As I have mentioned a few times, I am incredibly in favor of parenting programs. In my opinion, everyone should attend parenting classes. There is always something more to learn about child development, child health, or social emotional well-being. There are also factors about parenting that influence the parents directly (like how to co-parent effectively or how to work out parenting differences, etc) that can be learned through parenting workshops. Parenting classes are something that I am 100% in favor of for EVERYONE. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a society that feels the same way. Generally, parenting classes are offered when there is an obvious need: social services determines that parents aren’t performing their duties appropriately, divorce filings require parents to attend co-parenting workshops, or prisons provide services for incarcerated parents. Rather than teaching parents how to parent before they mess it up, in the US we work on a “we will fix it once it’s broke” philosophy.
Since this is the way we do things, I want to talk about a parenting program intervention that was incredibly successful and inspiring.
A few years ago Rachel Barr and colleagues at Georgetown University implemented a media-based parent training intervention at a juvenile detention facility. They based their intervention on Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model of development which considers the child’s development as a part of the people, relationships, and systems that surround the child. More simply, the child doesn’t develop in a bubble isolated from the world; rather the child is influenced by parents, teachers, caregivers that directly surround and influence the child, but his development is also influenced by broader systems like the education system, family and cultural values, etc. All of these factors play a powerful role in child development. So for a child whose parent is in a juvenile detention facility the systems around the child include that facility, the incarcerated parent, and the personnel that work in the facility.
Now onto the details of the study. For this intervention, Rachel Barr and her colleagues first modified the physical setting where the incarcerated parents met with their children and families. They transformed a cold and uninviting setting into a room more like a child care setting with a rug, bright colors, and age-appropriate toys. As any parent knows, the setting does matter for young children, that’s why pediatrician offices add colors and toys for kids to make it an inviting and fun environment. But again, environment alone can’t do it all, so of course the intervention involved the parents!
Trained staff or volunteers were responsible for the parent training sessions. Training sessions were focused on building parent-child interaction and relationships and incorporated both cognitive/language development and social/emotional development. Clips from the Sesame Beginnings DVD were used to model positive parent-child interactions during training. In addition to improving the environment, providing training sessions with parents, the intervention provided opportunities for the incarcerated parent to practice what was learned during training sessions during parent-child visits at the facility.
The main take-home points from this study were:
- Training increased parents’ perceptions of their influence on their child’s development– this likely builds parent confidence and therefore success in their parenting abilities
- Social emotional responsiveness increased across the sessions- meaning that parents provided more appropriate reactions and responses to their child’s social/emotional needs
- Most importantly: the child’s emotional responsiveness also improved across the sessions-indicating that child outcomes can be improved by parent intervention programs
While, this is a very specific study on a high risk population, the success of parenting intervention programs like this one may also extend to parents in which one parent no longer lives with the child for other reasons (e.g., divorce, military deployment, job in other area, etc).
Barr, R. F., Brito, N, Zocca, J., Reina, S., Rodriguez, J.& Shauffer, C. (2011). The baby Elmo program: Improving teen father-child interactions within juvenile justice facilities. Children and Youth Service Review, 33, 1555-162.