Technical assistance (TA) has become a key strategy for increasing the quality of prevention services across the nation. The success of these services often hinges on the skills of the TA provider.
In Kentucky, honing the skills of the state’s 90+ TA providers was a particular priority. Faced with staggering rates of opioid misuse and related behavioral health problems, the state’s Department for Behavioral Health, which 15 regional prevention centers (RPCs), was committed to ensuring that RPC staff had the skills needed to help communities plan, implement, and evaluate effective prevention programs. To support this goal, the department partnered with Prevention Solutions@EDC to deliver a two-day workshop on quality TA. The training focused on what good TA looks like and how to incorporate it into every-day practice.
“TA is often more art than science,” says Carol Oliver, PS@EDC director and the training facilitator. “It requires listening and lots and lots of analysis. All too often, TA providers walk into a community thinking they have all the answers. Or they come up with a list of things that need to get done and then start doing it themselves. But TA isn’t about having the answers or doing the work. It’s much more about teaching than doing.”
To this end, Oliver’s training focused on three important skill sets: assessing client needs, engaging key stakeholders, and selecting appropriate TA methods.
According to Oliver, developing a clear understand of the types of supports a community needs to successfully implement their prevention efforts is the foundation for effective TA. Yet she admits that uncovering these needs can take some digging.
“A good provider needs to ask the right questions. What is the current prevention landscape in the community? Who is involved in prevention efforts? Who isn’t, but maybe should be? What does the community want to accomplish—and how do they see TA helping them reach their goals? The answers to these questions should inform everything a TA provider does.”
Oliver acknowledges that knowing the right questions to ask isn’t intuitive for everyone, and so during the training she introduced a three-pronged approach to refining client needs. First, ask questions about the context of the needs. Second, ask questions about existing knowledge, skills, and resources. And finally, explore whether the request is consistent with best practice in prevention.
So, for example, if a community requests a one-time training for members of the police force to support naloxone distribution, follow-up questions might explore the degree to which police leadership support the intervention (context), available funding for the project (resources), and the number of police officers who will be trained (consistency with best practice—because for a large number of officers, a one-time training may not provide them with the skills needed to distribute and use naloxone appropriately.)
Oliver admits that TA providers walk a fine line when defining—and refining—client needs. “We bring expertise but we’re not the experts,” says Oliver. “We may know the science, but our clients know their communities. They know the resources they have to work with. So we need to find ways to build on what they know and what they’re doing.”
During the training, Oliver also explored strategies for engaging new prevention partners.
“Effective and sustainable prevention depends on the involvement of multiple sectors, all moving forward in a coordinated way,” says Oliver. “TA providers can play a critical role in facilitating this process.”
When seeking to engage new partners in prevention efforts, Oliver again underscored the importance of asking questions. What are the issues that resonate with the partner? How do they understand their role in prevention? What would motivate them to support prevention efforts—or keep them from doing so?
When reaching out to new partners, Oliver highlighted the importance of leveraging existing relationships to help connect with new audiences. She also cautioned again taking a “one size fits all” communication approach. Instead, she suggests tailoring prevention messages to the needs and priorities of each audience, using language that resonates.
Finally, the two-day Kentucky training examined different types of TA delivery systems, and the importance of matching TA method to need.
“It’s easy to be seduced by virtual methods such as webinars,” says Oliver. “They’re an excellent way to disseminate information and build knowledge, and they can be cost effective because they reach large numbers of people. But for forming relationships, assessing needs, and building skills, face-to-face consultations are often the best place to start.”
Before the training ended, participants had a chance to practice their new skills. Working in groups, participants came up with a TA problem/challenge they currently faced, then passed it along to another group to solve. This gave each group a chance to have their own problems solved while applying what they learned during the training to another group’s challenges.
Feedback on the workshop was extremely positive. Nearly all of the participants reported that they were somewhat/very satisfied with the training (98.7&) and somewhat/very likely to use the information (100%). They especially liked the multiple opportunities for group work, the balance of theory with practical application, and the enthusiasm and knowledge of the facilitator.
“TA is about teaching people to fish,” says Oliver, drawing on the adage ‘if you give a person a fish, you can feed 'em for the day, but if you teach 'em how to fish, you feed 'em for a lifetime.’ “Kentucky’s RPC staff arrived at the training with the skills they needed to teach people to fish. When they left, they just had a little more confidence in those skills.”
To learn more about our work with Kentucky, contact PS@EDC Director Carol Oliver at firstname.lastname@example.org