Better parenting for school readiness – there’s an app for that

A randomised controlled trial carried out by the University of Oxford’s Department of Education and published by the Sutton Trust tested EasyPeasy, a smartphone app for the parents and carers of two- to six-year-old children. EasyPeasy aims to improve school readiness by encouraging positive play and interaction with young children.

The trial, which lasted 18 weeks, was carried out in eight children’s centres in Bournemouth with 144 families taking part. Games were sent directly to parents’ mobiles via an app once a week along with tailored prompts, encouragement, reminders, and information on child development.

The study reported significant findings for two out of seven outcome measures. Parents who took part in the intervention reported improvements in their children’s persistence and concentration (cognitive self-regulation). Parental consistency with discipline and boundaries also increased in the intervention group with parents feeling more comfortable setting limits for behaviour and following through on expectations. Both showed positive effect sizes; 0.51 and 0.44 respectively.

Source: EasyPeasy parenting app: Findings from an e­fficacy trial on parent engagement and school readiness skills (2016), The Sutton Trust

The effects of parenting programmes

A new policy brief from The Campbell Collaboration summarises evidence from six Campbell systematic reviews of parenting programmes.

These programmes are designed to enhance parents’ knowledge, skills, and understanding, and to improve both child and parent behavioural and psychological outcomes. Programmes are typically offered to parents over the course of 8 to 12 weeks, for one or two hours each week. The programmes can be delivered on a one-to-one basis or to groups, and be provided in a range of settings, including hospitals, social work clinics, schools, and churches.

The six systematic reviews that have been published by The Campbell Collaboration have evaluated the effectiveness of a range of parenting programmes, including those aimed at addressing early onset conduct disorder and improving outcomes for children with ADHD. The reviews provide unequivocal evidence that parenting programmes are effective in improving aspects of parents’ psychosocial functioning (eg, depression, anxiety, confidence, and satisfaction with the partner relationship) in the short-term. Behavioural and cognitive-behavioural group-based parenting interventions have also been found to be effective at improving child conduct problems, parental mental health, and parenting skills in the short term for parents of children aged 3-12. However, the evidence of effectiveness for parents of younger children is less comprehensive.

Source: Effects of Parenting Programmes: A Review of Six Campbell Systematic Reviews (2016), The Campbell Collaboration.

Helping parents with Lifestart

A recent paper from Queen’s University and the Institute of Child Care Research has shown positive results for parents involved in a trial of the Lifestart parenting programme in Ireland.

Lifestart is a programme for parents of children aged birth to five years old. It aims to give parents the tools they need to enhance their child’s learning environment, and is delivered in their own homes. The programme includes a monthly 30- to 60-minute home visit from a trained Lifestart family visitor, and monthly information based on the Growing Child curriculum.

The authors conducted a randomised controlled trial of Lifestart between 2008 and 2014. A total of 424 parents and children (less than one year old) were recruited from across Ireland and volunteered to take part in the study. Each family was assigned to either the intervention group (who received the programme for five years) or the control group (who did not). The research team visited every family three times and collected information about the children’s cognitive, emotional, and behavioural development, and about parents’ feelings.

The trial found that parents who received Lifestart reported less parenting stress, better knowledge of child development, and more confidence in their parenting. The authors also found positive changes in children’s development, although these changes were not statistically significant. However, they note that significant impact could emerge later as the cumulative effect of improved parenting builds up over time.

Source: A Randomised Controlled Trial Evaluation of the Lifestart Parenting Programme (2015), Queen’s University.

Family instability increases drop-out rates

A new study has shown that young people who experienced instability in family structure were 33% less likely to stay in education than those who lived in stable married biological families.

The research, published in the British Educational Research Journal, used data from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (LSYPE), which has tracked the progress of 10,783 young people and their parents. This was combined with information from the National Pupil Database (NPD), which contains longitudinal student achievement data.

Students who had experienced a change in family structure between 2004 and 2007 were significantly less likely to stay in school after the age of 16 than those who did not. In other findings, the study found no discernible difference between children living in cohabiting biological families and those living in married biological families. However, children living in a cohabiting family that included one biological parent were less likely to stay in school than those from two-biological-parent married families.

After accounting for covariates such as family socioeconomic status, the analysis revealed that children from stable lone-parent households were as likely to remain in education after the age of 16 as were children in stable married biological families.

In terms of informing policy, the study shows the importance of identifying the multiple risk factors that children may face. Much research has focused on the importance of poverty, but other factors independent of income can also have an influence.

Source: Family structure instability and the educational persistence of young people in England (2015), British Educational Research Journal

For richer or poorer

A new blogpost on the Brookings website in the US explores why children raised by married parents typically do better in life on almost every available economic and social measure. Is it an effect of marriage itself, or is it simply because married parents have, on average, higher family incomes?

The authors argue that there is a growing marriage gap along class lines in the US, with fewer poorer couples choosing to marry while the institution flourishes among the affluent and well-educated. They also say that married parents tend to have, on average, higher family incomes anyway.

The researchers used benchmarks developed as part of the Brookings Social Genome Model to explore patterns in attainment, cognitive and non-cognitive skills, higher education, and later earnings.

Children who grow up with continuously married mothers rank on average 14 percentiles higher as adults on the income distribution than those who do not. Controlling for family income throughout childhood shrinks this gap from 14 percentiles to 9 percentiles. And accounting for other factors – parenting behaviour, maternal education, race, and maternal age – shrinks it further to around a 4.5 percentile difference.

Similarly, parenting behaviour appears to help explain the different outcomes. After controlling for parenting, the gap between children of continuously married mothers and others shrinks from 14 percentiles to 7.5 percentiles.

The analysis suggests that both the higher incomes and the more engaged parenting of married parents count for a good deal, and, if anything, parenting may matter a little more.

Source: The Marriage Effect: Money or Parenting? (2014), Brookings.

Less structure = better outcomes?

Frontiers in Psychology has published a new study that suggests that children whose time is less structured are better able to meet their own goals.

As part of the study, parents of 70 6-year-olds were surveyed about their children’s daily, annual, and typical schedules. Researchers then categorised the children’s activities as either more structured or less structured, based on categorisation schemes from prior studies on children’s leisure-time use. In their classification system, structured time was defined to include any time outside of formal schooling spent in activities organised and supervised by adults (eg, piano lessons, organised football practice, and homework). Less-structured activities included free play alone and with others, social outings, sightseeing, reading, and media time. The children were also evaluated for self-directed executive function – the ability to set and reach goals independently – with a verbal fluency test.

Results of the study showed that the more time children spent in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning. Conversely, the more time children spent in more-structured activities, the poorer their self-directed executive function.

The researchers emphasise that their results show a correlation between time use and self-directed executive function, but they don’t prove that the change in self-directed executive function was caused by the amount of structured or unstructured time. The research team is considering a longitudinal study, which would follow participants over time, to begin to answer the question of cause.

Source: Less-structured Time in Children’s Daily Lives Predicts Self-directed Executive Functioning (2014), Frontiers in Psychology, online June 2014.