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Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 18, No. 2
May 2013

Preventing Child Maltreatment through Parenting Programs

Parent education programs are one of the most commonly used interventions in child welfare to prevent and or reduce recurrence of child maltreatment. In fact, an estimated 800,000 U.S. families participate in voluntary or court-mandated parenting programs each year (Barth, 2005). Given the widespread use of this approach it makes sense for us to ask: does it work? Is there evidence that parenting programs are an effective prevention strategy?

What the Research Says
Many analyses of a wide variety of parenting programs have come to the broad conclusion that parenting programs do make a difference in both parent and child behavior. However, the evidence about parenting programs' ability to prevent future maltreatment is less clear (Lundahl et al., 2006; Johnson et al., 2008).

We also know that many variables affect a program's effectiveness. Consider, for example, the characteristics of the parents involved. Not all parent programs were designed or evaluated based on a child welfare population, and therefore may not have the same effectiveness when applied in a child welfare setting (Barth, 2005).

Another important variable is the length and type of the program's intervention. Some have an individualized, in-home component; others are group-based. Some have long-term follow up; others are time-limited (MacLeod & Nelson, 1999).

Traits of Effective Parenting Programs
Given the wide array of parenting programs to choose from, how can agencies determine whether the parenting programs in their community are worthy of referral? One way is to look for one or more of the following characteristics, which are commonly found in effective programs.

Proactive. Interventions designed to be implemented before problems have occurred have been shown to be more effective over time than those implemented after problems have been identified (Honig & Morin, 2001; Bresten & Eyberg 1998, cited in Barth & Kreel, 2012).

Addressing Multiple Parenting Domains. Programs that address more than one domain of effective parenting have a greater impact. Examples of domains of effective parenting include: cognitive processing skills, impulse control, social skills, and stress management. Few parenting programs target multiple parenting domains; the majority focus on only one (Johnson et al., 2008).

In-Home Component with In-the-Moment Feedback. Parenting programs delivered in the home as part of a more comprehensive home visiting program have the best outcomes (Johnson et al., 2008). In addition, there is evidence that coaching "in the moment"--that is, providing direct support and feedback to a parent with their child--supports more rapid gains in new parenting skills (Shanley, 2010).

Individual and Group Delivery. Attitudes and beliefs about parenting are important but difficult to change. However, a combination of group and individual delivery of parenting programs seems to have a stronger impact on attitudes and beliefs than any single delivery method. The individual component allows parents to explore their own beliefs, and the group component helps to challenge parents through peer relationships (Lundhal et al., 2006).

Empowerment-Focused. Comparisons of proactive and reactive parenting programs found that proactive programs use a more strengths-based approach, encouraging participant involvement in shaping goals and solving problems. Evidence suggests that programs using this approach have a larger impact on outcomes than more prescriptive models (MacLeod & Nelson, 1999).

Good Instructors Are Essential

"Thirty to eighty percent of families most at risk for child maltreatment actually complete prevention programs. . . . Even effective programs have limited impact if they are unable to reach, engage, and retain prospective participants."
--Source: Centers for Disease Control, 2004

The success of a parenting program depends a great deal on its ability to engage and retain parents. This is a point Dr. Karen DeBord, an Associate Professor at NC State University who has written extensively about parenting education emphasized in a 2004 interview with the NC Division of Social Services publication Training Matters.

"When parents come to that first mandated class they are often so angry," DeBord said. "They are dealing not only with the humiliation and stigma of being made to come to a class on parenting, but sometimes with the pain of having lost their child." These feelings often cloud parents' abilities to learn. To save face, often all they will want to do is go through the motions, get their certificate, and get out.

To get past this obstacle, agencies should look for an instructor who can recognize what parents are feeling, engage them, and build their trust.

DeBord also said that one of the best ways to overcome parents' resistance is to begin each course by asking parents what they want to learn about. Even if you have a curriculum you want to offer, it is best to begin by soliciting input from the parents. "The expert model," DeBord said, "creates barriers."

What You Can Do
What can child welfare workers do to ensure parenting programs are effective?

  • Assess Before You Refer. Agencies should make sure that the parenting programs they refer to have the traits that effective programs commonly possess. Your assessment should cover program objectives, content, teaching methods, and plan for implementation and evaluation (Johnson et al., 2008).
  • Fill in the Gaps. Ensure parenting domains not addressed by the program are addressed in other ways. For example, stress management is a domain of effective parenting. Helping the parent reduce stress through financial assistance and referrals to community resources can support better outcomes in parent training (MacLeod & Nelson, 1999).
  • Support Transfer of Learning. When families participate in parenting programs, spend time in their home and give feedback "in the moment" to support use of new skills (Shanley, 2010).
  • Coach Families. By using a coaching approach with families you will empower them to find their own solutions and encourage them to try new strategies. Coaching has been shown to be effective in supporting individuals in gaining new skills (Wales, 2003).

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Evidence-Based Parenting Programs

The California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare (2012) rated these parent training programs as "well-supported by evidence":

  • The Incredible Years. A series of three separate curricula for parents, teachers, and children, ICY is designed to promote emotional and social competence and to prevent, reduce, and treat behavior and emotional problems in young children.
  • Parent Child Interaction Therapy. For families with young children experiencing behavioral and emotional problems. Therapists coach parents during interactions with the child to strengthen the parent-child bond; decrease harsh/ineffective discipline; improve child social skills/cooperation; and reduce negative/maladaptive child behaviors.
  • Triple P Parenting. Rated as "well-supported by evidence" but currently under review; it will be re-rated soon.

The following programs received CEBC's more modest rating of "supported by evidence":

  • 123 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12. Can be used with average or special needs children. Divides parenting responsibilities into three tasks: controlling negative behavior, encouraging good behavior, and strengthening the child-parent relationship.
  • SafeCare. In-home parenting program that provides direct skill training to parents in child behavior management and planned activities training, home safety training, and child health care skills to prevent child maltreatment.

Parenting Programs Supported by Prevent Child Abuse-NC

  • Incredible Years (Pre-School BASIC Parent Program and School-Age BASIC program)
  • Strengthening Families Program. Strengthening Families Program (curriculum). An evidence-based life skills training program for families with children aged 6 to 11. Improves parenting skills, enhances family relationships, and increases children's social and life skills. 14 weekly, two-hour sessions. Each session includes three groups: a parents' group, a children's group, and a family group.
  • Circle of Parents. Offers anyone in a parenting role a chance to participate in weekly group meetings with other parents to exchange ideas, share information, develop and practice new parenting skills, learn about community resources, and give and receive support. Groups are parent-led with the support of a trained group facilitator and are conducted in a confidential, non-judgmental manner (CBEC, 2012).

To learn more about these courses or how PCA-NC supports them, visit

Reflection on the Limits of Parenting Education

As we consider which parenting programs to use, it can be helpful to reflect on the following passage from Carter (1997), which reminds us that to make a real difference, parenting education must be part of a multi-level, systemic effort to improve outcomes for vulnerable children and their families.

Discussions of parenting and family support tend to lead observers to assume that if we can somehow "deal with these parents," the long and troubling list of societal problems will disappear as a consequence. Parenting education will not solve the ravages of poverty, racism, or a demeaning welfare system.

And one must be cautious about the complexity of causes that underlie issues like violence, substance abuse, and delinquency. At best, parenting education may offer a struggling parent the support needed to feel more capable and confident, which in turn can strengthen the ability to offer the gifts of love, health, and heritage to a child. This is the process through which that child can have a chance for success in life, but it does not assure it.

Parenting education cannot change the world in which that child grows up; it can only strengthen his or her ability to survive and succeed in it.

References for this and other articles in this issue