There is now wide consensus that early childhood is the most cost-effective time for targeting prevention and early intervention. The foundation for children’s mental health is formed during the first five years of life, when 90 percent of brain development occurs. Since parents are the primary mediators of their young children’s earliest social and learning environments, any effort to promote mental health in young children must first and foremost engage parents and help them build up their strengths and caregiving capacities.
Nearly 20 years ago, I began searching the literature for parenting programs that had a strong evidence base and demonstrated substantial and enduring effects on parenting quality and children’s behavior. What I discovered is that the strongest programs available had been originally developed and tested on White, middle-class families. As a result, their content and delivery methods were often built on values and assumptions many families I knew could not relate to.
To address this gap, our team was funded by the National Institute of Nursing Research in 2001 to develop an innovative parenting program, called the Chicago Parent Program. It addresses the needs and interests of parents from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds raising children with limited resources.
The first thing we did was form an advisory board of outspoken African American and Latino parents who would help us to create a program that was truly relevant to them. This advisory board provided invaluable guidance on what they wanted out of a parenting program and on techniques they believed were not helpful (e.g., “praise spoils children”), not effective (e.g., “kids don’t really care about time-outs”), or inappropriate (e.g., “I wouldn’t go to a program that said ‘no spanking;’ I was spanked and I’m fine”). Their concerns and preferences factored heavily into how we framed the strategies and principles we now teach in the Chicago Parent Program and how we train our facilitators.
Parents have very different styles of learning: Some are more visual learners, others are auditory learners, and still others learn only by doing. Building on the pioneering work of Carolyn Webster-Stratton, PhD, FAAN, the Chicago Parent Program uses multiple modalities to help parents learn new childrearing strategies. It uses video vignettes, group discussion, simple handouts, role-play exercises, and weekly practice assignments to assist parents in learning new strategies for encouraging good behavior in their children; effectively managing misbehaviors; and communicating more effectively with the people in their lives who influence their parenting.
The video vignettes are a particularly important component of the program, since it’s much easier to critique someone else than ourselves. There are more than 160 vignettes of real families engaged in common but challenging situations. Groups of eight to12 parents watch and critique the videos, which show parents managing a range of situations, including managing misbehavior at home and in public places; rushing to get children ready for school in the morning; getting children to bed at night; parenting under stress; and solving disagreements among family members. More than75 percent of the scenes include families of color.
Over the years, we’ve conducted several clinical trials of the Chicago Parent Program. The results have consistently shown that parenting confidence and competence and child behavior improve substantially following participation.
But the most convincing data for me are the comments we hear from parents. One Chicago Head Start mother of a 4-year-old told us about what she got out of the program: “Basically… it’s about building better communication with your child… He’s opening up to me more. I’m giving him more of my time, and so I’m getting more positive feedback.”
A Baltimore parent who recently completed the Chicago Parent Program commented, “It made me be a more patient parent, more thoughtful and more logical… [The program] taught me to stop and wait a minute before I react because I was disciplining my kids in ways that’s…no good… She pays attention to me more… I think she’s better because I’m better.”
And for this nurse scientist, that’s the most gratifying of all data.
Read a story about the lasting effects of the Chicago Parent Program.
This blog was originally published on Robert Wood Johnson Foundations’ Human Capital Blog.