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Children and Families Research Centre

Dr Kelly Baird PhD

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Small voices, significant stakeholders: Young children's experiences of program participation and family change during involvement in a parenting program


            Research on parenting programs rarely focuses on the children's perspectives and little is understood about how children experience these programs or the changes that may occur in their families during program participation. Further, the voices of disadvantaged or vulnerable young children have often been excluded from research on issues that directly affect their lives. To address this research gap, the current study adopted a longitudinal, mixed method design with a primary focus on the experiences of disadvantaged 3- to 5-year-old children (N = 5) who attended an attachment-based parenting program. Two other early childhood settings, a supported playgroup (N = 3) and preschool (N = 10), were included as comparison groups. A range of child-friendly, accessible, and valid qualitative data collection methods such as child-photography and child interviews were used to capture children's perspectives of program participation and everyday home life. In addition, standardised, quantitative measures were used to assess relevant aspects of the children's social development, particularly the quality of their peer interactions as well as children's attachment narrative representations of their attachment relationships.

            The findings revealed that children's descriptions of participation in the parenting program were fairly consistent across the research period. Although play remained an important feature of participation for these children, no significant improvement in the quality of their peer interactions was found during program participation. This finding was reinforced by the relative absence of themes in the children's interviews that related to friendship networks, social interactions, and relationships (e.g., friendships or playing with friends).

            Children in the parenting program differed in their accounts of home and family life compared to the other children. In contrast to children from the parenting program, supported playgroup and preschool children described moments of love and affection in the parent-child dyad, shared meal times as opportunities to reconnect as a family or talk about the day's events, and enjoyment of home learning activities such as shared book reading. On the other hand, siblings played a key role, particularly as play partners, in the home lives of parenting program children. Some change over time was found in parenting program children's descriptions of home and family life, such as increased parent-child play and having friends home to play. While this was not consistent for all children, these perceived changes suggested potential improvements in the parent-child relationship as well as social support networks for families during program involvement. There was also a trend towards positive change in narrative representations of caregiving within attachment relationships for parenting program children.

            The implications of the findings for parenting programs are fourfold. First, the findings demonstrate that play opportunities are central to children's experiences of participation in a parenting program. However, staff members should focus on supporting children's social development and fostering relationships with other children in the program context. Second, the findings demonstrate that children perceive change within their home environment during participation in a parenting program, and that these changes are meaningful in terms of the aims and outcomes of programs designed to support families. Third, the findings suggest that attachment theory-informed parenting programs may have the potential to effect positive change in children's representations of their attachment relationships. Fourth, the findings demonstrate that young children's own experiences can inform and support programs designed to benefit children.

            Lastly, this study demonstrates that through the use of a range of flexible data collection methods and prolonged engagement, young disadvantaged children can, and should, be included in research about issues that directly affect their lives.