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Why and how to get parents engaged in early intervention, and keep them involved throughout


4 Apr 2019

Patrick Myers, from the Reducing Parental Conflict team at DWP, explains why supporting parents' programme participation is such a vital step in the overall effectiveness of parenting and family services.

Previous research by EIF and others has set out some of the challenges around engaging parents and families in services designed to support them. We know that accessibility, acceptability, lack of information and social isolation are factors that act as barriers to participation in these kinds of programmes. We also know that those who would most benefit from these services are the least likely to access them. If we can’t confront and work to solve some of these problems, then the potential of the services and support available in the system, to improve the lives of families and their children, won’t be fully realised. Too many families won’t get the support they could benefit from.

Now, the latest EIF evidence review helps to clarify what can be done at the local and practice level to recruit parents into programmes, keep them engaged and support them through to the end. If programmes are going to work effectively – and in particular to help families where damaging conflict between parents is impacting negatively on children – then it is vital that we all work together to recognise and implement the recommendations this evidence review sets out, at the national, local and practice level.

As the review makes clear, having a workforce that is committed to relational practice is important. However, it also underlines that engaging with some target groups takes time. Employing and commissioning organisations need to recognise that encouraging participation may not always be easy. It’s not enough simply to invite parents to participate – services need to work alongside these parents, so that they can see what the extra support might mean for them and their children. Some parents may not recognise there are issues at home that are impacting on their children; others may be unsure where to go for help and might need effective scaffolding to support them to identify and engage with the right programme.

The review describes a range of existing strategies to encourage and keep parents involved in programmes. These provide a useful toolkit for practitioners when thinking about the design of a programme or deciding which manualised programme to use. Ensuring that there is a strong therapeutic alliance with frequent contact between practitioners and participants, alongside competent and empathic staff members – and, if possible, with experience of attending programmes themselves – all add to better recruitment and retention.

Beyond the programme itself, we must take note of the factors that we know enable or undermine participation. This might be about raising awareness through widespread advertisement or creating marketing material to appeal to specific groups in your area. Even more broadly, we all know there is a stigma attached to having to face up to the existence and impact of conflict between parents. There are things we can do locally to help change this narrative, for example, by acknowledging that for some life is tough, and that stress factors in a family’s life can align to create the environment where conflict can emerge, despite the best efforts of everyone involved.

Practical considerations need to be taken into account. The timing of programme sessions can make a real difference – for example, by making use of twilight sessions – as can providing crèche facilities for parents of young children. Universal services such as schools also have an important role to play, both in publicising and signposting families towards programmes and services, and in providing a familiar setting for programmes, to help reduce any stigma associated with participation.  

The lessons from this new review, and the content of the Reducing Parental Conflict programme more widely, together help us to ensure that families who will benefit from additional support are able to work with services, so they are able to change for themselves and for their children. Breaking down the barriers to that participation is a vital first step.