Public Release: 

Strengthening Parenting Skills Found To Ward Off Behavior Problems In Children At Risk, Says New Study

American Psychological Association

WASHINGTON - Evidence shows that certain family characteristics can put children at risk for developing aggressive behavior problems. For example, children who have parents who are inconsistent with their discipline, physically abusive and highly critical and hostile are more likely to behave poorly both in school and at home. In addition, they usually have more trouble establishing good relationships with their peers, teachers and family. But, according to a study in the October issue of the American Psychological Association's Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, strengthening parenting skills early can be a good step toward preventing problem behaviors in children at risk.

Many children who are at a higher-than-average risk for developing conduct disorders have the opportunity to attend Head Start. Head Start programs were originally developed to help children from economically disadvantaged families get a jump on their cognitive development and academic readiness. Very few studies have examined either its effectiveness in enhancing children's social competence or its effect on parents.

To find out how effective parent-training programs are in changing preschoolers' behavior, psychologist Carolyn Webster-Stratton, Ph.D., of the University of Washington recruited 426 families from nine Head Start centers to participate in her study. The aims of the programs were to improve parents' competence, children's social competence and home-school connections in an effort to reduce children's aggressiveness at home and in school.

Of the 426 families, 296 of the parents were randomly assigned to a parent program that involved learning positive discipline strategies and effective parenting skills over an eight- to nine-week period. The parents also learned ways to strengthen their children's social skills and problem-solving behaviors. The remaining parents (130) did not receive any instruction. All the teachers and teachers' aides in the experimental group were given a two-day workshop to familiarize themselves with the parent-training course so they could use the same strategies in their classrooms as the parents used in the home.

"The results of these programs are very promising," said Dr. Webster-Stratton. "Parenting behavior improved from both the parents' perspective and from outside observations. The mothers in the training programs showed significant decreases in critical and harsh parenting styles as well as significant increases in using positive and competent discipline, like appropriate limit-setting techniques. The mothers who didn't participate in the programs showed no change in their parenting styles."

"Those who attended more than 50 percent of the parent sessions offered used less physical negative discipline and increased their level of affection and nurturing," said Dr. Webster-Stratton. The children were observed to be happier and acted out much less than children in the control group.

These improvements in parenting and child behavior still existed at the one-year follow-up and then again at the 18-month follow-up in the home, but not always in school. One reason the changes did not last as long in the schools as in the home, explained Dr. Webster-Stratton, "is that the parents spent more time in training than the teachers did (eight to nine weeks vs. two days). Teachers requested more training in classroom management strategies to help children with behavior problems and to promote social skills and effective problem-solving. Interestingly, the baseline measurements of behavior were different for home and school. Only eight percent of the children were exhibiting disrupting behaviors in the classroom before the parent-training program started. Whereas, 30 percent of these children were acting out in the home."

Article: "Preventing Conduct Problems in Head Start Children: Strengthening Parenting Competencies," Carolyn Webster-Stratton, Ph.D., University of Washington, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 66, No. 5

(Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office before October 5 and at http://www.apa.org/ journals/ccp thereafter)

Carolyn Webster-Stratton, Ph.D., can be reached at (206) 543-6010 or cws@u.washington.edu

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The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United states and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 155,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 50 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 58 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

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