Tes focus on… Engaging with parents

We all know that positive parental input is crucial for a child’s education, but how can schools foster good relationships? Academic Stephen Scott tells Chris Parr that while some programmes can be hugely beneficial, many others are not backed by verified evidence – so do your homework
19th October 2018, 12:00am
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Chris Parr


Tes focus on… Engaging with parents


The research is clear: if parents are engaged with the education of their child, that child tends to do better at school. And schools are fully behind this - talking more with parents has become a key priority. Yet, the relationship between school and parent is a tricky one.

For starters, the situation is complicated by schools being used as a vehicle for social change. The government sends teachers into homes as policy missionaries, attempting to influence diet, social habits, technology use and more, and to spot signs of everything from extremism and abuse to adolescent mental health problems.

Then you have the issue of good parenting being deemed as common sense. Schools don't tend to look for research on how to engage with parents and instruct them in boosting their child's attainment. Instead, we think we know what matters: lots of tutoring on the importance of structure, boundaries, reading with kids and having open conversations.

Finally, there is some debate as to how much difference school interventions in parenting can actually make.

What to look for

So, when schools look to intervene with classes or workshops for parents, what should they be doing?

Unfortunately, the movement to make education more research-informed - a trend that may counter some of the above issues - has not focused strongly on coaching parents. This is despite the existence of plenty of studies on the issue, according to Stephen Scott, professor of child health and behaviour at King's College London, and director of the National Academy for Parenting Research.

"There is quite a bit of research, but it is almost as if people think that, because we all have relationships, it is 'common sense' and doesn't need to be researched," he explains.

A consequence of the failure to engage with this research is that many schools could be buying into interventions, or running programmes, that have little evidence to back up their effectiveness, Scott argues.

"I think parenting classes delivered in school are a good thing, and a good way to get hold of parents at a time when they're interested in their children's wellbeing," he adds. "However, we do need to avoid ineffective programmes.

"Some of them are just talking shops, where you just talk about emotions without helping you to relate differently."

He cites the case of a programme that carried out a trial and found no discernible benefits whatsoever - but which continued to be advertised as effective.

Scott urges schools to check the research on any programme they come across, ensuring that it is independently verified as effective. The evidence for some programmes is promising, he adds. Among the studies that Scott has carried out is the Spokes literacy project, which in 2010 worked with the parents of Reception and Year 1 children at eight primary schools in Lambeth, London. Parents were offered a term of instruction on improving their relationship with their child, followed by a term on how to read with them.

"We found an old, unused room, cleared it out, put a poster on the wall and a plant in the corner," Scott recalls. "Then we invited groups of about eight parents whose children had been identified as being among the top third for mildly disruptive behaviour - so not those at risk of exclusion, but who did have problems with behaviour - and started to work with them."

The parents were introduced to an evidence-based parenting programme called Incredible Years, developed by Carolyn Webster-Stratton, former director of the parenting clinic at the University of Washington. The initiative has been recommended by the American Psychological Association Task Force (Brestan and Eyberg, 1998), having met the "Chambless and Hollon criteria" for empirically supported mental health interventions for children with conduct problems.

"The first six weeks encourage more positive behaviour, and the last six weeks look at how to reduce difficult behaviour," Scott says. "It is not just a thinking shop, and although the child isn't present, you role-play it and you practise the techniques."

These techniques include choosing when to ignore "minor naughtiness" and recognising the importance of short-term punishment, such as taking video games away for an evening. "For some parents, it is a real eye-opener and they make some great progress," Scott explains, adding that while some did not complete the course, none "told me to sod off" when it was suggested they took part. Indeed, most attended all the sessions.

The researchers followed up with the pupils a year later and found improved parent-child relationships, less bad behaviour at home and in class, and better-than-expected progress in reading.

Scott also namechecks Triple P (the Positive Parenting Program), which was developed in Australia, as an example of an evidence-based programme. And he adds that seeing parents in the home environment can be really informative and effective, too.

'Getting in the right zone'

When done well, Scott argues, interventions do tend to work. He points to a number of studies that demonstrate how parental interventions can lead to improved educational performance - an overview of which can be found in Rutter's Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. A chapter specifically exploring parenting programmes, co-authored by Scott, finds that effective interventions are "the most widely proven" approach to addressing children's behaviour and attachment problems.

Scott is reluctant to pinpoint any universal rules; instead, he advises schools to assess which programmes have credible evidence and could apply to their context.

However, he believes it is also important to consider what the research says about the role of nature rather than nurture. "Parents can, of course, make a lot of difference to children," he says. "But in the past 10 to 20 years, it has been absolutely clear how strong an influence genetics has in affecting how well children do in their outcomes."

It is a controversial area of study, but one Scott argues must be acknowledged. He says the research shows that, to get the best outcomes, you need both "reasonable genetic endowment" and the correct environment.

Ultimately, though, the evidence points to how vitally important the quality of parenting is for the development of a child's emotional and intellectual wellbeing, he says - but this is difficult to get right and schools can help parents to achieve an optimum influence.

"Lev Vygotsky, in the early 20th century, talked about the 'zone of proximity': if you are too close, you are helicoptering your child and telling them to do everything, so then they don't learn initiative," he adds. "But with benign neglect, then you can't really help them to become problem-solvers. So getting them in the right zone can really help."

Chris Parr is a freelance journalist

Meet the academic

Stephen Scott is a professor of child health and behaviour at King's College London, and director of the National Academy for Parenting Research. The unit, established in 2007, aims to establish what can make a difference to children's wellbeing and success by trialling different approaches to parenting.

Find out more

• Scott, S, Sylva, K, Doolan, M et al (2010) "Randomized controlled trial of parent groups for child antisocial behaviour targeting multiple risk factors: the Spokes project", Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 51/1: 48-57

• Thapar, A, Pine, D S, Scott, S et al, eds (2015) Rutter's Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (Wiley)

• Raby, K L, Roisman, G I, Fraley, R C et al (2014) "The enduring predictive significance of early maternal sensitivity: social and academic competence through age 32 years", Child Development, 86/3: 695-708

• Scott, S, Briskman, J and O'Connor, T G (2014) "Early prevention of antisocial personality: long-term follow-up of two randomized controlled trials comparing indicated and selective approaches", American Journal of Psychiatry, 171/6: 649-57

• O'Connor, T G, Woolgar, M, Humayun, S et al (2018) "Early caregiving predicts attachment representations in adolescence: findings from two longitudinal studies", Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.12936

• Simkiss, D E, Snooks, H A, Stallard, N et al (2013), "Effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of a universal parenting skills programme in deprived communities: multicentre randomised controlled trial", BMJ Open, bmjopen.bmj.com/content/3/8/e002851

• Brestan, E V, and Eyberg, S M (1998) "Effective psychosocial treatments of conduct-disordered children and adolescents: 29 years, 82 studies, and 5,272 kids", Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 27/2: 180-89

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