It is well established that aspects of a child’s life such as poor parental supervision, harsh, neglectful, or erratic discipline and social disadvantage significantly increase the risks of involvement in crime and anti-social behaviour. Those children who experience these factors in combination, or at their most extreme are at greatest risk of becoming persistent offenders. Early intervention means targeting children “at-risk” at an early age to provide family support and improve educational performance. Early intervention measures aim to encourage better behaviour, create more opportunities for children and their families, and help them develop the skills to reach their potential.
Drawing primarily on an evaluation from an SRB funded project in Thames Valley which considered a range of different methods of early years interventions, have highlighted twenty lessons learned from existing good practice. They are reproduced below.
1. The younger the child, the more pronounced the effects on behaviour. The most successful programmes are age specific and target pre-school children. Programmes for school aged children still have an impact, but it is less marked.
2. Programmes using cognitive and social learning approaches show the greatest impact on the behaviour of individual children.
3. The “whole school” approach produces significant anecdotal evidence of improved general behaviour at all levels of the school community, although further investigation is needed into appropriate research methods for judging whole community interventions. The whole community approach could be especially useful for younger children in nurseries and Sure Start programmes, where it may act in a preventative way for some behavioural difficulties.
4. There is anecdotal evidence that school based programmes using therapeutic methods helped to support SEN children in school.
5. The ideal strategy is probably one that offers a layered approach: it establishes a basic emotional and behavioural structure for all children; offers a more targeted approach for those who continue to have problems; and targets specific areas of concern with dedicated solutions.
6. Parents are motivated to participate by a combination of concern for their children and desire to meet their own needs, especially for company, support and activity outside the home. The sense that parenting is acknowledged as a difficult, wearing job is enough to keep some parents coming, even when they feel there are few changes in their child.
7. In very deprived areas, parents are likely to need other incentives to participate in groups, i.e. payment of transport costs and provision of food and refreshments. The provision of separate childcare, whether integral to the programme or not, is essential for many parents to be able to participate.
8. The use of groups for both parents and children adds an important dimension to the intervention. Group membership is, for many, the first time parenthood had produced more social opportunities, instead of limiting them, and this can alter their view of their children.
9. Groups work best when they are structured, but they also need to be flexible enough to focus on the particular parent’s presenting needs.
10. Groups must be led by experienced staff who can mediate differences between members, which are bound to arise. It is important to agree ground rules such as confidentiality at the outset. Supportive relationships between group members and leaders are key in attracting and sustaining parental involvement.
11. Group leaders should model the desired behaviours, such as the giving of undivided attention. Parents frequently note that being listened to is a welcome new experience.
12. Success breeds success, so when it comes to convincing parents to complete the programmes, it is useful to build in one or more early wins.
13. The interventions that produce the greatest impact on behaviour are those that were delivered by specialist organisations. Nevertheless, other kinds of practitioners can benefit from receiving training to carry out the work, and may add value in other ways with their own expertise.
14. Volunteers can make an important contribution to programmes. To be most effective however, they need to be drawn from a wide pool, thoroughly prepared for the reality of working with children with behavioural difficulties, and provided with clearly identifiable, external support.
15. The programmes assessed were not generally seen as stigmatising in the way that other professional interventions in family life often are. The use of volunteers added a community link and helped lessen any embarrassment parents may have felt about taking part.
16. Men rarely attend parent groups and may respond in greater numbers to single sex groups. On the other hand, some parents who have attended sessions together have reported improvements in their own relationship.
17. Families with severe, multiple and entrenched problems are most likely to find it difficult to complete the intervention and extra support will probably be needed. Nevertheless a substantial proportion did complete the programmes evaluated, requiring considerable effort on their part, indicating they found the outcomes worthwhile.
18. There is no evidence that the programmes would be more effective if they were longer, or repeated: 12 to 15 weeks appeared to be the optimum length.
19. Many parents would value follow up support, namely advice, encouragement and reassurance. Interventions offering parenting support can act as a gateway for other services and, where families can easily access other types of support, this adds value to the intervention. There is some potential for parents who have “graduated” from programmes to reach other parents in the neighbourhood, through word of mouth, and to act as role models for participants.
20. Self help parenting groups should be encouraged to extend the social support beyond the duration of the
programme. They could also consider other matters such as nutrition and early education.