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Theories & Approaches
Focus Group Facilitator Guidelines Parent-Child Connectedness Focus Groups
These guidelines are divided into the following sections:
General Guidelines for the Facilitator
- The Exploratory Nature of PCC Focus Groups
These focus groups are "exploratory." That is, the two research questions on which the protocols are based are broad, resulting in protocol questions that are designed to yield diverse and unanticipated responses. If the facilitator skips or eliminates questions, we may be losing out on comments from participants that we want. Therefore, we would prefer it if facilitators did not skip questions unless the group is running very short on time or the facilitator is absolutely convinced that the dynamics of the group make a question unworkable (e.g., not enough trust has been built to expect honest answers to a highly sensitive question.)
- Maximize the Number of Responses to Each Question
We would like responses to as many questions as possible, from as many participants as possible. Toward this end:
- We have tried to limit the number of questions and to avoid redundancy.
- Facilitators are asked to make pacing a priority. Please keep the conversation moving and be politely re-directive when participants ramble, or go off on long tangents.
- As a goal, we would like facilitators to try to get responses from at least half of the participants of a given focus group before moving on to a new question. (However, this goal is subject to the facilitator's judgment regarding time, or whether a question simply isn't "working" for a particular group.)
- Facilitators should use standard techniques for increasing participation (e.g. round robin — asking members of the group to answer the question using a limited number of words, and then going back and opening the "floor" to more extensive commentary from group members once everyone has spoken.)
- Facilitator "Judgment Calls"
During focus groups, facilitators will be in the position to make judgment calls regarding the pacing and direction of the focus group at any given time.
Examples of judgment calls that facilitators will make include, but are not limited to:
- How to build rapport with the group
- How to make space for all members of the group to participate on a roughly equitable basis
- When and how to lead any given participant to finish their comment
- When and how to clarify comments that are unclear
- When to ask for an illustrative example
- When and how to reflect, paraphrase or summarize a participant's comment
- When to move on to a new question
Suggestions for Facilitation
- Approach Focus Group Facilitation Openly
Two approaches are essential to facilitating focus groups. The first is being a "blank slate." This means approaching the focus group with an open mind and as few preconceptions as possible about what participants are likely to say or not say. The other essential approach is to be aware of your potential biases as a facilitator. Differences in race/ethnicity, class/SES and education levels between the facilitator and participants can bring unforeseen biases to how a facilitator runs a focus group.
- Maximize the Physical Environment
It is important to try to choose or set up a physical space for the focus group that is going to feel welcoming and comfortable to the participants (e.g., comfortable chairs, comfortable room temperature, adequate lighting, relatively free of distracting noises). If selection of the space, or its set-up, is not under the facilitator's control, he or she can still assess the space for its potential impact on participants and try to modify the space or adjust facilitation to compensate for any shortcomings.
- Be Warm, but Value-neutral
In order to avoid "leading" participants with any reaction to their comments, we suggest that reactions be warm but value-neutral. We suggest using information-seeking (e.g., "tell me more about that…"), clarifying (e.g., "can you explain what you mean?") and acknowledging (e.g., "I hear what you are saying…") as ways of being value-neutral.
- Tell Participants "They're the Experts"
It is important to convey to participants in focus groups that they are the experts and that the focus group facilitator and other staff have come to learn from them and get information from them. This approach empowers participants, helps them feel a sense of purpose and helps eliminate any barriers that may arise as a result of differences between participants and focus group staff.
- Be Careful with Empathetic Responses
Caring natures and professional training may lead facilitators to want to make empathetic statements. These statements, while generous, may lead participants to believe that there are "right" answers, and to seek approval. Based on what we saw in the pilot, empathetic responses also tend to extend a participant's response, as he or she thanks the facilitator, or reacts to her or his empathetic response.
- Be Comfortable with Silence
It is also important to us that facilitators be very comfortable with silence and "pregnant pauses." When facilitators DO NOT jump in to fill space quickly, we believe that it contributes to the "value-neutral" quality of facilitation, helps prevent directing participants too much and gives participants time to consider the question. Some participants may participate who wouldn't if they didn't have time (a ten count) to consider the question before they speak.
- Frequently Repeat Key Phrases from the Question
We noticed in the focus group pilot that participants tended to lose the focus of the question after 2-3 other participants had responded to it. We suggest repeating key phrases from the question at strategic times, or asking participants to link their responses to key terms in the question, when they begin to move away from the "heart" of the question.
- Use Summary to Facilitate Closure
Summarizing a participant's response and using a vocal inflection that signifies closure was used effectively during the pilot to move the discussion along or open the floor to a new participant's comment.
- Ask Only One Question at a Time
Don't ask more than one question at the same time, even if those questions, or parts of a question, go together. In the pilot, participants could not remember several questions all at once, and asking multiple questions seemed to make it hard for them to know where to start.
- Consider Following a Full "Train of Thought" with Each Participant
Several of our questions have multiple parts that lead a participant from their own experience to generalizing that experience to others and then finally to using that generalization to suggest things that should be done about a condition or situation (e.g., ideas for intervention activities.) Although these multiple parts are written in the protocol as separate questions, our pilot group facilitator often addressed the whole series of questions to a single participant. This technique seemed to work well when a participant was "on a roll" with an idea. Addressing the whole series of questions to them seemed conducive to tapping into the full richness of their comments.
Similarly, a facilitator may judge that she or he can achieve the same effect by combining two or three separate questions into a series and addressing that series to single participants. Choosing to address an entire multi-part question, or a small series of questions, to single participants should always be balanced with the need to keep all members of the group feeling involved.
- Ask About Participants' Aspirations
Going beyond questions about participant's current knowledge and condition and asking them about their aspirations can yield rich responses. People tend to rise to expectations, so asking them to look beyond apparent limits can identify important possibilities. This technique is similar to the "Magic Wand" question described below.
Additional Guidelines for Teen Groups
Our pilot focus groups also suggested some guidelines and techniques that were specific to conducting the focus group with teens:
- Use Reflection to Build Rapport
Reflecting key words that participants used in a recent comment, without changing or interpreting, especially when segueing to a new question, appeared in the pilot to be effective at building rapport with the teens and making them feel listened to.
- Try the "Magic Wand" Question
A standard focus group probe, called the "Magic Wand" question worked well with the pilot group teens helping them imagine how they would like things in their lives to be different. The format of this question is, "If you had a magic wand, how would you change that (condition/situation)?"
- Help Them Remember the Heart of the Question
It seemed especially important with our pilot teens to repeat the question periodically to keep them focused on key ideas. More so than with the parent groups, the teens tended to get off track if their comments were following several previous comments.
- With Teens, "Silence is Golden"
It seemed especially important with our pilot teens that our facilitator be comfortable with silence and not jump in too quickly to direct. We believe that the teens are likely to be particularly sensitive to the influence of the facilitator because of potential power/authority relations inherent in an adult/teen dynamic.
- Teens Talk in "Shortcuts" that Need Clarification
Teen groups are more likely to need prompts from the facilitator to clarify or operationalize their comments. Teens often use slang terms with connotations that they understand, but adults won't. Teens often give short, staccato answers in which they load single terms with a lot of nuance and meaning. For example, if a teen talks about "respect," that concept is likely to need further explanation, using follow-up questions like:
- "What does 'respect' mean to you?"
- "How do you know when someone is giving you respect?"
- "What does 'respect' look like in your family?"
- "Can you give me an example of how you show respect to your mom?"
- Teens May Not Be Able to Design Our Program
In the pilot, we found that questions about the kinds of intervention activities that they thought would help parents and their teenagers increase closeness or connection were challenging for youth. They appeared to have a difficult time pulling program elements "out of the air." We think these types of questions may be too general and unsupported for most teens.