Cross-Curricula Study Funded by William Penn Foundation Finds Parenting Programs Benefit Families, Children, and ECE Programs


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February 12, 2024

Have you ever wondered if all parenting programs work? Does it really make a difference for parents, caregivers, and programs to commit to an evidence-based parenting curriculum?

Caregiver Engagement Initiative Research to Practice Brief Report cover

A multiyear evaluation conducted by BTC researchers with a grant from the William Penn Foundation is the first cross-curricula study to explore the successes and challenges of implementing evidence-based parenting programs in real-world early childhood education (ECE) settings. Prior evaluations have typically focused on a single parenting curriculum and/or been conducted in controlled research settings.

The researchers found that participating in the programs — regardless of the curriculum —  helped parents and other caregivers of young children experience less stress related to depression, anxiety, and isolation; reduced stress related to parenting demands; and less conflict in their relationship with their children.

For five years, the William Penn Foundation funded the Caregiver Engagement Initiative (CEI), a partnership with five social service agencies and ECE organizations serving diverse groups of families with children from birth to age 5 living in greater Philadelphia. Each participating organization selected and implemented an evidence-based parenting curriculum that fit their community’s and families’ specific needs. Four different curricula were selected, and over the five years, 879 parents and caregivers engaged with these curricula through parenting groups provided across 26 ECE centers and the School District of Philadelphia Pre-K program.

The foundation funded the CEI as part of its strategy to support parents as their child’s first teachers. “Parenting programs teach child development, support more responsive parenting methods, and increase the connection between centers and parents,” said Jennifer Stavrakos, Director of Great Learning at the William Penn Foundation.

While searching for information on evidence-based parenting curricula, William Penn Foundation’s staff discovered the Compendium of Parenting Interventions, which BTC created for the Administration for Children and Families, demonstrating BTC’s extensive experience analyzing programming for parents. As a result, the William Penn Foundation selected BTC to be the initiative’s evaluator.

Photo of Katherine Buttitta
Dr. Katherine Buttitta

BTC’s research team, led by Dr. Katherine Buttitta, collected quantitative and qualitative data on the CEI using surveys, focus groups, and interviews. The evaluation examined not only outcomes of participation for parents and other caregivers, but also outcomes of participation for the facilitators of the parenting curricula and the partner organizations’ leadership. The evaluators also studied the process of program implementation, including recruitment and retention strategies; facilitator selection and training; curriculum selection and modifications; planning and logistics, including translation of materials into other languages; and dosage of curriculum sessions.

“From the very first meeting, the team at BTC was so respectful and responsive, and really focused on the relationships they developed with our grantees,” Stavrakos said. “There was a real community feel; the organizations valued their relationships with each other and with the team at BTC. These relationships helped contribute greatly to the initiative’s success.”

Evaluation Findings

In addition to finding reduced parental stress and reduced parent-child conflict for families who participated in the parenting groups, the evaluation also demonstrated other benefits to participation for parents and caregivers, children, group facilitators, and the participating organizations themselves. Some of these include:

  • Parents built connections and stronger relationships with facilitators and the ECE organizations their children attended.
  • Parents gained new knowledge and skills related to parenting, including facts about child development, strategies for managing conflict with their children, skills in creating routines or schedules for their children, and self-awareness of their parenting decisions.
  • Facilitators reported their experiences helped them grow as a person and a professional, gain confidence interacting with parents, and refrain from jumping to conclusions about families without knowing all they were going through.
  • Participating organizations learned about the organizational capacity needed to deliver high-quality parenting curricula, and increased their engagement and connection with participating parents.

The evaluation also uncovered important information related to program implementation, including:

  • Parent recruitment was the most challenging aspect of implementation, and fewer parents participated in the groups than suggested by the curriculum developers. Participating organizations learned the importance of scheduling sessions at a time most convenient for parents and providing incentive structures to reward participation, such as gifts and monetary compensation, free babysitting, and family celebrations.
  • As parents attended an increased number of group sessions, they experienced more benefits related to reduced stress and decreased parent-child conflict.

While the evaluation findings add to the evidence that high-quality parenting programs can benefit families, it is impossible to tease out exactly what in each program makes the difference, Buttitta said. Is it the specific curricula? Is it the training and life experience of the facilitators? Is it the relationships and trust built between facilitators and families? Is it the size of, make-up of, and connection between each group’s cohort of parents? Likely, it is many of these factors working together.

For more details on the evaluation design and results, see the Caregiver Engagement Initiative Research to Practice Brief Report.

Adapting to the COVID-19 Pandemic

The CEI was designed with the expectation that all parenting curricula sessions would be held in person. However, in the third year of the project, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. During the public health emergency of the pandemic, all participating ECE centers shut down for a period of time and moved everything online, including the parenting programs. Buttitta and her colleagues were impressed with how quickly the parenting curricula facilitators were able to adapt to virtual delivery.

“We were floored with how quickly and skillfully the facilitators were able to take something designed to be implemented in person and move to virtual,” Buttitta said. “What we have heard from families is that it changed their lives. These programs were such a needed piece of support for families, and for ECE programs as well. This continued piece of family engagement that went on throughout the pandemic was incredibly important.”

After the COVID-19 pandemic inserted itself into the project, the BTC research team decided to explore whether parent outcomes were different for parents who attended in-person groups before the COVID-19 pandemic versus parents who attended virtual groups during the pandemic. The data showed that only parents who participated in the in-person groups before the pandemic experienced a statistically significant reduction in stress related to depression, anxiety, and isolation; stress related to parenting demands; and parent-child conflict — even though parents who participated virtually during the pandemic also showed promising qualitative outcomes.

“We heard a lot about how important the virtual groups were for families, but the quantitative parent outcome data were different,” Buttitta said. “Given that virtual parenting programs are new but also here to stay post-pandemic, future research should look into how they can best be structured and implemented to benefit families, children, and ECE programs.”

Learn more about BTC’s Research and Evaluation services.

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