Parenting Classes: Helpful at Any Age

The early bird gets the worm.”
“Begin as you mean to go on.”
“The earlier, the better.”

The English vernacular is full quotations that convey the point, it’s best to start early. For decades, child development experts thought this truism applied to parenting interventions. The idea was that early intervention for children was better because children’s brains are more malleable at younger ages and the costs of intervention are lower.

But a new systematic review published in the journal Child Development calls that long-standing viewpoint into question.

The research paper includes two analyses. The first one followed more than 1,600 children ages 2 to 11 who participated in European Trials of the Incredible Years parenting intervention. This is a curriculum designed to help parents promote emotional and social competence in their children and to prevent, reduce, and treat aggression and emotional problems. (The program also includes curricula for children and teachers, but this study only looked at the parent component.)

In all of the 15 studies included in this analysis, children in participating families were less likely to demonstrate behavioral problems.

But the analysis found no benefit for parents participating in the intervention when their children were younger. The authors conclude that “child behavior is equally open to change at older as younger ages, across the range 2 to 11 years.”

The second analyzed data from more than 13,000 families who participated in a wider range of parenting programs for reducing disruptive behavior. This analysis included 154 separate studies of 50 different parenting programs.

The authors found no difference in improvements for toddlers or preschool-aged children compared to school-aged children.  They also found no benefit in programs targeting narrower age ranges.

What does all of this mean?

According to the review authors, there is no clear evidence that explains what factors are at play. It could be that children respond similarly to changes in their parents’ behavior no matter what their age. Or it could be that children who exhibit disruptive behavior during their younger years have more serious behavioral problems than those who develop them later.

“Parenting education programs such as the Incredible Years have a long history of successfully supporting positive parent-child relationships and children’s development,” said Lisa McCabe, director of Cornell’s Early Childhood Program. “This new research suggests that these programs have benefits for parents and kids of all ages. That’s good news for parents who face an important and challenging job whether their child is a newborn, school ager or a teen.”

The take-home message here is one of hope: It’s never too late for parents to learn new skills that will help to shape their children’s behavior. Parents and kids can benefit from interventions at any age.

Please visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work solving human problems.

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