How to get parents to come to parenting … | Polish Interpreting

Parents can’t benefit from programs they don’t attend. But all too often that’s the story: evidence-based programs reach no more than a fraction of eligible families because they fail to engage parents.

Here, researchers from the Social Research Unit at Dartington offer a practical guide to recruiting and retaining parents in evidence-based parenting programs. Their tips draw on experiences from a recent trial in the largest local authority in Europe.

Indeed, the numbers are dire. On average, only a third of families invited to enroll in prevention projects actually attend any sessions. Of those who do show up at least once, only half make it all the way to the end of the program. In other words, approximately 16% of eligible participants invited to take part successfully complete prevention projects.

Almost without exception, programs that work very well in academic trials show much less impressive results when they are translated into the real world. Why? Low recruitment and retention rates are two of the main reasons.

Simply put, parents cannot benefit from a program they do not receive.

It’s not enough to create a program that works for those parents who do attend. Researchers, program developers, and practitioners must build solid recruitment and retention practices into the heart of the program, researchers from the Social Research Unit (SRU) argue.

Drawing on a recent trial of an evidence-based parenting program in Birmingham, UK, the SRU team describe the challenges faced when attempting to reach eligible parents, secure engagement, and maintain attendance – and outline steps to make it work better.

Working together

The recommendations were developed by Nick Axford and colleagues at the SRU. They build on the case of a trial of the Incredible Years parenting program by Birmingham City Council, and on a review of other studies.

Crucially, there must be a clear recruitment process across the various key agencies. If front-line practitioners and organizations do not know how or where to refer parents, recruitment will fail at the first step.

Nevertheless, while practical knowledge of referral routes is important, it is not enough to secure parental engagement. Axford and colleagues highlight instances from the Birmingham case where key stakeholders, although aware that Incredible Years was being offered, were reluctant to refer parents.

Some key agencies didn’t perceive referrals as their responsibility. Other stakeholders felt they were already providing sufficient support to parents and did not prioritize referrals to the evidence-based program.

As such, clear communication must be accompanied by effective collaboration and cooperation across the different agencies. Stakeholders need a sense of program ownership. In Birmingham, useful outreach activities included one-to-one meetings with potential referring agencies and practitioners; endorsement by key community leaders at different events; and getting the word out that the program was not in competition with other services.

Further to this, time and resources should be invested to better equip potential referrers with appropriate training in how best to present the programs to parents.

Once buy-in from relevant agencies has been achieved, the next step is developing a trusting relationship with parents.

Building relationships with parents

Recruitment is not a one-off event. Parents should have several opportunities across different formats to enroll on a program. In order to be successful, recruitment must be a sustained, on-going process.

And recruitment doesn’t stop once a parent agrees to attend. Contact before the first session through home visits or calls is essential to boost parental engagement, because parents are much more likely to attend when they know and trust the professionals who are delivering the program.

Even after the program starts, practitioners need to keep in touch with parents, especially if they miss a session.

Of course, giving practitioners the time to build trusting relationships with parents – and teaching them the skills to make it work – requires that commissioning bodies make it a priority. Funders have to provide sufficient investment in staff training, focusing on effective recruitment and retention strategies.

Previous work has also highlighted the value of involving prior program participants in the recruitment process.

In short, services must conduct active and creative outreach work.

Making programs easily accessible

Parents may also miss out on programs for very practical reasons. Simply put, parents may not attend because they are unable to get to the location, or have difficulties finding childcare for younger children and infants.

Resources should be made available for parents requiring transport or childcare, as well as language translation services. In the Birmingham case, recruiters had more success when they not only made these “extras” available, but also publicized their availability.

Recruitment: an economic and moral imperative

Axford and colleagues provide a practical guide for funders, researchers and practitioners as to how parental engagement can be secured and maintained over time.

They argue that efforts to ensure effective engagement and retention are both an economic issue and a moral one. Economic, in the sense of ensuring beneficial impacts are realized. Moral, in that organizations have a duty to ensure every effort has been made to help vulnerable children and families access available services.



Axford, N., Lehtonen, M., Kaoukji, D., Tobin, K., Berry, V. (2012). Engaging parents in parenting programs: Lessons from research and practice. Children and Youth Services Review, 34(10), 2061-2071.

For more on the Birmingham Brighter Futures strategy and RCTs, see: Where policy and science meet: the case of Europe’s largest local authority

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