• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Monday 02nd February, 2009

Helping schools to be better parents

The context of their early lives, in particular the combination of family, peer group and community influences, is a powerful shaper of childrens behavior. There is an obvious connection between positive parenting practices and well-behaved children, and schools are important not least for providing an environment where behavior can be modeled, reinforced and rewarded. So far so elementary. Sometimes things can go wrong, not necessarily to any dramatic extent, but sufficiently to put the contextual supports out of kilter. Parents may inadvertently set inappropriate boundaries and not supervise their children adequately. Schools may unknowingly foster bad behavior through strategies not much different from known poor parenting practices.Wendy Reinke and colleagues at the University of Missouri Columbia observe that children who rebound between home and school with an aggressive attitude toward their peers and teachers, and a tendency to cause disruption are more likely to suffer a range of negative outcomes as adults. They are at greater risk risk of failing school, becoming addicted to drugs, engaging in anti-social behavior and succumbing to depression or anxiety.Following this line of reasoning, they make the argument for a coordinated approach to early intervention that makes the best use of family-based and school-based programs.Writing in the latest edition of the journal Psychology in the Schools, they acknowledge the numerous preventive programs that aim to address contextual factors in order to improve childrens behavior.Their effectiveness is frequently hampered, they say, by the difficulty of getting parents engaged and committed to prevention programs, particularly those in low income families whose children have complex needs.The Missouri team say there is good reason to believe that the Family Check-Up, developed at the University of Oregon by Tom Dishion and Kathryn Kavanagh can break down most of the hurdles if it is implemented simultaneously with an equivalent schools-based program. The Family Check-Up requires parents to attend a motivational interview, a series of psychological assessments and a feedback session. During the interview they are encouraged to carry on doing what they do well and helped to repair mistakes likely to contribute to childrens behavior problems. The Check-up rests primarily on assessment technique but the evidence indicates that it operates more like an intervention, increasing family engagement with school and resulting in improvements in child outcomes.Studies have shown that it increases parents participation and their willingness to follow through on referrals. It also erodes childrens friendships with deviant peers and remedies problem behavior including substance misuse.Reinke and her colleagues say that schemes that combine two or more effective programs such as family-centered and school-based programs, can be more effective.As a school accompaniment to the Family Check-up they recommend Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), which they describe as a behavior-based systems approach. It involves introducing consistent rules, consequences, encouragement and expectations across all classroom and non-classroom settings. The jury is still out on whether PBIS is effective on childrens developmental outcomes. Tom Dishion, meanwhile, is adapting the Family Check-up for use with the families of pre-schoolers. [See also: Think once, think twice get ready to stop]See: Reink W, Splett J, Robeson E, Offutt C (2008) Combining school and family interventions for the prevention and early intervention of disruptive behavior problems in children: a public health perspective, Psychology in the Schools?, 46, 1, pp 33-43.

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