Elements of Parenting

Over the years I’ve become convinced that the single most important factor in determining outcomes for children is the quality of parenting they receive. The physical aspects of parenting such as feeding and clothing children and providing them with a safe home environment are important and necessary. However the non-physical elements such as parental engagement can be just as, if not more, crucial in helping children grow up into healthy adults.

We know that there is a strong association between poverty and neglect and that the quality of early parenting is critical. National cohort studies have shown conclusively that parents’ interest and active involvement with children, particularly in the early years, has enormous value in promoting their development. So, children whose parents read to them at age five, and took an active interest in their education at age 10, were significantly less likely to be in poverty at age 30, whatever the level of parental disadvantage. The studies also showed that the effects of poverty became evident before children attended school and persisted into adulthood. This research drove the political commitment for the national development of Sure Start Children’s Centres and the Troubled Families Programme. Helen Pearson’s The Life Project (Allen Lane, 2016) is an excellent starting point on the whole set of studies, which provide hugely powerful evidence for the positive and negative factors that make a difference to the lives of children.

The studies, and both Sure Start and the Troubled Families Programme, have demonstrated that parents, when given the appropriate levels of help and support, can be helped to improve their parenting in relatively simple ways. Sometimes there is an over-emphasis on the physical needs of the child as opposed to their intellectual and social development which could be because mental development can be more hidden than physical development. By reading to their child, showing an interest in homework and having strategies to reward good behaviour parents can provide children with the conditions they need to thrive.

The accepted wisdom is that children do best in their own families and we should do all we can to keep the family unit together – which is all very well, provided that the actions we take to support families are properly targeted and focused, and sufficiently intensive to make a difference. So we ought to engage more with all parents and families, and especially those at risk, as early as possible, and put in place universal parenting education and targeted parenting support.

But inevitably there are instances where children do need to be taken into care and The National Association of Virtual School Heads (NAVSH) has been focused on how best to support the educational attainment of children in care. Substantial funding is being allocated, through Pupil Premium Plus and there is an increasing body of evidence about what works and why. Research published last year by the Rees Centre for Research in Fostering and Education at the University of Oxford and the University of Bristol, found that children in care did better at school the longer they had been in care and low educational outcomes is explained, in part, by children and young people’s pre-care experiences including poverty and neglect.

Many things can go wrong in children’s lives that cannot easily be put right, and we are learning how to provide effective support and therapy. For example, attachment problems and early trauma can be well mitigated by trained staff. One problem is that schools see relatively few children in care and themselves need support in managing unfamiliar situations – which is where Virtual School Heads come in. Some really great work going on under the Attachment Aware Schools banner. And the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has recently published guidelines on attachment difficulties in children and young people which includes the recommendation that ‘schools and other education providers should ensure that all staff who may come into contact with children and young people with attachment difficulties receive appropriate training on attachment difficulties’.

If parents, teachers, carers, social workers and other professionals and para-professionals are ‘attachment aware’ then it won’t just be children in care who will benefit.

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