• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Thursday 14th July, 2011

Family-based solutions to school-based risks

Ten years ago, several parents of preschoolers first sat down in discussion groups. One group focused on parenting; another focused on the couples’ own relationships. Both the parenting-focused and the couple-focused programs improved parent-child relationships, and both programs helped young children adapt to elementary school. What’s more, the focus on couples helped mothers and fathers improve their relationships. It was a good immediate result.Then the researchers followed up with the families. The intervention was relatively short – 16 two-hour sessions. Surely the effects would decay over time. Not so, the California-based team found: just 32 hours of participation in a couples’ group before their first child went to school not only had immediate benefits for both the parents and their child – it still showed benefits 10 years later, when the preschoolers had become high schoolers.The school transition in the family contextSchool transitions can be tough on children. Traditionally, programs designers have believed that the right place for interventions to ease the transition is – unsurprisingly – in school. A team from the University of California, Berkeley, decided to test what happens when the intervention is moved out of the school context and into the family context. The Schoolchildren and Their Families Project tests the notion that attending to families’ normal difficulties before they turn into serious relationship problems pays dividends in the long term for children’s developmental adjustment. The study of a family-based intervention to enhance children’s transition to school was spearheaded by the husband-and-wife team, Carolyn Pape Cowan and Philip Cowan, both family-systems experts at the University of California, Berkeley. The intervention was a 16-week group course, run for two hours each week. There were two variations of the intervention: one group focused on parenting issues, while the other focused on the couple’s own relationship. The curriculum topics of the two variations were identical but in an open-ended component of each session, program leaders emphasized either the parenting focus or the marital focus. 100 two-parent families were randomized to receive one of the two intervention arms or to a control condition. In the control condition, they were offered the opportunity to consult with a staff member once a year, for three years. The researchers first assessed the children and parents before the child started school, and followed up four times: at the end of kindergarten, at the end of first grade, at the end of fourth grade and at the end of ninth grade. Surprising resultsEarlier published findings focused on the effects of the preventive intervention on children’s transition into elementary school. Compared to controls, children whose parents participated in a group that focused on couple relationship issues when the children were preschoolers showed fewer difficulties and higher levels of achievement by the end of their first year in school. The long-term, 10-year follow-up, published this year by the Cowans with colleague Jason Barry, focuses on the effects of the program for the children’s later transition to high school. Using a statistical technique called growth curve analysis, the Cowans charted both the parent/couple relationship and the children’s behavioral progression over time. They found “long-lasting effects… on the family and on the child making the transition to high school.” The intervention reduced the risk for children’s hyperactivity and aggression when they were adolescents in high school. Although both variants of the intervention were effective, compared to the control condition, they were not equal in their impact. The differences in the effects may say something important about the processes within the family context. Both the early findings at transition into kindergarten and the long-term results demonstrate the superiority of the couple-focused intervention over the parenting-focused course for children’s adjustment. Improved marital relationships may lead to more effective parenting, but the reverse is not necessarily true. ReferenceCowan, Carolyn Pape, Philip A. Cowan, and Jason Barry. 2011. “Couples’ Groups for Parents of Preschoolers: Ten-Year Outcomes of a Randomized Trial.” Journal of Family Psychology 25(2): 240-250.

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