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Props for Prepping Partners and Participants

By Trina Adler, Program Leader — Health and Nutrition

This summer, feeling the need to improve my strength as well as stretch my horizons, I joined a group strength training class at the St. Paul Campus Gym. In general, I keep physically active by running, walking, hiking, and biking on a regular basis — fairly low-key and solitary activities. So this kind of class was quite a leap into the unknown for me. I have never in my life been a gym member, I haven’t ever used weight training equipment, and I definitely haven’t been a part of a group exercise class.

row of adults doing pushups on kettlebells
Let's be real: Group exercise classes never look like this.

The first day of class was brief and introductory. I thought I had a handle on how it would go, and felt pretty confident that I was prepared for what was to come.

Wow, was I wrong!

The Second Class

I was in fact completely unprepared for the difficulty and intensity of the training regimen that started with the next class session. I didn’t fully understand how to adjust the machines. I found myself gasping for breath during the cardio rounds. I didn’t know what “glut bridges” or “plank-jacks” were. And my body definitely didn’t stretch the way the trainer suggested it should. In short, the class Kicked. My. Soul.

After that second class, my anxiety level about the remaining classes was sky-high. I was certain that I could not and would not be able to complete the series. I was discouraged, felt incompetent, and considered quitting.

young boy with forehead against blackboard that has math symbols written on it
Though I am not a small child in a math class,
this is an accurate representation of how I felt.

But I didn’t quit. Instead, I prepared myself.

I talked to colleagues who have taken classes like this one to hear about their experiences. I arranged for time with the trainer to teach me how to use the machines. I make the trainer demonstrate all the stretching, strengthening, and cardio moves for me (and the others) at each class so I understand what I’m supposed to do. And I have checked in with the others in the class, who, as it turns out, also felt that their souls had been kicked early on.

How much easier that second class would have been if the trainer had prepared us for its intensity!

How Do We Prepare and Support?

The experience makes me think about the family and community members and partners who join Extension Family Development classes and initiatives, and how we prepare and support them in working with us. The last thing we want is for our participants and partners to feel discouraged, incompetent, and done in.

In many ways, an experience with Extension has the potential to be daunting. Extension classes are typically designed to change or enhance participants’ behaviors, which can be a serious and difficult undertaking for them. Partnership with Extension is generally laden with expectations for time and resource commitments. We bring a level of expertise, vision, passion, and commitment to our work that has potential to cloud our ability to acknowledge misunderstanding, doubt, and barriers.

I have had some great opportunities to see FD educators in action over the past couple of months. From what I have seen, I can say with pride and confidence that we in FD have some outstanding practices for preparing our participants and partners for working with us!

silhouettes of people climbing a slope
Give 'em a hand!

Among the outstanding preparation practices, I have recently seen educators:
  • Survey community partners about what they would like out of a meeting, and share the results to show them how the meeting was designed to respond to their wishes.
  • Interweave skill- and capacity-building activities with check-ins for individualized assistance.
  • Work with groups to define common terms so everyone is understanding words and concepts the same way.
  • Keep things fun with jokes, stories, unexpected ice-breakers, and motivational activities.
  • Encourage pair-sharing about the class or meeting topics, not only to reflect, but also to create social support among participants.
  • Share notes, agendas, memos, and related materials in user-friendly ways, with offers for amendments or follow-up communications if anything seems amiss.
  • Make personal calls to participants or partners between classes or meetings to address questions and concerns.
I encourage you to consider how you prepare your participants and partners for working with you. Sometimes we don’t get the chance to meet or communicate with folks before a class or event, but that doesn’t exempt us from our responsibility to help them be prepared to work with us — or to support them during the work. It’s that extra attention that takes the burden off them and keeps them coming back.

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