Relationships Matter — Empowering parents to enhance outcomes for children

In the UK there is real concern about the need to narrow the gap in educational outcomes. The Fair Education Alliance reported in 2017 that the gap in primary literacy and numeracy between those at schools serving high and low-income communities is 8.2 months; children from low-income families continue to be over four times as likely as other children to be permanently excluded from school. Whilst there is much that schools and others are doing to attempt to narrow the gap, the origins of these differences often lie much earlier in a child’s life, in the pre-school years. Both the cognitive and emotional environment in the home matter. Research from the Brookings Institution highlights that “chances of upward social mobility are lower for children with parents struggling to do a good job — in terms of creating a supportive and stimulating home environment.”

At Family Links we have been working with parents for over 20 years, delivering the Nurturing Programme to empower them to develop the skills and confidence needed to provide an authoritative parenting style; one which combines warmth, nurture and interest with clear boundaries and expectations. Parents almost universally want the best for their children, however many lack the inner resources, social scripts or models for parenting to help them to achieve this. For some, the relevant opportunities for social learning from positive role models has not taken place and their own sense of self agency is low, leaving them feeling poorly equipped to manage the challenges of parenting.

The Nurturing Programme is based on the idea that we can enhance parents’ skills to improve family relationships and parents’ emotional health, as well as the emotional health and development of their children. Based upon the Four Constructs illustrated below, it is a cognitive relational programme, focusing mostly on helping parents understand thoughts, feelings, and emotions (of both parents and children) and on the quality of relationships between parents and children.

There are some important behavioural components in the programme, broadening the repertoire or range of strategies parents have for responding to various normal but challenging situations at home, but these are secondary to the programme’s main emphasis on listening, communicating, understanding and strengthening relationships. Merely teaching parents skills in child management is likely to make only a minor (and possibly temporary) contribution to overall good outcomes for children, in the absence of attention to the quality of the relationship within which the management skills are practised. In other words:

“The quality of the parent-child relationship is also shown by research to be more important for the long-term success of parenting than are the parental management skills used to curb immediate non-compliance[i]”

Parents can be helped to develop self-awareness, to begin to understand their own feelings and needs and to recognise the impact of their responses to their children on their child’s self-esteem, emotional wellbeing and learning and behaviour. As one parent stated, “I’m thinking constantly about how I am dealing with my two-year-old son. I’m more self-aware — I realise that sometimes his ‘difficult’ behaviour is more to do with how I am feeling than what has actually happened”.

Having developmentally appropriate expectations of children in the early years not only enhances their learning but also reduces behavioural problems; a child who is expected to achieve much more or less than they can manage will become frustrated and this will manifest in their learning and behaviour. It is not an appropriate expectation for a pre-school child to spend most of their day in front of one type of screen or another or to be able to self-regulate without adult help.

Discipline is used in the Family Links approach to represent teaching or guiding, sharing its root with the word disciple. Parents are children’s first teachers, children need clear boundaries and adults who can teach them what behaviour is acceptable, praising and noticing the positive behaviour, rather than merely punishing the difficult behaviour. Teaching also involves modelling, are parents able to model the way in which they want their children to behave? If parents’ difficult feelings are suppressed, or acted out with aggression, then this is how their children are learning to respond. The long term goal of socialising children is important for all parents but critical for parents of aggressive children. One of the key skills that parents need to help their children to develop is the capacity for emotional and behavioural self-regulation — the ability to manage difficult or disruptive emotions and impulses and to modify their reaction. This is a complex skill that many adults haven’t mastered for themselves and yet it is crucial. High levels of self-regulation in the early years are associated with later academic achievement; teaching children how to regulate their own behaviours may be just as important as teaching academic skills.

And finally what about empathy? Being able to tune in to a child’s feelings, to accept and name those feelings (even if the resulting behaviour is not acceptable) develops emotional intelligence and social and emotional skills in children. Low empathy in parents is strongly associated with child maltreatment and research has demonstrated that highly empathic mothers are more easily able to develop positive relationships with young children than those who are less empathic. It links to the concept of attunement which is a fundamental construct in attachment theory, defined as: an awareness of the child’s current psychological space (emotions, thoughts, needs) As one mother stated after attending a Family Links antenatal programme, “When my baby cried and I was tired I tried to put myself in his place and start to understand his feelings and that crying was his only way to communicate and express his needs. It helped me calm down and look after him again but happily”.

This early interaction is like an “emotional immunisation”; it will help protect children as they grow and are exposed to situations and events that might knock them or create stress. Just like an immunisation against physical illness, so we can also provide that resilience against emotional stressors. Helping parents to realise just how important they are in the early years, not just for practical care, but for the social and emotional care of babies and children is crucial. They are children’s role models, teachers and the source of their comfort and sense of security.

And it’s not just parents. Family Links promotes emotional health at home, at school and at work. Many young children spend much of their time in the care of child minders or early year’s practitioners. Their role is crucial in improving the outcomes of children, and it is critical that we remember that these outcomes are as dependant on the development of relationships as they are on the development of academic skills. An overarching principle of the revised Early Years Foundation Framework 2017 is that “children learn to be strong and independent through positive relationships”. The focus on personal, social and emotional development must retain as high a priority as that on literacy and mathematics, without it we will fail to provide children with the foundation they need to succeed in life.

[i] Criss MM and Larzelere RE (2013) Authoritative Parenting: Synthesizing nurturance and discipline for optimal child development Washington DC: American Psychological Association

Sarah Darton

Sarah Darton CEO

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