New Oxford University study finds that parenting interventions for helping children with behaviour problems are just as effective in school age, as in younger children.
There is a predominant view amongst scientists and policy-makers that, for greatest effect, interventions need to be applied early in life, when children's brain function and behaviour are thought to be more malleable. However, according to new Oxford University research, it's time to stop focussing on when we intervene with parenting, and just get on with helping children in need of all ages.
Just published in Child Development, the study is one of the first to test this age assumption. Parenting interventions are a common and effective tool for reducing child behaviour problems, but studies of age effects have until now produced mixed results.
A team led by Professor Frances Gardner of Oxford University's Centre for Evidence-Based Intervention analysed data from over 15,000 families from all over the world, and found no evidence that earlier is better. Older children benefited just as much as younger ones from parenting interventions for reducing behaviour problems. There was no evidence whatsoever for the common belief that earlier interventions are more powerful - and this was based on combining data from more than 150 rigorous trials.
What's more, their economic analysis (based on a UK and Ireland subset of the data) found that interventions with older children were actually more likely to be cost effective.
Professor Gardner commented: "Where there is concern about behavioural difficulties in younger children, it is important that our findings are never used as a reason to delay intervention, as children and families otherwise will suffer for longer." She continued, "With respect to common parenting interventions for reducing behaviour problems in childhood, rather than believing 'earlier is better', we should conclude, 'it's never too early, never too late'."
The study draws the conclusion that it makes sense to invest in parenting interventions for children at all ages showing signs of behavioural difficulties, as they are no more likely to be effective in younger than older children, at least in the pre-adolescent range, 2-11 years.
Of course, there's more work to be done. The trials examined were limited to pre-adolescents, to shorter-term effects, and parent-reported assessment of child outcomes.
Future studies are needed that focus on adolescents, longer-term outcomes, and using multiple sources (e.g. observations; father reports) for assessing child behaviour problems.
Notes for editors:
The Earlier the Better? Individual Participant Data (IPD) and Traditional Meta-Analysis of Age Effects of Parenting Interventions https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13138
Professor Frances Gardner, University of Oxford*
Patty Leijten, University of Amsterdam & University of Oxford
G.J. Melendez-Torres, University of Warwick
Sabine Landau, Victoria Harris, King's College London, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neuroscience
Joanna Mann, University of Oxford
Jennifer Beecham, London School of Economics and Political Science.
Judy Hutchings, Bangor University.
Stephen Scott, King's College London, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neuroscience
NIHR PHR grant 12-3070-04 to Gardner, Scott, Landau, Hutchings, Beecham
Swedish Board of Health and Welfare to Frances Gardner.
Views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR or the Department of Health. Declaration of interests: Judy Hutchings declares she has received occasional payments for training leaders in the Incredible Years parent programme from the Seattle IY office. Scott, Gardner, Hutchings and Leijten led some of the trials included in Meta-analysis 1. No other authors have conflicts of interest to declare.
Method in detail:
Following a systematic search of the global literature, we combined and analysed data from all randomized controlled trials testing the effectiveness of social learning theory-based parenting interventions for children's disruptive behaviour. We conducted two such 'meta-analyses', each employing complementary approaches. One used summary data from 156 trials, involving 13,378 families in 20 countries; the other obtained full participant data from 1,696 families who took part in virtually all the trials (13 trials) conducted in Europe of one common parenting intervention, The Incredible Years. In both analyses, behaviour problems were measured using standardized parent report questionnaires. Children ranged in age from 2-11 years, 60% of families had low income, and 30% were from ethnic minorities.
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Corresponding author contact:
Professor of Child and Family Psychology & Fellow of Wolfson College
Centre for Evidence-Based Intervention
Department of Social Policy & Intervention
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