• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Tuesday 20th May, 2008

Turning Irish society toward child centeredness

The Irish Minister for Children has welcomed the delivery of The Incredible Years in areas of disadvantage as a vitally important component of the work of his new Office.Opening the Archways National Conference in Dublin yesterday, Barry Andrews acknowledged that the country's current expenditure on early years provision (0.2% of GDP ) was not adequate, and told his audience that he was committed to a "rebalancing and refocusing of services towards early intervention within the context of supporting and building the resilience of families". He also promised to explore the role of fathers in their children's lives and spoke of the importance of promoting a stronger male presence in disciplines such as childcare, teaching and social work.Archways, a new NGO in Ireland directed by educationalist Margaret Maher, will lead the implementation of The Incredible Years in 11 communities across the country. The experimental evaluation of the program is being led by Sinead McGilloway from the National University of Ireland Maynooth.Tom Collins, Professor of Education at Maynooth and an Archways Board member, who was also among yesterday’s speakers, said that the implementation of The Incredible Years and similar programs in his country was "not just about peripheral adjustment” but a matter of “turning society to child-centeredness". Keynote speaker was Judy Hutchings, Professor of Psychology at Bangor University in Wales. She has achieved with The Incredible Years in Wales what Margaret Maher and her Archways project are setting out to achieve in Ireland: fidelity to the Carolyn Webster-Stratton model and top-quality evaluation to estimate the impact on children’s health and development.Parenting meant play, she told her Dublin audience yesterday. Having fun allowed parents and children to build a positive relationship. Parenting also meant plenty of praise and incentives to help build children's social competencies. But there was also a place for boundaries to encourage children to become more co-operative – room for overlooking naughtiness, but also acceptance of the consequences of bad behavior. “We can be liberal with the play and other positive responses and sparing with time-outs and other negative responses,” she said.Program fidelity was another of her themes. The Incredible Years could be incredible if it was implemented well. Implemented badly, it was about as useful as any of the many unproven parenting programs.The initiative in Wales was built on the resources of The Incredible Years’ organization in Seattle, Washington. They included a comprehensive manual, videotapes, books and other materials for parents and teachers and structured training for leaders, trainers and mentors of the program. Staff were accredited by the Seattle group and received continuing supervision and the benefit from a network liking them to other qualified people around the world.She had been able to bring a rigor to the faithful implementation of prevention programs in her country, whereas in England the Sure Start experiment saw services delivering whatever they decided, with the result that outcomes showed no benefits among high risk families.But there were increasing signs, she said, that the program was beginning to be delivered more faithfully in England – for example in Manchester and Blackburn with Darwin – now that it was being promoted under the auspices of the National Parenting Academy.The Welsh results were striking. Prior to the intervention, the group getting The Incredible Years looked similar in most respects to the group randomly allocated to services as normal. Both were within the clinical range on several developmental dimensions. But six, 12, 18 and now 36 months later, The Incredible Years group had improved markedly. Typically, scores for the intervention group now fell outside the clinical range. In this respect, Judy Hutchings explained, her results echoed those of Carolyn Webster-Stratton, with the difference that her Sure Start study was delivered in 11 centers by 22 different staff, demonstrating that where the emphasis was on fidelity the programs worked equally well in service and research settings.The design of Hutchings's study meant she was able to estimate the reasons for the success of the program. It came down to encouraging more positive parenting and giving parents positive discipline strategies.What pleased her most about her work, she said, was the finding that The Incredible Years worked well with families traditionally thought of as “harder to reach”, for example where parents were depressed, on the lowest incomes, also among lone parents and very young mothers. The work had encouraged the Welsh team to consider the value of The Incredible Years to high risk groups such as children in state care or heavily supported by social care and mental health services.As for The Incredible Years teaching program, after five days of training she found classroom behavior improved, similarly replicating Webster-Stratton's findings from research settings.Teachers’ responses were very encouraging. “I don’t raise my voice half as much as I used to. And I give a lot more praise. Rather, I think before reacting, and it is good to focus on good behavior in the classroom – something that I generally tended to ignore in the past. This has had such a positive effect on the children's behavior to each other too."Archway conference participants also heard presentations on the implementation of The Incredible Years in Jamaica, Norway and Manchester.The new Archway organization's achievements were applauded but concern was expressed about the continuing low level of Government investment in early years and parenting training provision. In spite of the development of government strategies and policies, assuring congruent decision making by middle-ranking officials of state agencies remained a challenge.[See also: Ireland goes boldly on to the mountain]

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