Evidence of the importance of good parenting and early life experiences for child development outcomes has over the last two decades been encouraging the growth of a policy climate more conducive to family and children’s services and parenting support.
Supporting parents has been highlighted as a priority in scientific, educational and policy research which has been largely due to increased evidence around factors influencing childhood development and learning. The weight of evidence in favour of home visiting programmes for preschool children is the reason that the Council on Community Pediatrics published a policy statement in the US (Rushton et al., 2009) recommending that evidence based home visiting programmes should be expanded and developed as an effective (and cost-effective) means to reducing inequalities in children’s health, school readiness and development. Consequently, the US government invested more than $1.5 billion over five years to implement the first nationwide expansion of home visiting programs under the auspices of the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program.
Parenting support is seen as having the potential to improve educational outcomes and reduce the risk of criminal behaviour, and improved parenting skills are seen as contributing to the reduction of poverty and social exclusion (European Commission, 2013).
Supporting parents within the family is now embedded in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), key to which is a child’s fundamental right to be competently parented – to have nurturing and protective parenting. The Convention states that although the family is responsible for guaranteeing a child’s rights, it emphasises that parents must be supported in this role by the State (Article 18.2).
The principle of the parent as the child’s first educator and the parent’s pedagogical role in the child’s development and learning is also well established and endorsed within the Convention as an important means to ensuring children’s entitlement to education and to learning opportunities.
Evolving capacity is significant to the concept of children’s holistic development and is specifically recognised in Article 5 of the Convention relating to the processes of maturation and to parents’ responsibility not to demand or expect things that are inappropriate to the child’s developmental stage. Therefore it is important for parents to learn what they do can make a difference in their infant’s development and is crucial to parents’ understanding of the child’s evolving capacities.
In the UK, Every Child Matters (ECM) (2004; DFES) placed supporting parents at the top of a list of four priority areas, followed by early intervention and effective protection, accountability and integration of children’s services, and workforce reform.
In Northern Ireland, ECM has been replaced by the OFMDFM’s ten year Strategy for Children and Young People (2006-2016): ‘Our Children and Young People, Our Pledge’ (OFMDFM, 2006) which aims to ensure that all children get the best start in life through helping organisations to work together, share information, and ensure that the focus remains on children and young people. In terms of meeting the strategy’s goals, supporting parents is seen as a key driver.
Within this, ‘Families Matter: Supporting Families in Northern Ireland’ (HSSPS, 2009) sets out a vision for supporting families and strengthening communities with a focus on ‘universal support and preventive and early intervention services to support parents, children and young people, not only at particular times of need or stages in the development of their child but continuously throughout children’s lives’.
The various strategies on Infant Mental Health are based on empirical evidence that clearly demonstrates that the ‘quality’ of parenting is the single most important determining influence, for good or ill, on child outcomes and which can have the greatest impact on infant mental health. The strategies and framework emphasise the importance of educating parents about attachment, bonding and parent/child communication as the basis of sound infant mental health and of supporting parents to provide good nurture.
Republic of Ireland
Better Outcomes Brighter Futures is the national policy framework for children and young people in Ireland (2014-2020) and underlines the Irish Government’s commitment to improving outcomes for children (Department of Children and Youth Affairs, 2013). This shift in policy has seen the Irish Government invest over 600 million euro in the recently established (2014) statutory body: the Child and Family Agency (CFA), which is responsible for improving wellbeing and outcomes for children.
A key strategy within this framework is the CFA’s Parenting Support Strategy (2013): Supporting Parents to Improve Outcomes for Children which ‘contributes to the State’s endeavours to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of children by supporting parents in their essential role as children’s primary care-givers’. It supports the provision of ‘a continuum of support, from universal support to targeted and specialist services by applying a progressive universalist approach’.
Lifestart’s Policy Fit
The conceptual language used in the main policy documents are all mirrored in the language and ethos of Lifestart, and flag up the timely contribution that the Lifestart Growing Child programme can make to the implementation of policy and practice throughout the island of Ireland and elsewhere.
- The Lifestart Growing Child programme and service addresses either directly or indirectly all the high level outcomes contained in the Ten Year Children and Young People’s Strategy and in the Better Outcomes Brighter Futures Framework and integrates well with the full range of policies and strategies aimed at supporting parents and improving child outcomes.
- The Lifestart Growing Child programme delivered through home visiting is a proven evidence-based programme delivering predicable measurable parenting outcomes which have been proven to impact positively on child outcomes.
- The Growing Child programme delivered through the home visit is unique in that it involves a systematic evidence informed programme designed by experts delivered on a one-to-one basis to parents in their own home and in the presence of the child who is the focus of the home visit.
- By emphasising and supporting the parent/child relationship the Growing Child Programme addresses the key factors impacting on child learning and development and infant mental health, emotional development and wellbeing.
- With an emphasis, particularly in the first year of life, on securing strong parent-child attachment and attunement and on parent-child interaction, the programme helps to secure a sound positive foundation for children; a foundation that is ultimately reflected throughout their life course.
- By helping parents to build a stimulating home environment with time devoted to parent-child interaction through play, reading, talking and listening to infants the Growing Child programme helps to create development and learning opportunities in the home which led to good child cognitive development, language acquisition and emotional and social development; outcomes that improve child school readiness and future educational outcomes.
- By focusing specifically on child development and using a strengths-based dialogic approach to parenting support, the Lifestart service reduces any potential stigma associated with prevention and early intervention and increases the access to support of the most marginalised and vulnerable of families.
- The Growing Child programme meets all government and service commissioners’ conditions relating to evidence-based practice. It is an evidence-based, fully manualised programme proven to be effective through a rigorous experimental randomised controlled trial and supported by staff training, accreditation and robust quality assurance procedures / fidelity measures.