• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Thursday 10th July, 2014

Family workers gain confidence to tackle relationship problems early

strong>When parental relationships break down, with mom and dad in acrimonious conflict, it harms children. Yet couples often find it hard to seek preventive help early when things start to go wrong. Research in the UK highlights the benefits of specialist training for frontline practitioners.Conflict between parents has long been identified as an active ingredient in the problems children experience when their parent’s relationship comes under strain. As noted by researchers working for OnePlusOne, a UK organization focused on strengthening relationships, disharmonious couple relationships are associated with poor longer-term outcomes including poverty and socio-economic disadvantage, physical and mental ill-health, and lower educational achievement.The past decade has seen improvements in professional understanding of ways to reduce conflict and improve relationships – or at least prevent further deterioration. However, it is also clear that many couples respond unfavorably to the idea of obtaining early help through counseling or therapy. So might more be done by equipping the frontline professionals that parents trust with skills to spot problems when there is still time to intervene for the better?With UK Government funding, the OnePlusOne team designed and tested a three-month program for training early years workers at Sure Start Children’s Centres. The core purpose of Sure Start is to improve outcomes for young children and their families, particularly those in greatest need. Staff are in routine contact with young families and particularly well-placed to notice if parents are experiencing relationship difficulties. “Blended” trainingThe “blended” training program mixed online modules and face-to-face sessions and was based on an existing model devised by OnePlusOne known as Brief Encounters. This teaches professionals how to recognize relationship difficulties before responding in an acceptable and helpful way. The latter includes active listening techniques and support suggestions focused on finding solutions. Practitioners are also trained to review the need for further, more intensive support. The training program was evaluated by randomly assigning 237 centers in the North West and East of England so their staff either took part immediately (the intervention group) or six months later (the “waiting list” control group). Before the control group began training all the trial participants were asked to complete a questionnaire about their practice with parents experiencing relationship problems. In this way, approaches could be compared between the intervention group, three months after they had completed their training, and the control group who had yet to take part. Significant differencesThe results suggested that the training had not made any difference to the ability of staff to recognize when parents’ relationships were under stress or whether parents were willing to talk about them. However, the training did have a positive influence on the way the Sure Start professionals responded to parents. The intervention group was much more likely than the control group to have used the listening and conversational techniques taught by the training program. No less important, the training participants were nearly four times more likely to say they felt confident when trying to help parents deal with relationship problems. Another area where the participants in relationship support training had benefited was their ability to review parents’ continuing needs. They were twice as likely as members of the control group to feel confident that they knew where and how to refer parents for further support. They were also far more likely to say that they would pro-actively approach parents in future about relationship difficulties if they suspected there were problems. A further important finding was that the positive results held true for all training program participants regardless of their level of experience working with children and families – and regardless of how confident they had previously thought themselves in dealing with relationship problems. Implications and next stepsFrom these encouraging results, the researchers argue that their organization’s training program could sensibly be used with other professionals that parents routinely contact and trust, including family doctors, midwives and health visitors.But an obvious limitation to this research is a lack of evidence about whether parents under relationship stress and their children gained any benefits from the support they received from staff who had completed the training. Disappointingly, the Department for Education’s research funding did not allow for follow-up case studies with practitioners and parents that might have yielded some indication of impact.However, the researchers are right to point out that any attempt to measure the training program’s effectiveness with families would face serious difficulties distinguishing its impact from that of other support that parents might receive – including any relationship counselling they were referred to by frontline practitioners.*********Reference: Coleman, L., Houlston, C., Casey, P. and Bryson-Purdon Social Research. (2013). A Randomised Control Trial of a Relationship Support Training Programme for Frontline Practitioners Working with Families. London: OnePlusOne

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