Walsall: Developing a theory of change and logic model for a local reducing parental conflict intervention
This case example is part of EIF’s ongoing work to showcase how local areas are introducing change, adapting their strategies and changing the way they work to reduce parental conflict and improve outcomes for children.
This is Walsall’s story about developing a theory of change and logic model for a local reducing parental conflict intervention, as phase three of a four-phase reducing parental conflict evaluation project. It is told by Georgina Atkins, Walsall’s parenting lead for early help, and Helen Burridge, research officer at the Early Intervention Foundation.
Our starting point
Walsall is a metropolitan borough located in the West Midlands. In Walsall, one in three children aged 16 years and under come from low-income families, which is higher than the national average of one in five. The high and increasing level of child poverty puts additional demands on our services in Walsall, including parental relationship support services.
It is well evidenced that when parental conflict is frequent, intense and poorly resolved, this impacts negatively on children and young people’s mental and physical health and wellbeing. It is therefore important for us to understand whether our parenting and relationship support has a good chance of reducing destructive conflict and ultimately improving outcomes for children and young people.
Our local reducing parental conflict support offer has multiple services and interventions, as outlined in our system-wide theory of change. Therefore, we needed to prioritise which intervention to evaluate first. We decided to focus on evaluating our parenting relationships course which, due to the pandemic, has changed to an online delivery format. During sessions, parenting practitioners use videos and visual aids to inform parents about different types of conflict, components of arguments, and the impact on children. The intervention gives parents, whether together or separated, the opportunity to look at their relationship in a safe space and develop an action plan to encourage behaviour change.
Although we have some evidence from feedback forms to show the parenting intervention is beneficial for parents when delivered in person, we could not claim the intervention still worked as an online course because we had made significant changes to the format, content and length of the intervention. In our evaluation, we wanted to explore whether the course was operating in the way it was intended. As a first step, we set out to develop a theory of change and logic model for our online parenting intervention to identify how and why the parenting course is expected to achieve outcomes, which would then give a basis for our evaluation.
The action we took
The first step was to develop an initial draft theory of change for the online parenting course. Following a similar process to how we developed our theory of change for our local arrangements for reducing parental conflict, I worked through a series of questions with EIF’s support. We started by considering the primary outcome and mapped backwards to establish what was necessary to reach the ultimate goal:
- What is the ultimate child outcome for the online parenting course?
- Why is the online parenting course needed?
- Who is the online parenting course for?
- What will the online parenting course do?
- What are the assumptions that should be tested?
To answer these questions, we drew on different forms of evidence. This included the theories and existing research evidence that we used to develop the parenting course, such as trauma-informed practice, the Family Stress Model, and evidence on the importance of involving fathers. This enabled us to identify a set of evidence-based assumptions about how our online parenting course could help parents to better manage destructive conflict and improve their co-parenting relationship.
We used the answers to these questions to complete a diagrammatic outline of our theory of change to summarise the key elements using EIF’s template. To test and refine the draft theory of change I worked with EIF to co-deliver a two-hour virtual workshop with senior managers and parenting practitioners. We felt it was important to work with practitioners who are delivering the intervention as they would be able to contribute their unique insights, and it would be a good opportunity for them to understand the mechanisms which lead to the anticipated outcomes.
In the first part of the workshop, we recapped what is meant by parental conflict and reviewed the evidence base on the impact it has on children. We then discussed what a theory of change is and why it would be useful to develop for the parenting course. The remainder of the workshop involved participants interrogating the draft theory of change, beginning with an assessment of the evidence on why the course was needed, and which families would attend the course. The workshop then went on to map the desired outcomes backwards, from ultimate to medium- and short-term outcomes, linking them to the parenting course activities. We wanted to get practitioners to take a step back from delivery and consider the key outcomes they ultimately think the intervention impacts on and how.
Information gathered during the workshop was used to refine our theory of change. The final step was to use the theory of change to develop a logic model using EIF’s logic model template. The logic model represented what the parenting course does to achieve the intended outcomes, as illustrated in the extract below.
What we achieved
We developed a theory of change that explains the rationale behind the parenting course clearly and simply. The development process helped strategic and operational stakeholders gain a common understanding of why the course is needed and what it aims to achieve. After the workshop, practitioners said that they found it helpful to reflect on the rationale of the intervention and the anticipated benefits as they could refer to this when recruiting parents onto the course. In particular, practitioners valued having the opportunity to hear from others what they thought the key mechanisms of change were, and what they felt parents achieved.
Our logic model builds on our theory of change to provide more detail on what happens as part of the intervention. This helped clarify the resources that would be needed for successful delivery of the course, such as the number of practitioners and training requirements. Our logic model also shows how the resources required to implement the intervention lead to specific outputs, which in turn lead to the outcomes identified in our theory of change. This helped to ensure strategic and operational stakeholders had a shared understanding of how the different components of the course work to achieve the intended outcomes, and demonstrated the importance of particular components of the intervention which justified the resources needed. Strategic leads were also able to see how the parenting course links to other interventions intended to impact on relationship outcomes in our wider support offer.
Both the intervention theory of change and the logic model were a useful starting point for planning our evaluation of the parenting course. They helped specify outcomes that could then be measured through validated outcome measures as part of the evaluation. In addition, our logic model helped to prioritise and focus our data collection and analysis on the main aspects of the parenting course intervention.
What worked well and what we would recommend
It was useful to engage a range of different colleagues when developing the theory of change and logic model. Practitioners were able to draw on their frontline experience of delivering parenting interventions to detail how the parenting course operates in practice, the outcomes they have observed from previous parenting courses and the mechanisms that bring about change. They also used their knowledge of local families to identify potential barriers to engagement. Those working at the strategic level, such as senior managers, used their insight into the wider context to identify external factors which may prevent the parenting course achieving the intended outcomes, such as the number of practitioners trained to deliver the course, sharing of resources across interventions, and availability of funding.
Based on their expertise and experience, stakeholders in the workshop sometimes held different views on what should be included in the theory of change. It was useful to have an external facilitator to provide an independent perspective to help resolve alternative viewpoints among participants and reach consensus. Having an independent facilitator also meant all participants could be fully engaged in the discussion.
The group of participants had mixed experience of theory of change. Introducing what a theory of change is at the start of the workshop helped to ensure that participants had an accurate and consistent understanding and felt confident adding their contributions throughout the workshop. Stakeholders who were unfamiliar with theories of change found it particularly useful to be given a simple example of a theory of change to help familiarise them with the terminology, for example to understand the distinction between outputs and outcomes.
Presenting different forms of evidence at the beginning of the workshop helped to reinforce the message that a theory of change should be evidence-based and encouraged practitioners to think along these lines. It was important to emphasise that there are different types of evidence, and that their professional knowledge had a place alongside scientific research and academic papers. Information about how the intervention was operating is not always shared at the strategic level so it was useful for us to hear practitioners articulate this.
Presenting a draft theory of change for stakeholders to comment on during the workshop rather than starting with a blank theory of change worked well as it provided structure to the discussion. We emphasised that the draft was just a starting point, and the workshop would be used to interrogate, change, and develop it further to encourage stakeholders to give their views, regardless of whether they agreed or disagreed with the initial content. This helped to ensure the finalised theory of change reflected views of all stakeholders and subsequently ensured greater ownership of the theory of change. This has encouraged stakeholders to review and refine the theory of change as we have learnt more from the evaluation.
It was important to build in enough time and capacity at each stage of development. When drafting the initial theory of change, it was useful to revisit the draft in a series of sessions before the workshop as it allowed time to reflect on the content and ensure we had captured all the relevant detail. It also allowed time to consider the evidence for the assumptions in the theory of change. We needed time after the workshop to reflect on the points raised and amend the theory of change to ensure it accurately reflected conclusions from the workshop as well as the previous evidence gathered. Although the theory of change provided a useful starting point for the logic model, we still needed a couple of sessions to develop and refine our logic model.
This was the third phase of our reducing parental conflict evaluation project, which was split into four phases covered in this series of case studies:
- Map the local workforce
- Write local system-level reducing parental conflict theory of change, setting out key outcomes
- a) Decide which interventions to evaluate; b) Write intervention theory of change and logic model (covered in this case study)
- a) Write evaluation plan specifying research questions and methods; b) Plan, collect, analyse and interpret evaluation data; c) Use of evaluation data.
The theory of change and logic model was used in the final phase of the evaluation to develop an evaluation plan, select suitable outcome measures and develop a survey. This part of the project will be covered in our fourth case study which will be published separately.
For more information on how to develop a system-wide theory of change, see module one of EIF’s reducing parental conflict evaluation guide for local areas.