Rapid growth of family support programmes calls for accelerated research agenda
Yaprak, 10, stands with her younger sister and brother and her mother on the porch of their home in the village of Karaali in Ankara Province. Yaprak attends a 'child-friendly' school, together with all the girls in the village. Today is the last day of school and she is wearing a red velvet dress to celebrate. Yaprak's father works for a local landowner in exchange for the house and a small stipend.
Governments across the globe are expanding public programmes to strengthen families and improve parenting skills. Policy makers in developing countries are learning that stable, more secure families can play a vital role in improving child outcomes, bolstering social development and contributing to economic growth.
At an "Expert Consultation on Family and Parenting Support", convened by the UNICEF Office of Research - Innocenti, international experts from fifteen countries gathered to define and coordinate a global research framework to improve policies aimed at supporting families and parenting across the diverse global spectrum of family norms.
"There are many questions around how family and parenting support are defined in national policies, service delivery and informal practices, as well as what works for whom. There needs to be more evidence on how family and parenting support programmes impact on parental competencies, roles and relationships as well as what factors contribute their success or failure," explains Jasmina Byrne, Child Protection Specialist at the UNICEF Office of Research - Innocenti.
Questions regarding the ideal focus for family and parenting support programmes were addressed by many of the world’s leading thinkers in the field. Professor Mary Daly from University of Oxford, who is leading the design of the research framework, emphasized the importance of grounding the theory in practice and knowledge gained in different parts of the world.
UNICEF specialists from a number of African countries drew attention to the diversity of assumptions underpinning decisions about family support based on geography, capacity of state institutions and socio-economic status.
Professor Rosana Morgado, from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, elaborated on the links between parenting support initiatives and prevention of violence against children. Professor Morgado also presented findings indicating that conditional cash transfer programmes can be beneficial in increasing household stability, but the focus needs to be switched from parental deficiencies to the potential for positive child rearing.
Many presenters highlighted the importance of supporting parents of adolescents as a critical period of child development alongside early childhood.
Currently, most evidence on the impact of family and parenting support programmes come from high-income countries, predominantly from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. As investment grows in the developing world, preliminary assessment shows that models that have proven to be effective in certain countries are not always transferable to others.
"We need to know more and to systematically review existing programmes to develop theories of change that are applicable to low income settings", said Ms Byrne. "It is crucial that we move beyond the assessment of a single type of outcome and to bring an integrated approach to children at different moments in their lives, taking into account what works in supporting families in different contexts", she added.
At the end of the UNICEF Innocenti expert consultation, a three-year research agenda was agreed upon by the group of experts. The agenda will prioritize assessment of current major evidence gaps, such as understanding which parental competencies lead to the best outcomes and what systems are required to support them.