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By: Karen Shirer

Sometimes after searching for the right family education curriculum for our target audience, we come up short. That is, we have options but they don’t suit our audience perfectly, such as military families or LBGTQ+ families. If that is the case, all is not lost. With careful thought and planning, you can “adapt” the curriculum to your intended group.

During a recent webinar, Focusing on Co-parenting: Strengthening Diverse Military Family Systems, two family education programs were highlighted — Parenting Forever and Together We Can. Neither were initially developed for military families but we discussed ways to use them with this audience. The purpose of this post is to provide tips for adapting these curricula or others not developed for military families. We will use the terms “program” and “curriculum” interchangeably in this post.

Your first step for adapting a curriculum focuses on determining if the curriculum identified is both research- and evidence-based. Research-based means that the curriculum was developed using a process of identifying skills, knowledge and attitudes from research (See example by Futris & Adler Baeder, 2013 in the resource list). The curriculum developers focused on those things that can be changed through education. Make sure the curriculum is based on credible research, and program content and activities are appropriate for the target audience.

Evidence-based means that the curriculum has been evaluated and researched to show it meets its goals.

You want to gather four kinds of evidence about the program you are considering (Family and Youth Services Bureau, 2012):

1. A description of the theory of change (eg., Theory of Planned Behavior Change)
2. Information on other similar programs found in national registries or clearing- houses of evidence-based programs and peer-reviewed journals (see Resources below for examples)
3. Experiences of effective and consistent implementation by others in multiple locations (eg., talk to others who have used the curriculum).
4. Ask a panel of informed local experts to review and endorse the curriculum for your community. Include researchers who have evaluated local programs, prevention and human service professionals (especially those who work with military families), and key community or military leaders. Also consider including military parents who would benefit from the program on this panel.

Both Together We Can and Parents Forever are research- and evidence-based. We also highlighted in the webinar two research- and evidence-based programs designed specifically for military families — ADAPT and FOCUS. Even if you decide to use ADAPT or FOCUS, you will want to gather information using the process described above, especially the fourth one in which you work with local experts. By doing so you will ensure that the curriculum or program will fit your participants and community.

This second step gives you practical advice for both adopting and making changes to the curriculum with your community, whether or not if the original curriculum was designed for military families. Local knowledge, which you gathered in the first step, will also help guide you as you receive training on implementing the curriculum and begin using it with your community.

Implementing a curriculum in real-world settings can be challenging. First, you need to be sure that you can effectively facilitate, which you can learn through training, practice and delivering the program. When you prepare to teach an evidence-based program, you will learn about the program’s core elements that must be included to attain the intended outcomes for participants (Ballard et al. 2016). These core elements were selected based on learning theory, research, and past evaluation studies of the program. They also include the learning strategies, activities, content, and dosage. These core elements must be included to obtain the outcomes.

Your job as a facilitator is to implement the program with “fidelity.” That means you implement it as designed and presented in the leader’s guide. However, your role will at times involve adapting or making changes to the curriculum to better fit the community and participants’ needs and interests. We understand that you will be faced with this need and want to provide you with guidance on how to adapt without undermining the effectiveness of the core elements. In fact, adaptation, if done well, will improve the quality of implementation and reduce barriers to participation (Ballard et al, 2016).

There are types of adaptation that you may need to make:

1. Reactive changes: Facilitators need to make adjustments to unexpected situations that arise before, during and after sessions. For example, a fire drill in the facility may take time away from a session and the agenda needs to be modified.
2. Proactive changes: Facilitators adapt the program to assure cultural fit or to address participant questions in a session. For example, activities do not resonate with participants because details are not consistent with their culture. Tweaks will help ensure it makes sense and connects to the participants.

Both types of adaptation will likely be needed as you implement the program, but be sure to not undermine the core elements. The basic purpose of adaptations is to ensure that participants receive all the core elements in a manner that permits them to attain the full benefits of the program.

A tool called the “Green Light, Yellow Light and Red Light” (Family and Children Services Bureau, n.d.) can help guide you on whether or not to adapt the curriculum.

Green Light — Move Forward: adaptation better fits participants experiences, backgrounds and needs, and makes the program more current and relevant. For example:

● Update and customize statistics
● Customize role play scenarios
● Make activities more interactive while keeping information and skill-building content the same.
● Tailor activities to a culture, developmental stage, gender, or sexual orientation.

Yellow Light — Proceed with Caution: adaptations may undermine core elements and/or lead to other issues, like time constraints and competition with other topics. For example:

● Change order of sessions or activities within the session
● Add activities to reinforce learning —too many activities may dilute the key messages or make the sessions too long
● Replace videos with other videos or activities, or using videos to replace mini-lectures.
● Implement the program in a different setting (e.g., online)

Red Light — Stop: adaptations remove key aspects or content, and weaken the effectiveness of the program. Examples include:

● Shorten the program
● Reduce or eliminate activities
● Contradict, add unrelated content, or otherwise dilute the program
● Replace interactive activities with lectures or individual work.

The next time you are selecting a curriculum or program, use these steps to guide your decision-making process. You can learn more about selecting and adapting evidence-based programs from the resources described in this blog:

ADAPT Adaptive Parenting Tools. (2020). Retrieved from

Ballard, S. M., Tyndall, L. E., Baugh, E. J., & Bergeron, C. B. (2016). Framework for best practices in Family Life Education: A case example. Family Relations, 65, 393-406.

Family and Youth Services Bureau. (2012). What is Evidence-Based Practice? U.S. Department of Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. Retrieved from

Family and Children Services Bureau. (n.d.) Making Adaptations Tip Sheet. Retrieved from

FOCUS: Resilience Training for Military Families. (2017). Retrieved from

Futris, T. & Adler Baeder. (2013). The National Extension Relationship and Marriage Education Model: Core Teaching Concepts for Relationship and Marriage Enrichment Programming. Retrieved from

Military Family Learning Network, Family Transitions. (2020, January 28). Focusing on Co-Parenting: Strengthening Diverse Military Family Systems.


Examples of Clearinghouses and Databases for Evidence-based Prevention Programs and Practices

Auburn University, Military Family Research and Outreach (REACH)

Clearinghouse for Military Family Readiness

National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP)

Results First Clearinghouse Database, Pew Charitable Trust

Writers Biography

Karen Shirer Karen Shirer, previous Associate Dean of the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Family Development. Karen is also the parent of two adult daughters, a grandmother, a spouse, and a cancer survivor.