Children ‘act up’– this is a fact of life – and every parent has to deal with difficult behaviour at some stage. However, when that behaviour crosses a line and causes real disruption in the home or classroom, what is an adult to do?
It’s such a common problem that parents and teachers are crying out for appropriate support services to give them the skills and confidence to deal with children’s emotional and difficult behaviour, while safeguarding the best interests of the child. Governments throughout the world are spending money in the area because they recognise that unsolved behavioural issues in early childhood can materialise into more serious problems further down the line, such as school drop-out, serious anti-social behaviour and mental ill health. However, it can be difficult to know how best to target resources to obtain the best results for children and their families. That’s why an organisation called Archways, in 2007, commissioned Dr Sinéad McGilloway and her team at Maynooth University, to carry out the largest systematic study of an early years behaviour programme in Ireland – and one of the largest community-based evaluations of the programme ever conducted outside the US. They are basing their evaluation on The Incredible Years Parents, Teachers and Children Training Series, which is currently already in use in schools and communities in several locations in Ireland and around the world.
In Ireland, we know very little about the prevalence of emotional and behavioural difficulties in children, says Dr McGilloway, who is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Maynooth University. However, these problems pose particular challenges for parents and teachers, especially in socially disadvantaged areas. The Incredible Years is an American programme that is currently being implemented in several sites around the country, including sites in Dublin (e.g. Clondalkin, Tallaght and Ballyfermot) and a number of other sites including Drogheda, Kildare, Limerick, Galway, Sligo, Cork and Kerry. The initial implementation of the programme was overseen by Archways, who were supported in that work by The Atlantic Philanthropies, the Dormant Accounts and the HSE. With an increasing number of organisations now implementing the programme in Ireland, and with such a high level of demand for support, we need to establish that The Incredible Years programme is working in an Irish context.
There have been very few community-based assessments of the programme outside the US, and hard evidence of its success would contribute greatly to the overall standing of the programme in Ireland and to the task of leveraging funds to bring The Incredible Years to more families and schools. There is also increasing recognition that health and social care policies and practices need to be informed by appropriate evidence, Dr McGilloway contends.
The Incredible Years Ireland Study is an excellent example of how high quality, empirical research can be undertaken with the aim of informing government social policy and ensuring that exchequer funding is targeted on effective initiatives. Programmes that are evidence-based, are likely to have much more of an impact because they tend to be taken more seriously by participants, have more influence on stakeholders and are more likely to attract financial and community support.
The Incredible Years Programme, which was devised by US psychologist, Professor Carolyn Webster-Stratton, has been evaluated using, for the most part, three Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs) covering the three main elements of the programme. RCTs can be difficult to implement in ‘real world’ settings, Dr McGilloway cautions, but this is an American programme and we need to validate its use in Ireland and we need to do that in the most methodologically rigorous way. Also, it is important for us to ensure that it is being delivered in exactly the way it was intended; this ‘implementation fidelity’ is vital because the use of different delivery methods means that the original programme may be seriously undermined.
This ambitious research cost approximately €1 million over the course of 4.5 years. It was a collaborative venture between Archways and Maynooth University and involved an expert team of seven national and international academics drawn from a wide range of disciplines – including psychology, education, maths/ statistics, economics and public health. Academics from Bangor University, Wales, Trinity College Dublin, the Church of Ireland College of Education and Queen’s University Belfast were also involved.
The study has been given the imprimatur of the programme’s founder, Professor Carolyn Webster-Stratton. A project team of seven staff is involved in the day-to-day execution of the research whilst Archways personnel oversee all aspects of the on-the-ground delivery of the programme. This work has been important in informing policy and practice both nationally and internationally and, uniquely, it also highlights the benefits of universities and community-based organisations working closely together.
The research itself involved the administration of a battery of questionnaires, stakeholder interviews, home and school visits, one-on-one sessions with parents, and the observation of both parents in the home and teachers and children in the classroom. Intervention groups and control groups were used to see if any changes in behaviour were directly attributable to The Incredible Years programme.
We had two main objectives, Dr McGilloway explains. Firstly, we wanted to establish if the programme is delivering for participants – i.e. parents, teachers and children. Secondly, we needed to know if the programme offers value for money for those who fund and implement it. For this reason, we also undertook a cost analysis as part of an economic evaluation.
Since 2001, the UK government has invested over €4.5 billion in the Sure Start early prevention parenting initiative to tackle behavioural problems in young children, but no specific evidence-based programme of intervention was recommended. By carrying out a high quality evaluation of a programme such as The Incredible Years and disseminating the findings widely and appropriately, argues Dr McGilloway, we can help to influence policy and practice in a positive way and ensure that funding is wisely allocated. A second major five-year programme of research funded by the HRB and led by Dr McGilloway, is due to begin in October 2013; this will build on all of the work undertaken, to date, as part of the Incredible Years Ireland Study.
Three components of The Incredible Years programme
The Incredible Years programme, devised by US psychologist. Professor Carolyn Webster-Stratton, is a prevention and early intervention programme for challenging behaviour and conduct problems. Prevalence rates of behavioural difficulties vary widely, from around 10%–15% in the general population and up to 30% in disadvantaged areas.
The broad issues encountered, range from recurring naughty and disruptive behaviour to extremes such as fire setting, violence and abuse. These can have a devastating effect on home and school life and many parents and teachers need
guidance and support, simply because they lack the skills or confidence to handle disruptive or challenging behaviour. It is also much easier to treat these kinds of behaviour when children are younger, but they become increasingly resistant, with age, to any form of intervention, and antisocial behaviour and a range of other problems may develop into adulthood.
The Incredible Years programme is aimed at 0–12 year-olds and their parents and teachers, although the Irish evaluation was based mainly on 3–6 year olds.
- The Parent Training programme (of which there are five different versions) involves role play, DVDs, group discussion, and the use of a range of parenting strategies (e.g. limit setting). With more confidence in their abilities, parents are also less prone to stress and depression and can better handle their children’s difficulties.
- The Teacher Classroom Management programme gives teachers the tools to handle difficult classroom behaviour. There is currently no training in behavioural management available through teacher or in-service training from the Department of Education and Science.
- The final component of the programme (The ‘Dinosaur’ Child Training programme) works directly with the children to help them better manage their behaviour.