Evidence-based parenting is fast becoming a popular approach for parenting — and with good reason. In an age of misinformation and over-abundance of content, it can be hard to figure out who and what to trust. Parents find that turning to tried and true methods based on research that demonstrates positive outcomes can be the most reliable way to approach parenting.
How do you find trustworthy sources of information? Many parents of children or other caregivers working with children want to know what strategies and approaches are backed by research and are considered evidence-based. But what does ‘evidence-based’ mean? And what qualifies a parenting practice as ‘evidence-based’?
Since there isn’t one authority spelling out exactly what is evidence-based and what isn’t, we will jump into how you can determine if a source of parenting information is trustworthy. Then I’ll guide you towards resources that will help hone your parenting skills with evidence-based parenting practices.
In this post explaining what evidence-based parenting is all about, you’ll learn:
- What Is Evidence-Based Parenting?
- What Qualifies A Parenting Practice As Evidence-Based?
- 3 Simple Tips To Be A Savvy Consumer Of Parenting Content
- 4 Reliable Parent Coaches To Follow On Social Media
- 3 Evidence-Based Parenting Books For Parent Education
- 5 Evidence-Based Parenting Programs
- The Bottom Line On Parenting Programs
- When A Standardized Program Is Not Enough
What Is Evidence-Based Parenting?
Before we dive in, let’s start with the basics and explain what evidence-based parenting really means. Evidence-based parenting is making use of strategies that are demonstrated to be effictive by empirical research and are applied by caregiver in a way that supports the wellbeing of families and is in line with their values. Yes, I added on the values part because that’s important to me!
Empirical research might include meta-analyses, systematic reviews, randomized controlled trials (RCTs), single-subject experimental design or other types of research. The bottom line is that there is some sort of empirical data that has been collected to demonstrate that an intervention has had a direct impact on parenting outcomes after implementation.
This might make you wonder, ‘how much research is sufficient?’ or, ‘what about the quality of research?’ Next we can get into more of these details.
I mentioned that there is not one central authority determining what is ‘evidence-based’ and what is not, as the definition is somewhat subjective. Georgia State University explains more about how to conceptualize the term ‘evidence-based’ and share a few registries and clearinghouses based on topic, diagnosis or sector. For example, the California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse is a searchable registry of EBPs specific to child welfare. The What Works Clearinghouse has specific resources for EBPs within the education system and is maintained by the US Department of Education.
What Qualifies A Parenting Practice As Evidence-Based?
Every field has its own standards for what is considered evidence-based. Education and Medicine for example, have a specific number and type of studies that must exist before something is considered evidence-based. These fields rely heavily on RCTs, which look at large group effect sizes and are a gold-standard in research in most fields. The field of behavior analysis tends to use single-subject experimental designs (SSRDs) that look at the effect of an intervention on an individual or small group to really dial into the components that make it effective. This approach compares an intervention across variables such as participants, time, settings or components of an intervention.
A popular definition in Behavior Analysis of an evidence-based treatment is, “a model of professional decision-making in which practitioners integrate the best available evidence with client values/context and clinical expertise in order to provide services for their clients” (Slocum et al. 2014). Generally speaking, a combination of SSRDs may be used to understand the micro-effects of an intervention or practice and RCTs to look at the macro-level effects.
How do we know when a treatment or intervention for child behavior has been studied enough to be considered ‘evidence-based’? Often a field will determine a number of independently conducted meta-analyses, randomized-controlled trials, single subject experimental designs and replications of such studies that are required on a topic before it is considered evidence-based. However, we know that the average parent doesn’t have time and resources to be digging into research literature that is often sequestered behind paywalls. Often it is most efficient to consume educational content from professionals who have looked into the research for you and summarized their findings.
For this reason, it is important for families to know how to be discerning consumers of educational content. For example, just because something is funded through social services or public health doesn’t necessarily mean it’s evidence-based — or that it has an effect great enough that it’s worth your time (and perhaps money!). Or simply becuase something is published in a peer-reviewed journal doesn’t mean it was done well or has been replicated in an applied setting. There are a few things to look for when considering what is and isn’t evidence-based parenting.
3 Simple Tips To Be A Savvy Consumer Of Parenting Content
1. Does the content reference research articles? I’m not expecting you to vet every Instagram post you read but when you’re choosing someone to listen to, consider whether they ever reference research. There of course is a degree of trust you’re putting into a content creator when they reference research, but it’s just not feasible to access and consume the primary research sources. I’d recommend considering academic references, journals, books and perhaps the number of sources (e.g., not just citing ONE researcher or source).
2. Is the research of good quality? Consider whether it’s published in a peer-reviewed journal and if so, what journal it’s published in. Are the authors of all the main research the same person or group of people? Have there been any independent replications?
3. Check out a few of the abstracts, and search for meta-analyses or systematic reviews on Google Scholar. Fortunately, quite a bit of research can be found there. Even if a full article is behind a paywall, you can still gain some information from an abstract. A meta-analysis is a thorough review of a topic and can help you quickly determine whether something has legitimate research behind it or not. Are there a number of SSRDs and RCTs that have shown this practice or program to be effective?
If you do choose to try something without research behind it, as a behavior analyst, I challenge you to track the efficacy of the program or advice yourself. Get some sort of measurable data before implementing it and compare this with data collected after implementation. This way you’ll have an objective way to measure whether the tool/strategy/program is working or not and be able to pivot or continue.
4 Reliable Parent Coaches To Follow On Social Media
- Dr. Cindy Hovington of @curious_neuron digs into the research and summarized her findings for you. This is a go-to source of research information for me. Her content is research boiled down into simple summaries that busy parents will find easy to consume and implement right away. The topics covered are wide-ranging from birth through adolescence.
- Dr. Cara Goodwin of @parentingtranslator is another really reliable resource for evidence-based child development research. As a behavior analyst I really appreciate knowing that a content creator has gone through the trouble of scouring the research to summarize it for me. Cara references the research (and often multiple sources) right on the front page of her posts. Her summaries of evidence-based parenting practices are practical and engaging topics that any parent would find useful at some point in their parenting journey. Another go-to for me!
- Michele Shilvock of @micheleshilvockconsulting is always providing bite-size pieces of advice for parents and caregivers that can be implemented right away! She is skilled in supporting play for young children and shares how parents can foster play-based learning and prosocial skill development.
- Michelle Tangeman of @thriving.toddler is currently one of my faves as I’ve got my own little at home. She posts information that I didn’t know I needed to know! Also a great resource for easy-to-digest evidence-based info to send to my partner for quick, relevant tidbits of info 😉 Her way of framing strategies for raising little humans resonates with me as compassionate, developmentally appropriate and evidence-based so as a softy but a scientist I love this approach.
3 Evidence-Based Parenting Books For Parent Education
- The Joy of Parenting by Lisa Coyne, Ph.D., and Amy R. Murrell, Ph.D.. Based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Coyne and Murrell use their expertise in clinical psychology to provide practical guidance for when parenting gets hard. ACT is rooted in the science of behavior and has a large body of research behind it. Coyne and Murrell illuminate the challenges of parenting and how to acknowledge and accept these challenges, stop struggling against them, and parent in a way that moves you and your family towards your values. If you want an ACT-trained therapist as a parent coach you can search for one here.
- The Power of Showing Up by Daniel Siegel M.d., and Tina Bryson Ph.D. This was first recommended to me by Michele Shilvock, who is a Behavior Analyst I deeply respect due to her compassionate approach to the implementation of behavior science and her eagerness to learn from other fields. It discusses attachment theory and the importance of being emotionally available for your child. Many adults grew up with detached parents. In a world of constant entertainment and distractions, this book provides the evidence-based rationale for parents to be emotionally available and create a secure attachment for their children. It compliments a behavioral science approach nicely.
- Enjoying Parenting by Leanne Page of @parentingwithaba. This is a quick read (only 105 pages) that packs a powerful punch of practical strategies that help parents leverage behavioral science to find balance in their parenting and take the struggle out of everyday routines. Leanne is a parent and Behavior Analyst who translates the science of behavior into really clear and relatable pointers that will help you create a positive relationship with your children and take some of the stress out of parenting.
5 Evidence-Based Parenting Programs
The following programs and organizations are listed in order of the intensity of behavior they have shown to support through research and self-reporting, from least intense to most.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime recommend and utilize both Triple P and The Incredible Years in their efforts to support child welfare and prevent substance abuse through preventative family training programs that are delivered in a standardized manner. Balance and RAPID are designed to support families in a more personalized way by individualizing goals and using direct parent-coaching.
Preschool Life Skills Program
- Summary: This program is designed to build prosocial skills for young children in a group setting, with the intent of preventing challenging behavior from emerging. Thirteen social skills that have been identified as important in the early elementary years are taught through the PLS curriculum. Although it was not originally designed as a parent-training program, recent research has used it with parents, showing a positive effect in terms of increases in age-appropriate life skills and a reduction in challenging behaviors. Furthermore, this study was done independent of FTF consulting (the original creator’s consulting business), further enhancing the legitimacy of their research.
- Target Audience: Staff are trained by a professional from FTF Consulting, the behavior analytic consulting company of Dr. Hanley, who completed the initial research behind PLS and Balance (see below).
- Child Profile/Presenting Concerns: None. This is designed as a preventative program to equip children with the skills they need to be successful in a school setting.
- Model: Staff initially attend a full-day seminar, followed by a full-day workshop with practical steps for implementation. Once staff have been trained in the program, they deliver the lessons in a group classroom setting with support from an FTF consultant via weekly Zoom coaching sessions. Adults complete behavior skills training which involve a description of the skill, a model or demonstration, the opportunity to practice it, and feedback.
Related Read: What Is Online Parent Coaching, And How Can It Help Me?
- Summary: This positive parenting program is intended to train caregivers and parents in the basic skills of positive behavior interventions with the goal of preventing behavior problems from emerging. It claims to provide parents with the building blocks for effective parenting.
- Target Audience: Parents of children ages 2-16.
- Child Profile/Presenting Concerns: There are various Triple P courses to suit the needs and concerns of your family whether it be minor behavior challenges, significant behavior problems, teens with challenging behavior, kids with disabilities, families going through separation or divorce, or families seeking a more active and healthy lifestyle for their family. A recent program review showed that it had the greatest effects on children with mild to moderate behavior concerns rather than severe behavior, when compared to The Incredible Years program (Saunders et al. 2020).
- Model: Trained facilitators take parents through the 8-session course which can be done in-person with a trained Triple P provider from their national registry, or online at your own pace.
- Consumer Considerations: There is a lot of variability in the research behind Triple P. Independent review and meta-analyses of this program indicate that most of the research studies supporting it were conducted either by Dr. Sanders who initiated Triple P or affiliates of the program (Wilson et al. 2012). These reviews also revealed independent studies that showed little difference in outcomes between Triple P participants and waitlisted or standard service participants in the control group (McConnell et al. 2011). However, other meta-analyses have indicated its effectiveness in terms of both parent practices and child behavior (Degraaf et al. 2008).
The Incredible Years
- Summary: This parenting program may be one of your first parenting interventions to try in order to prevent challenging behavior with your child. It is based on the idea that caregivers need to consider and manage their own behavior to facilitate positive behavior with the child. It integrates Attachment Theory to foster a positive parent-child relationship. The Incredible Years specifically targets coercive parenting strategies and negative reinforcement, which create the cyclical trap parents often find themselves in.
- Consumer Protection: This program has less research behind it than Triple P.
- Target Audience: Children up to age 12 and their parents. Parents and children attend the course with a trained professional. There is also a shorter teacher-training version to support the same principles in the classroom.
- Child Profile/Presenting Concerns: Young children, children with ADHD, or conduct challenges. A program review from Scotland showed that The Incredible Years (when compared to Triple P) was more effective for children with ‘severe’ behavior concerns (Saunders et al. 2020).
- Model: Video modelling, rehearsal, and self-reflection are employed in this standardized parenting course. Parents go through 12-20 two-hour sessions and children go through 18-22 two-hour sessions.
- Summary: This is a prevention program for early childhood. It is designed to give parents and caregivers the skills they need to create a balance in the home between child-led and adult-led activities. If you are noticing that your child is starting to dictate family routines to the detriment of other siblings and the overall family, the Balance Program may be a good fit for you. While it was originally researched with autistic children, it can be applied to children with other behavioral or developmental concerns.
- Target Audience: The Balance Program is designed to be implemented by a behavior specialist such as a behavior analyst (BCBA). The intention is for the BCBA to equip and coach the parents in developing the skills they need to support their child in their home.
- Child Profile/Presenting Concerns: Young children with emerging behavior problems such as minor aggression, tantrums, oppositional behavior, or trouble giving up technology. Children at risk for developing behavior problems may also benefit.
- Model: This parent-coaching model involves active parent participation through a behavioral skills training approach including a description, model/demonstration, and the opportunity to practice, followed by specific feedback.
- Contact this Facebook group of practitioners to find a professional delivering Balance in your area. The program can be delivered via telehealth, so you can find a practitioner outside of your local area to serve you.
- Consumer Considerations: During the original study, all participants showed a decrease in challenging behavior from baseline to follow-up. While the designers of this program call for an independent randomized controlled trial to still be done on the complete treatment program, it is based on behavioral principles and strategies that have been well researched in behavior science.
RAPID Skills Training (RST) Or The RST Facebook Group
- Summary: RST is based on well-researched practices from Clinical Behavior Analysis and Applied Behavior Analysis. It is user-friendly and equips the adult with the skills they need to support positive interactions and behavior. Here is a short summary flyer.
- Target Audience: Parents, caregivers, teachers, educators.
- Child Profile/Concerns: Generally designed for caregivers of children displaying high-risk, externalizing behavior problems including aggression, elopement, conduct challenges, and property destruction. However, the foundational principles do apply more broadly.
- Model: Designed for families or teachers to implement at home or school. Goals are individually determined based on the needs of the family, although the structure of the program is standardized. It is delivered using an evidence-based instructional practice called behavioral skills training. In this model, a skill is described to participants, then modelled, and then participants can practice and receive feedback.
- Contact the organization that delivers RAPID Skills training through their Facebook group if you are outside the US and their website if you are within the US. No referral is needed; simply get in touch to find out more.
- Consumer Considerations: While there is no research on the RAPID program as a package, the components of this program are all based on behavior analysis and are considered evidence-based practices in the field. CBA has simply arranged these strategies in a usable, structured parenting program.
The Bottom Line On Parenting Programs
Not all parenting programs are created equal. If you are simply looking to avoid challenging behavior and get some positive parenting practices in place, Triple P or the Incredible Years might work for you and your child as a preventative measure.
If you are experiencing significant behavior challenges with your child, you might need something more intensive with personalized goals and strategies. Check out Balance and RAPID in this case. Balance specifically can be helpful for young children with emerging problem behavior. RAPID may be useful for families of children with more complex needs. To receive individualized parent-coaching with an evidence-based perspective, you may want to find a behavior analyst to coach you directly with your parenting.
When A Standardized Program Is Not Enough
You may have taken a parent training program and even have implemented some of the strategies you learned. However, you might notice that you still are facing behavioral challenges with your child. Or you might find there are still some concerning challenges in your parent-child relationship.
If this is the case, hiring a professional to help you out might be the best course of action. In addition to seeking out mental health services from a counsellor or clinical psychologist, you might also benefit from working with a behavior analyst (BCBA) to coach you through specific situations.
Related Podcast: Counseling And Behavior Analysis (with Dr. Katie Saint, BCBA)
Wrapping It Up
There’s a lot of information out there and the best take-away I can give you is to empower you to question the content you read, and seek out the best available evidence for parenting. Being a knowledgeable and discerning consumer of parenting content will not only help you be a more confident parent, but will also result in better outcomes for your family.
To keep learning, here’s one of our podcasts we’re sure you’ll like: Providing Behavioral Health Services On A Multidisciplinary Team (with Michele Shilvock, Behavior Analyst at Paramount Pediatrics)
De Graaf, I., Speetjens, P., Smit, F., De Wolff, M. and Tavecchio, L. (2008), Effectiveness of the Triple P Positive Parenting Program on Parenting: A Meta‐Analysis. Family Relations, 57: 553-566. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3729.2008.00522.x
Gunning, C., Holloway, J. and Grealish, L. (2020), An evaluation of parents as behavior change agents in the Preschool Life Skills program. Jnl of Applied Behav Analysis, 53: 889-917. https://doi.org/10.1002/jaba.660
McConnell, David & Breitkreuz, Rhonda & Savage, Amber. (2011). Independent evaluation of the Triple P Positive Parenting Program in family support service settings. Child & Family Social Work. 17. 43 – 54. 10.1111/j.1365-2206.2011.00771.x.
Saunders, R., Marita, B., Renz, B., Thomson, J., & Pilling, S. (2020). An evaluation of parent training interventions in scotland: The psychology of parenting project (PoPP). Journal of Child and Family Studies, 29(12), 3369-3380. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10826-020-01817-y
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2019) Compilation of evidence-based family skills training programs. Retrieved from: https://www.unodc.org/documents/prevention/family-compilation.pdf
Wilson, P., Rush, R., Hussey, S. et al. How evidence-based is an ‘evidence-based parenting program’? A PRISMA systematic review and meta-analysis of Triple P. BMC Med 10, 130 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1186/1741-7015-10-130