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The Positive Effect of Parenting Programs on Economically Disadvantaged Families

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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The Legacy Program: Centers for Disease Control

Between 2001 and 2009, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia conducted a long range study on one of its key child and family development efforts – Legacy for Children – in order to gauge its effect on the social, behavioral and cognitive development of children born into economically disadvantaged families. Most of the families in the study had a yearly income at least 200% below the poverty level. The mean level of income for families in the study was below $20,000 per year. Researchers assed the children of 574 mother-child pairs on a variety of developmental criteria. Researcehrs assessed children at six months, one year, two years, three years, four years, and five years of age. The families were located in Miami, Florida, and in Los Angeles, California.

Researchers divided participants into two groups: a control group and an experimental/intervention group. The experimental received intervention training which focused on positive parenting practices and the control group received no such training. The children of the two parenting groups were given identical assessments at the intervals previously listed (six months, one year, two years, three years, four years, and five years old) and the results were subjected to rigorous statistical analyses.

The data collected from this study, released in 2012, reveal important information for the future of families in the U.S. Not only is it vital that young children born into economically disadvantaged circumstances receive adequate educational opportunities from programs like HEAD START, but it’s also vital that their economically disadvantaged parents receive support and education regarding positive and productive parenting practices.

The Legacy Program: What are the Goals?

Though the study focused on the programs in Miami and Los Angeles, the CDC’s Legacy Program is ongoing. Its fundamental philosophy is that no matter what their circumstances, parents can influence their children in positive ways. Further, the founders of the program believe that no single parenting practice is more important than the commitment of the parent to developing and sustaining a meaningful parent-child relationship situated in the context of a supportive community of likewise committed parents. At its core of the Legacy Program are the following goals:

  • Encourage mothers to further develop a sense of responsibility for their children and help them find more ways to devote their time and energy to their children
  • Help mothers develop positive and productive mother-child relationships
  • Share positive ways to guide and nurture children’s emotions and behavior
  • Help mothers contribute to the positive development of a child’s cognitive and verbal development
  • Help each mother discover and develop a sense of community

How Does the Legacy Program Work?

The structure of the program varies from city to city. In general, each participant undergoes an average of an hour to an hour and a half of parenting workshops per week from the birth of the child until age five. The workshops four primary areas of focus: Parent Self-Efficacy, Parent Responsibility, the Parent-Child Relationship and Developing a Sense of Community:

  • Parent Self-Efficacy. This component focuses on instilling the belief that every parent can be a successful parent.
  • Parent Responsibility. This component hinges on creating optimism. It teaches parents they can make thoughtful and intentional choices that will positively impact their children. And they can make these choices despite the external pressures in their lives.
  • Parent-Child Interaction. This component focuses on teaching parents that quality of contact with their children trumps any one parenting strategy or tactic. It teaches that there’s no best way to parent: everyone finds out what is best for them. This component also stresses creating a safe environment for parent-child interaction. It teaches how to incorporate evidence-based parenting practices into day-to-day life, such as positive praise and direct eye contact
  • Sense of Community. This component recognizes parents develop a sense of commitment to their children when they’re surrounded by other committed parents. The workshops build bridges between participants that allow them to sustain contact outside of workshop times.

Increased IQ and Cognitive Ability, Decreased Behavioral Risk

The data collected between 2001 and 2009 indicate a wide range of positive effects of parenting interventions on children born into economically disadvantaged families. At age three, children of families from the experimental/intervention group in Los Angeles showed higher scores in both reading and general cognitive abilities than those in the control group. When researchers followed up on the same children when they reached third grade, they showed higher scores in general cognitive ability, word identification, reading comprehension and math problem-solving skills.

Children between the ages of two and five from both locations showed lower risk of developing socio-emotional challenges such as hyperactivity. The implications of these results are important. The evidence proves that despite economic circumstances, education in positive parenting practices can change the lives of children by laying the foundation for academic and social achievement. People interested in seeking out Legacy Program workshops can read the Legacy Booklet to find out how and where to receive parenting support.

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