• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Friday 07th December, 2012

So your program works. Do you know why?

strong>Evaluations of parenting programs traditionally examine if a program works. Recently they have also explored for whom and under which circumstances a program has the best effects – the result of a growing awareness that programs don’t work the same for all participants. The questions of how and why something works are examined much less frequently, however. The result, according to a team of researchers from the Netherlands, is that “few program developers actually know which aspects of their multi-component intervention produced the positive results.”Maja Deković and her colleagues from the Universities of Utrecht and Amsterdam argue that testing the mechanisms that lie behind a program’s effects has important scientific as well as clinical implications. It helps to build and refine theory – that is, to tell an accurate story of how and why a program worked.Fortunately, the authors say, there is an emerging body of research on mechanisms, the precise pathways by which a program achieves its results. A study of Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care, for example, showed that its positive effects on adolescent antisocial behavior were due in part to improved parenting practices – more discipline, monitoring, and positive reinforcement.However, most research into mechanisms has looked at whether changes in parenting produce changes in child functioning. Several studies provide strong support for the assumption that improved parenting leads to better child behavior. But another set of mechanisms have been overlooked: how parenting programs affect parenting. “The implicit assumption seems to be that the program affects parenting directly through, for example, instruction, modeling of appropriate behavior, rehearsal and feedback,” the authors say.How do parenting programs affect parenting?So Deković and her colleagues decided to examine how parenting programs affect the way that parents think, which in turn may influence their behavior. They explain: “Parental sense of competence or parenting efficacy (i.e. the expectation caregivers hold about their ability to parent successfully) has been linked in previous studies more positive parenting, lower levels of harsh hostile and inconsistent discipline, and higher general involvement in parenting.”In a longitudinal study involving nearly 600 children and their parents, they found that parents with particular personality traits, such as extraversion and agreeableness, were likely to have a higher sense of competence in their parenting role. A sense of competence, in turn, related over time to less overreactive and more supportive parenting. However, this evidence does not prove that feeling competent about parenting leads to better parenting: as they put it, “The only real test of causality is an experiment.”Does changing parents’ sense of competence make them better parents?An opportunity for just such an experiment to test the theory was presented by Home-Start, a parenting support program for mothers of young children who experience difficulties in child-rearing. Crucially, Home-Start does not seek to change parenting behavior or teach parents new skills. Instead, it aims to increase mothers’ sense of competence.Deković and her team compared 66 mothers in the Home Start group with 58 similar mothers who did not receive the program. Home-Start volunteers visited mothers in their homes four times during the year to offer emotional support. The question was whether positive changes in parenting – a decrease in inept discipline and an increase in supportive parenting – were due to an increase in mothers’ sense of competence.The answer was “yes,” the researchers found. The program did increase mothers’ sense of competence in parenting, and this, in turn, contributed to better parenting. The researchers conclude that, combined with the results from their longitudinal study, this shows that “intrapersonal, cognitive processes are, indeed, powerful determinants of parenting.”Connecting the linksThe pathway from parenting intervention to child outcome, then, may have several links: how the program affects parents’ sense of competence, how parents’ sense of competence affects their parenting behavior, and how parenting behavior affects children. The authors note the importance of testing this final link, the link between parenting and child outcomes, especially since “effect sizes of parental training programs are largest for parental cognitions (knowledge, attitudes, or self-efficacy), somewhat smaller for parenting behavior and skills, and smallest for child outcomes.” Home-Start had no significant effects on child outcomes, the study found, despite its effects on parenting behavior.They also argue that future tests of parenting programs would ideally test competing mechanisms and alternative pathways.Deković and her colleagues conclude that rather than leading separate existences, researchers interested in theory, and researchers interested in what works, need to feed off one another: “Program developers should use new knowledge generated in fundamental research to improve theoretical models of their parenting programs, and researchers should use the results of evaluation research to improve their theories.”Reference: Deković, M., Stoltz, S., Schuiringa, H., Manders, W., & Asscher, J. J. (2012). Testing theories through evaluation research: Conceptual and methodological issues embedded in evaluations of parenting programmes. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 9 (1), 61-74.

Back to Archives