surveys, if that spark is lit by a great champion. Your Champion can encourage other parents to complete your parent survey in a number of ways — through their social networks or by chatting with other parents at drop-off or pick-up. Offer your Champion a small thank you to light the spark so more parents will complete the survey with useful information.

Focus, Focus, Focus

People do not fill out surveys for two reasons:  (1) the survey is too long, and/or (2) they believe the results will not be used for anything meaningful. So, another important step you can take this summer is to narrow the focus of an existing survey, or chose a single focus for a new survey you plan to develop. Instead of asking parents questions about the registration process, their child’s counselor, the activities, and their overall satisfaction with the program, chose just one of these areas. Look to your program goals or priorities, and ask parents 3 to 5 questions about that one thing. Then, tell them how you will use their responses to address that single priority.

Or, try something different: Ask parents to rate their child’s growth at camp. ACA’s Youth Outcomes Battery Parent Perceptions Tool is designed to do just that. It has short, cut-and-paste sets of questions on specific youth development outcomes, such as teamwork and friendship skills, that can be added to any parent survey. Avoid the temptation to add too many questions; the best parent surveys are 10 questions or less.

Try Something (Anything) New

By this point in the summer, you are probably planning on using an existing parent survey or you’ve already designed a new parent survey you will use for the first time.  Or perhaps you have not thought at all about evaluating your parents. Wherever you are with evaluation, one thing you can do to move one step closer to that evaluation holy grail is to try something new, even if it is very small. 

Here are some ideas:

  • Edit your existing survey so half of the surveys ask parents to provide their name and half do not. Give them out randomly this summer, then compare the results.
  • Cut your survey in half. Aim for 10 questions or less.
  • If you use an online survey, try a paper survey (have parents fill it out at pick-up…offer small thank you, like a raffle ticket for a camp t-shirt, for completing it onsite). If you use a paper survey, try moving it online (incentives are especially important here!).
  • As a Parent Champion to edit an existing survey or generate 5 questions for a new survey.
  • Survey different groups of parents about different things — but keep each survey short.  Make sure to explain on the survey why that group of parents is getting asked about that specific topic.
  • Add one set of outcomes questions from the YOB Parent Perceptions Tool, or use one or two sets of YOB questions to create a new tool.
  • Have a mid-summer staff meeting specifically about parent feedback. Brainstorm with frontline staff to come up with 3 creative (non-survey) ways they can get parents to provide constructive information about their experience. Put a small team of frontline staff in charge of this initiative.
  • Check out the webinar From Silence to TMI:  How to Get Useful Information from Your Parent Surveys from the ACA Professional Development Center.

Whatever you do, congratulate yourself and your team for getting one step closer to the evaluation holy grail. Parent surveys are a rich source of information, but they are tricky to do well, and especially tricky to do well consistently over time. Your journey to great parent surveys is a long one and possibly without end, so settle in and know that even small steps are steps in the right direction.

Happy evaluating!

Thanks to Chaco for their ongoing support of Research 360.