In our previous post we discussed evidence that parenting quality is a key factor in children’s development. We further wondered why more programs don’t assess parenting. We all know that what is measured gets attention. The converse is also true; what isn’t measured tends to get ignored. Currently, there is a strong push toward assessing outcomes, which are important in program evaluation. Assessing outcomes lets us know if we have achieved stated goals. However, assessing only long-term outcomes is insufficient. Many programs aimed at children monitor child development, but don’t assess the intermediate factors they can influence to promote children’s long-term development. As we discussed previously, the predominant changeable factor effecting children’s lives is parenting. By assessing parenting as an intermediate outcome, we can guide more nurturing parenting and ultimately improve child outcomes.
How Can We Assess Parenting?
The most common method of parenting assessment involves questionnaires that parents complete. There are a host of parenting survey tools available. For comprehensive lists of parenting tools see DOHVE, or CEBC. Through questionnaires you can learn about parents’ perspectives regarding parenting knowledge, attitudes, feelings about the parenting role, stressful circumstances or supports in their lives. If, for example, your program aims to increase knowledge of child development, then a validated survey is appropriate to assess that goal. However, it’s important to realize that knowledge, attitudes and feelings are NOT behavior. If knowledge were equivalent to behavior, then Dunkin Donuts and the Cheesecake Factory would not be ubiquitous. Knowledge, attitudes and feelings are important and necessary for understanding a family, and can be very important in goal planning. However, parenting knowledge, attitudes and feelings are different from actual parenting practices, and it is parenting behavior that matters to children.
Another assessment method involves staff documenting clinical impressions of parenting. For example, parenting items are often included in summary measures aimed at assessing overall family functioning, such as the Life Skills Progression and the Family Assessment Form. Several items on these type of measures usually offer the staff’s perspective on general aspects of parenting, such as nurturing or discipline, in terms of how a parent responds to all of the children in the family. Thus, it would be difficult to tease apart the discipline for a toddler from discipline for his 5-year-old sister. This general information may be useful for prioritizing parenting services among all family needs, but it does not help you identify specific parenting strengths or growth opportunities for targeted intervention.
A combination of assessment methods are used in the widely used Infant/Toddler HOME Inventory which assesses the caregiving environment provided in the home, and has validated subscales addressing parents’ Acceptance and Responsivity. The yes/no responses by staff on the Acceptance subscale indicate the lack of negative physical or verbal discipline. Responsivity items primarily note basic communication skills. These subscales fall far short of assessing the varied parenting skills needed to establish foundations for lifelong relationships and learning that are enhanced by current substantive parenting interventions.
A less common means of assessing parenting is through structured observation tools. These typically require a standard set of instructions regarding activities and time, and specify the behaviors to observe. With structured observational tools, staff assess what parents actually do [For examples, see KIPS, NCAST PCI Scales, PICCOLO, IPCI, EAS, and PIRAT). What parents actually do, parents’ verbal and nonverbal behavior, is what matters most to children. Our research, like the work of others, has found a modest correlation between parent survey results and observed parent behavior. Structured parenting observation tools that are validated provide detailed insights into parenting behavior. With detailed insights, you can intervene more effectively to build skills for more nurturing parenting. Furthermore, if a program’s goal is to produce high quality parenting practices, these tools can evaluate the outcome. Thus, using an observational parenting assessment, one gains both useful clinical information and data to evaluate parenting outcomes.
The importance of parenting to children’s healthy development is well established. That’s the reason most programs aimed at promoting child health, safety and well-being, preventing child abuse and preparing children for school include goals promoting high quality parenting. However, at this writing, few programs actually directly assess parenting behavior. Perhaps this is because observational assessments take time and effort to learn and administer. Additionally, it takes effort to maintain reliable scoring that ensures accurate assessments of families. The Keys to Interactive Parenting Scale (KIPS) was designed to address these obstacles. The short 12-item KIPS tool can be learned via an Internet-based training which requires about 10 hours on average. An online library of standardized videos available over the Internet supports KIPS users to stay reliable in scoring. An online Annual Check-Up is required to ensure accurate scoring. The availability of a validated, low-cost observational parenting tool has lowered the barriers to assessing what matters to children.
A structured observational parenting assessment allows you to measure the process that most influences children’s healthy development. Assessing parenting behavior offers insights that can be used to guide services and provides results relating to stated parenting goals. Measuring what matters to children, parenting behavior, empowers family service programs to improve services and document their outcomes, which delights their funders. By assessing parenting behavior, you measure the most important factor in achieving children’s healthy development.
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