Parenting classes are one strategy that child welfare agencies use to help people learn how to be more effective parents. These programs are usually targeted at parents who are considered high-risk for child neglect or abuse. In some cases, there is a history of domestic violence or substance abuse on the part of the parents. Although some of these programs have been in place for decades, researchers are still trying to determine if parenting classes work.
The theory behind parenting classes is that many parents have not grown up in families with good parenting skills and that these skills can be learned. Parenting classes are also felt to reduce costs in the long-term for child welfare services, alcohol and drug treatment and remedial education. However, research on these programs often takes decades to complete, as measures of effectiveness may not become apparent until the children reach adolescence or adulthood. Another point of discussion among child welfare advocates is whether prevention programs should be the treatment of choice rather than waiting until there is evidence of abuse or neglect in a family.
An 2010 article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer notes that although there is little evidence that parenting classes are effective, one-on-one coaching is successful. One program called Parent-child Interaction Therapy has a therapist coach a mother in appropriate parenting through an earphone while watching the parent and child through an observation mirror. In another program, the Nurse Family Partnership, nurses go into the homes of new mothers to teach them how to care for their children, what kind of behavior to expect and how to respond to the behavior. Although both of these programs are effective, they are not classes but individual coaching.
Empathy, Knowledge and Punishment
In one five-year study of parenting classes in New Mexico, researchers at New Mexico State University conducted parenting classes for teen parents, single parents, grandparents raising children, families dealing with the criminal justice system and families with substance abuse. The study found participants developed increased empathy for children’s needs and became more knowledgeable about child discipline techniques. Participants were also less likely to use corporal punishment or to have inappropriate expectations of children.
A few programs have been evaluated for effectiveness, according to a fall 2009 article published in The Future of Children. Author Richard P. Barth, dean of the school of social work at the University of Maryland-Baltimore, examined research on several programs: Focus on Families, the Thresholds Mothers’ Project and the Incredible Years. The first is a program for mothers in methadone treatment, the second a program for mothers with mental illness and the third a program for children with conduct problems. All showed some positive effects, although none of the studies were long-term.
Language and Cognitive Skills
In the absence of abuse or neglect, parenting classes have been used to help children develop language and cognitive skills. A study published in the spring 2009 School Community Journal analyzed parenting behaviors such as parental language and stimulation. The study found that parents who attended the classes stimulated their children’s language and cognitive development more than those parents who did not attend classes. Children of parents who attended the classes also had higher scores for cognitive outcomes.