Text size: A A A

If you build it, will they come? Solving the participation problem for parenting support

Key points:

  • Parenting support programs struggle with participation, success has been limited
  • Disadvantaged parents are harder to attract, but no less likely to stay involved
  • New research with 1400 parents highlights what helps and hinders participation

One of the best ways governments can lessen the impact of social and economic disadvantage on children is to intervene early and fund programs that give parents good tools and support.

But it’s one thing to agree on the need for evidence-informed early parenting programs and another thing entirely to make them a widespread reality.

Achieving this is going to require a continued shift in the way we think about and fund what is offered to parents.

Research tells us that although there is much good work being done, prevention-based parenting programs have had limited success to date. They have struggled to attract and retain parents, particularly those experiencing disadvantage.

Falling at the first hurdle

Mostly, programs are not funded to engage parents. This is time-intensive and costly work. But without it, we risk failing before we’ve begun; we will limit the cost-effectiveness, public health benefits and individual benefits of good programs.

So, if we’re to invest wisely in parenting programs, engagement must be part of the mix. This is becoming increasingly recognised, but we need to better understand how to do it. We also need to think differently about engagement – not focusing on parents being seen as hard to reach but rather, on the fact that programs and services can be hard to access.

If we think this way it will help us understand the multiple and complex issues families are dealing with, as well as their attitudes to parenting programs. This can only lead to better designed parenting support and better outcomes for children.

So how do we do it?

Our study of more than 1400 parents, published recently in Prevention Science, looked at this question. We explored what factors really helped and hindered parents from joining – and staying in – early intervention parenting programs.

While we found no one magic bullet to attracting and keeping parents, we did find a number of key factors that hindered and helped.

Importantly, we also found that while it is harder to attract parents from lower socioeconomic groups to prevention-based programs, once they become involved, they are just as likely as other parents to stay there.

What helped attract and retain parents?

  1. Focusing on the children and connecting communities
    We found that embedding support for parents into a platform that already exists to benefit children – supported playgroups – was more successful than offering them a structured early parenting program. This uniquely Australian approach is the foundation of the smalltalk program, which is run right across Victoria and in some parts of NSW and Queensland. It also has the benefit of giving parents a place to connect with their peers and build important and ongoing social supports.
  2. In-home coaching
    We found this seemed to help the most vulnerable parents to overcome some of the practical barriers that might otherwise have prevented them from attending a program. This option relies on skilled, trained staff who have ongoing professional support. In contrast, family services in Australia are often funded through short-term schemes with a highly casualised workforce. While home coaching options have cost implications, they show promising results. The SafeCare program being trialled in NSW is one example.
  3. Focusing on relationships
    Approaches that built bonds between parents and the person providing the program and promoted cohesive groups overcame some of the barriers to participation. So did increasing the contact between the facilitator and parents in between group sessions.

What can keep parents away or lead them to drop out?

  1. Stigma
    Programs or approaches that make parents feel stigmatised or threatened can be a major barrier to participation. This has important implications for the way we communicate about parenting support, particularly in the area of prevention. It can be hard to communicate to people why they should attend parenting programs to prevent problems that haven’t yet occurred. We explored this issue recently in a separate research project and found that the way we collectively talk about parenting is often unproductive and fails to help people understand that improving parenting is actually achievable. The good news is that there are clear steps we can take to do things differently.
  2. Community factors
    It’s important to understand how local communities can influence parents’ willingness to come along to parenting programs. We found that in lower socioeconomic areas, with higher rates of parent long-term unemployment, or with high proportions of children with developmental difficulties, parents were less likely to enrol. But if these parents did enrol, these factors did not influence whether they stayed involved. This is good news for those looking to target vulnerable families for parenting programs.
  3. Individual challenges
    Each family has a unique context that shapes their ability to engage with services. When parents had health problems, were experiencing psychological distress, had work commitments or other appointments, and found it hard or impossible to access venues, they were less likely to stay engaged. And the factors that prevent parents from getting to programs can be different to what keeps them coming and how much they engage once they are there. Understanding these factors has implications for how services are staffed and how much they cost to run.
  4. Issues with the program itself
    If the workforce delivering the program wasn’t stable or staff were less experienced, this had an impact on parents’ involvement. If they felt their child was not benefiting from the program, they were also more likely to disengage.

There is still more work to be done to investigate exactly which aspects of engaging parents will lead to better outcomes for children. But what we have found is a rich source of opportunities for those who design, deliver and pay for programs to help parents.

We have some great guideposts to help get parents on board – the challenge now is to think about how we can use this knowledge. After all, parenting programs can only be effective if they reach and engage the people they’re designed for. Australia’s children need us to get this right.

Dr Naomi Hackworth is a senior research specialist at the Parenting Research Centre, a non-profit organisation that promotes evidence-based parenting support in government and the community services sector.

Author Bio