Ireland Goes Boldly on to the Mountain

A decade ago parenting programs were not in fashion. It was commonplace to talk about the effects of family breakdown or the problems of single mothers, but relatively few people were paying much serious attention to what parents did or to how parenting behaviors could be changed with children’s health and development in mind. Not so today: many jurisdictions are awash with programs, most of them of doubtful value.

The Incredible Years is a case apart. It was developed by Carolyn Webster-Stratton twenty years before most of today’s plethora of programs were dreamed up, and it is now among the most successful and widely applied in the world.

The Incredible Years is often represented as a construction of eight building blocks. At the base are five modules designed for children at successive stages of development, infancy, preschool, early years and the first years of formal education. At the next level are two more that involve children directly and seek to improve their social, emotional and cognitive competencies. The eighth block is focused on teachers, providing skills to manage difficult behavior and a curriculum that encourages emotional self-regulation.

The catalyst for this weeks series of articles on The Incredible Years is a conference today in Dublin when the Minister for Children, Barry Andrews TD, launches the implementation and rigorous evaluation of Carolyn Webster-Stratton’s program in the Republic of Ireland as part of a broader commitment to prevention and early intervention. The initiative is being led by Margaret Maher, Director of a new NGO called Archways that has been set up to shelter The Incredible Years in Ireland.

Keynote speaker Judy Hutchings almost single-handedly showed the UK Government how its flagship prevention program Sure Start, floundering elsewhere, could be made successful. She put The Incredible Years, already a proven model, at the heart of Sure Start in Wales. She then led an experimental evaluation that demonstrated impact on children’s health and development.

After covering her contribution tomorrow, on Wednesday we profile the program’s originator Carolyn Webster-Stratton. On Thursday we turn to an experiment led by Stephen Scott, Director of Research at the new National Academy for Parenting Practitioners in London. Before spearheading this new initiative Scott led an experimental evaluation of The Incredible Years in four London mental health services. He found it had clear benefits and that it cost no more than conventional and unproven interventions to run.

The week is rounded off by a conversation between Carolyn Webster-Stratton and Judy Hutchings about the future of The Incredible Years in particular and parenting programs in general. Huge steps forward have been made in the last few years but they have depended on the guile, determination and rigor of pioneers in the handful of countries that take prevention seriously.

The challenge moving forward is twofold. For all the success of The Incredible Years and the only other proven parenting model, Triple-P, most policy makers and practitioners have yet to get to base camp when thinking about improving parenting.

At the the bottom of the mountain is a stony cutter of parenting interventions, all of them unproven. Some are stray fragments The Incredible Years and Triple-P thrown together. In the worst cases they owe nothing at all to the years of work of Webster-Stratton or pioneers in the field such as Albert Bandura and Jerry Patterson.

Base camp is the place for the rigorous implementation and evaluation of proven models like The Incredible Years and Triple-P. It should be possible to share ideas here and openly disseminate the results.

Further up the mountain there is much uncharted territory. How do we make parenting programs as routinely valuable and unobtrusive as ante natal services? How do we help parents encourage desirable behavior while responding sensitively to their children’s needs? Such is the focus of all the stories in Prevention Action this week.

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Year: 2008
Bibliography: Prevention Action. 2008. Online publication managed by the Dartington Social Research Unit.
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