Research Summary

Identifying Indicators of Behavior Change: Insights From Wildfire Education Programs

Case Study and Indicators of Successful Community Behavior Change

The Journal of Environmental Education

Changing behavior at both the individual and community level is one of the most important goals of environmental education—it involves people actually solving problems and having a positive impact. However, designing effective programs for promoting behavior change, and evaluating those programs, is often difficult because of the many factors involved. In this study, the authors analyzed the methods used by 15 communities in the United States who successfully increased their preparedness for wildfires. They suggest strategies for designing, implementing, and evaluating successful EE programs for promoting behavior changes.

The authors of this paper built on a previously reported case study on community preparedness for wildfire. The previous study, described in Jakes et al. (2007) in Human Ecology, considered how 15 communities at risk for fire had taken steps to improve their preparedness. Using these data, the current authors analyzed the recorded educational strategies and organized them into six basic themes of program purposes and audiences. These strategy themes were: (1) sharing information about risk and risk reduction through community-wide education programs; (2) training staff to promote a new way of thinking; 6 (3) promoting or enforcing new ordinances or policies through presentations to decision makers, media, and residents; (4) raising awareness with group activities, such as neighborhood association events; (5) changing a social norm with group activities; and (6) empowering residents by developing plans and creating committees.

The authors then identified three goals the fire education programs were aiming to address with the above-named teaching strategies. Having identified the goals, they also suggested potential indicators that could be used to measure whether these goals had been accomplished by an EE program.

The first of these goals was to “provide background on the issue and procedural information about how to solve the problem in order to change attitudes, behaviors, or policies.” In the case of the fire education programs, the authors found these goals were mostly accomplished through one-way communication channels, such as signs and community newsletters (strategy 1). Workshops for local residents and community leaders (strategies 3 and 4) and training programs for volunteer fire fighter staff (strategy 2) were also effective; they complemented the mass media campaigns. Some of the indicators the authors suggest for measuring the success of a program at meeting this goal are the number of program participants, increases in participants’ knowledge, changes in attitudes, increases in belief that actions will matter (efficacy), and increases in evidence of, or observed change of, behavior.

The second goal the authors identified was to “use training and management projects to directly change the environment, and [to] enhance this effort with educational resources to change individuals’ perceptions and skills.” In other words, this goal is about changing both the social and physical environment in regard to the issue, which then makes it more likely for community members to respond to educational resources and make behavioral changes. In the case of the fire education programs, this was accomplished through training the wildfire volunteer staff to adopt new procedures for fire safety (strategy 2). It was also accomplished by developing visible demonstration areas in the landscape for fire safety, such as community fire breaks and defendable homes (strategy 5). The authors suggest all of the above-mentioned indicators would also be relevant for measuring the success of programs at accomplishing this goal, plus measuring changes in perceived desirability of new action or change and increases in the procedural knowledge for making a behavior change, among others.

According to the authors, the third goal of the fire education programs was to “provide opportunities and experiences to work together.” Strategies and activities that contributed to this included community events to raise awareness and change social norms (strategies 4 and 5) and empower local citizens (strategy 6). The authors found that programs emphasizing learning and working together were more successful at raising awareness and promoting knowledge gains. Community events also increased participants’ willingness to participate and changed the way people viewed their neighborhood and the landscape. These programs helped build social capital and community cohesion, which facilitated neighbors’ ability to respond to fires and other disasters when they happen. Examples of indicators the authors suggested for measuring a program’s success at meeting this goal were an increase in trust of agencies and neighborhoods, and an increase in willingness to work with neighbors to achieve change.

The Bottom Line

Based on research with communities that successfully improved their wildfire preparedness, commonly desired goals of such programs include providing knowledge and background on how to solve the problem, changing the environment and conditions, and building community. Researchers suggest that educational activities involving community events and existing community networks (such as neighborhood associations) are particularly successful for promoting meaningful pro-environmental behaviors. Several potential indicators that can be used by educators for measuring the effectiveness of education efforts focused on environmentally friendly behaviors related to such issues, especially at the community level, include the number of program participants, measuring changes in perceived desirability of the new action, increases in procedural knowledge for taking the action, observed behavior changes, and increased willingness to work with neighbors to achieve change, among others.