Parenting interventions can improve children's conduct and literacy

15 May 2014

A new study shows that parenting interventions can be successful in improving children's conduct and literacy both in the short and longer term.

Helping Children Achieve (HCA) is a randomised controlled trial designed to test the effects of parenting interventions aimed at improving children’s conduct and literacy. Two different interventions were tested on 5-7 year-olds; one designed to improve behaviour and relationships (the Incredible Years Parenting Programme), and the other designed to improve literacy (the Supporting Parents on Kids Education in Schools Programme). A third group received a combination of both interventions.

The effects were measured 9-11 months after the interventions began, and showed that children in all three groups saw a reduction in disruptive behaviour compared to the control group, but only those who received the behaviour intervention saw an improvement in their reading. These findings were published by the Department for Education (DfE) in 2012.

A new report published by the Nuffield Foundation today presents findings from a follow-up study which measured outcomes of children in the HCA trial two years after the intervention began, when they were aged 7-9 years-old. Funded by the Foundation and led by Professor Stephen Scott, the study found that the effects identified in the original trial were sustained over the longer time period. The report also summarises the findings from the original HCA Trial.

The findings show that tackling problem behaviour at a young age can have lasting effects, not only on children’s behaviour but also on their reading. Conversely, the intervention specifically designed to improve literacy was unsuccessful. This finding is not what was predicted and demonstrates just how vital it is to ensure large scale interventions are properly evaluated. The lack of robust evidence on the effectiveness of parenting interventions has been an area of concern for the Foundation, not least because they often require significant public investment. 

Another valuable message emerging from the study is that improvements in children’s behaviour and reading ability were seen equally strongly across the board, regardless of factors such as level of parental education, parental mental health, and whether children lived in a one or two parent household. This is important because it show the potential for narrowing the attainment gap between children from different backgrounds and consequently for reducing social inequality. It also demonstrates that although parents may not seek help themselves in relation to their child’s behaviour or reading, they are nevertheless prepared to engage and participate when the opportunity is presented. 

Full findings are available in the report: Which type of parenting programme best improves child behaviour and reading? Follow-up of the Helping Children Achieve trial (PDF)