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Ruling the roost
The Incredible Years parenting programme is being held up by ministers as a model of good practice
Laura Smith 20th September 2006
It's Wednesday morning at the Plas Pawb community centre on a housing estate in Caernarfon, north Wales, and seven mothers sit anxiously in a circle. They have come for the first week of a parenting course and are wondering what to expect.
Sitting among them is Eilir Jones, the softly-spoken Sure Start health visitor who will lead the group. She goes around the room, gently asking each woman why she has come. They start off embarrassed, unsure, but gain confidence from each other as the answers spill out: sons and daughters with learning or speech difficulties; kids who are violent and have problems controlling their tempers; sons missing their fathers after a difficult divorce; children who won't do what they are told. By the time each mother has spoken, the relief in the room is palpable.
"A lot of mothers have so much on their plates," says Jones during the tea break. "They might have one child with physical or behavioural problems. They might have a difficult relationship with their partner. That's a lot to cope with. It helps to know that other parents are going through some of the same things."
The course at Plas Pawb is just one of dozens of parenting courses across Wales that use the Incredible Years (IY) approach, pioneered by Carolyn Webster-Stratton, an educational psychologist at the University of Washington, and introduced to the UK in 1997 by Dr Judy Hutchings, an NHS clinical psychologist and research director at the University of Wales, Bangor.
The central tenet of the programme is its collaborative nature. Parents are not told what to do, but are encouraged to work it out among themselves through group discussion. Positivity is another theme. Despite the serious problems faced by those who attend the programmes run at Sure Start centres or through child and adolescent mental health services, the first six weeks of the 12-week programme are spent not on addressing problem behaviour, but on helping parents build a positive relationship with their children.
Listening and talking, playing, praising and rewarding form the basis of these early classes and it's only in the final weeks that parents are given strategies to deal with bad behaviour, including time out, loss of privileges and ignoring.
Nicola Hilton, 35, from Tregarth, north Wales, finished the IY course earlier this year. "I remember feeling very frustrated in the first couple of weeks," she says. "My son has ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] and the course was a last resort. I didn't want to come here and play Thomas the bloody Tank Engine. I wanted someone with a white coat to sort things out. But it's been an absolute turnaround. Things aren't perfect now, but to actually be in control and know you are the boss and for that child to know their boundaries is important."
Hilton is not the only parent to report such a positive outcome. An evaluation of the approach in 11 Sure Start areas in 2003-04 found that children whose parents attended at least one session showed a 42% reduction in problem behaviours compared with a 7% reduction in the control group. And this was among three- to four-year-old children referred by health visitors because they were considered at risk of developing conduct disorder due to significant behavioural difficulties.
"The parents we saw had children who had incredible tantrums, were being aggressive and sometimes violent," says Tracey Bywater, research officer in Hutchings' department at the University of Wales. "They were climbing the walls. To go back to the same family a few months later and hear them say they can take their little boy shopping where they couldn't before, and that their relationship with their partner is better because they're less stressed out and that they are actually having fun with their children - it's lovely."
Such evidence has not gone unnoticed. The Welsh assembly in April this year unveiled plans to roll out the parenting programme to every local authority area in Wales. One of the other aspects of the scheme, in which teachers are trained to use the IY methods with reception and primary school pupils, was adopted by Gwynedd Education Department in 2001 and teachers trained in aspects of the scheme will be in place in every primary school in the county by 2008.
Central government is also taking notice. The government's action plan on social exclusion, published last week, praises the programme for its "significant results", including better parenting and a reduction in problem child behaviours. IY was recommended in the recently published National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidelines for the treatment of conduct disorder and is being examined by the Department for Education and Skills for possible roll-out elsewhere in the UK.
Hutchings says she has lost count of the number of government briefings she has attended in recent months. "I had breast cancer two years ago and could do with retiring really," she says. "But it's quite hard to give up when you know you are doing something that could make a difference to family's lives."
While welcoming the government's renewed commitment to early intervention, Hutchings and her team are wary of the rhetoric about identifying problem children "pre-birth", which caused some outcry last month when Tony Blair lent his support. "There are risk factors such as low income, but you have to be careful because it's not predetermined," says Bywater. "You can't, in my opinion, say that just because they come from a single parent family - which my kids do - they are going to be trouble."
Judith Roberts, 34, from Deiniolen, north Wales, finished the parenting course earlier this year and believes it should be offered universally. "After a couple of years of having groups of people looking at you while you are grappling with your child at school and in the supermarket when he is going nuts, you feel so alone," she says. "This group makes you realise it's not just you and reminds you that you are a good mother. I'm a lot more confident now. I'm looking into going back to work and getting on with my life because it seemed to be on hold for so many years."
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