Here we talk you through some of what we found in the Healthy Start, Happy Start research, a study involving 300 families with 1-5 year olds. We wanted to see if a programme that used videos of the playful moments shared between caregivers and their children was a helpful way for families to learn about and respond to their children’s communication and behaviour.
A brief, home-based parenting programme delivered largely by health visiting teams has been found to reduce behaviour problems in young children up to two years after programme delivery.
Behaviour problems are common, affecting about 5-10% of children. We know that the earlier we can support families the better. But we are currently lacking evidence-based intervention programmes that can be offered to families at the earliest signs of these difficulties when children are still in toddlerhood. Even programmes that have been found to be helpful have rarely been tested in ‘real-world’ NHS settings with health professionals delivering the programme as part of their wider caseload.
What did this study involve?
In the Healthy Start, Happy Start study we aimed to support families who reported difficulties with their children’s behaviour by testing a six-session, home-based, attachment-focused parenting programme called Video-feedback Intervention to promote Positive Parenting and Sensitive Discipline (or VIPP-SD). The study was a randomised controlled trial run by Imperial College London and PEDAL in partnership with health visiting teams across six NHS sites, and funded by the NIHR HTA programme. This was the first study in the UK to trial the delivery of this programme in NHS settings.
The VIPP-SD programme adopts a sensitive, strengths-based approach by really focusing in on positive moments shared between caregivers and their children. To bring this to life for families, video clips of them interacting with their children during everyday moments are used by the programme’s health professionals to highlight the important role parents play in their children’s lives. The goal of the programme is to support caregivers to become more ‘in tune’ with their child, to notice their child’s subtle behavioural cues and signals, to empathise, and to provide sensitive and responsive parenting. Previous research has shown that this parenting style can have positive impacts on the parent-child relationship and children’s overall development.
What did we find out?
During the Healthy Start, Happy Start study, 300 families with one- and two-year olds were followed up for two years until their children were three- and four-years-old. Half of the families received the programme alongside routine healthcare support, while the other half received routine support alone. We found that the programme improved children’s behaviour problems immediately after families finished the programme but also when we followed them up again two years later.
This clear and striking long-term change in child behaviour tells us that providing tailored supports to families in the 0-3 period represents a powerful opportunity to intervene early and alleviate these difficulties before they worsen and become embedded.
What does this mean?
The findings of this study provide important evidence of the power of health visitors delivering early intervention. We know that improving outcomes for all children and families, in amongst inequalities and disparities that have only been amplified during the pandemic, is going to need more than any one single programme can provide. Instead, to best serve families, health services need investment, funding, and capacity to draw upon an evidence-based menu of supports that can be offered to parents and children as they move through the family life course.
You can find out more about the Healthy Start, Happy Start study by clicking this link.
Beth Barker and Paul Ramchandani
University of Cambridge Research Assistant and Professor of Play