A pioneering research project led by the University of York and involving researchers from Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry will evaluate newly-developed programmes that aim to improve the social and emotional well-being of children under two and their parents.

The four-year project led by the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) at York, with colleagues from the University’s departments of Health Sciences, Social Work and Social Policy and Centre for Health Economics, is backed by a £1.85 million grant from the NIHR (National Institute for Health Research). The study also includes co-investigators from the universities of Central Lancashire, Sheffield, and Maynooth, with initial partners including Action for Children, Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust, and Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council.

The team from Plymouth are supported by the NIHR Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care: South West Peninsula (PenCLAHRC).

The multi-disciplinary research team aim to evaluate the effectiveness and acceptability of Incredible Years (IY) Parent Programmes for 0-2 year-olds. Evidence from research around the world suggests that the BASIC IY programme -- for parents of children aged 3+ years -- enhances child and parent well-being. The more recently developed IY parent programmes for infants and toddlers have shown promising results in two small trials in Wales and Boston, US, yet have not yet been rigorously evaluated in England.

The study will feature an 18-month randomised pilot in Devon and Lancashire followed by a 30-month main randomised trial in four local authority areas. It will involve a total of 900 families and will seek to assess the impact of IY particularly on those parents and carers at risk of developing depression. 

A group of 650 primary carers will receive IY interventions while a comparison group of 250 will be able to access services typically offered in their locality for this age range. Intervention group parents, along with co-parents, or other significant carers such as grandparents, will receive varying levels of IY proportionate to their needs. 

The researchers will assess the primary outcomes when children are around 20 months old. These will focus on the child’s social and emotional well-being, and well-being among primary carers, co-parents and other significant carers.

The study will also assess parenting skills; parent-child attachment and interaction; parent and child access to health and social services; child behaviour; child language; quality of IY programme delivery; and health-related quality of life and cost.

Dr Tracey Bywater, of IEE at York, who is leading the study, said: 

“The home environment, and particularly parent practices and mental health of both mothers and fathers can impact significantly on a child’s social and emotional wellbeing and behaviour. Early experiences affect outcomes in later life such as educational attainment, and the ability to form secure relationships.
“There is considerable evidence to show that early mental health promotion is more effective, and less costly to the individual and to society, than late intervention. Our study will address an important knowledge gap by investigating the potential of two new IY parent programmes for the ‘under twos’ in the short, medium and possibly longer term.” 

The IY series was first developed in the USA in the 1970s by Professor Carolyn Webster-Stratton and now comprises programmes for parents of 0-12 year-olds, with complementary programmes for children and teachers.

The York-led study is taking place in parallel with a similar study in Ireland led by co-investigator Dr Sinéad McGilloway, of Maynooth University, Ireland.