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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


Supporting parents through online programmes: now and into the future

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 29 June 2020

Jie Gao, Clare Brooks, Yuwei Xu, Eleanor Kitto.

After nearly three months of lockdown, most of us crave human interaction. Indeed our experience of living and working virtually has taught many of us the value of face-to-face communication with real people. And yet, our systematic review on programmes designed for parents of young children suggests not only that online programmes offer effective ways to support parents, but that they are already extensively used to good effect.

Our systematic review of the research into programmes for parents of young children (0-6 years old) identified that effective parenting programmes often feature:

  • Focused programme aims and purposes
  • Clear theoretical frameworks
  • A programme tailored around individual user needs
  • Versatile means of delivery
  • Useful programme contents
  • High-quality teaching and facilitating
  • Effective professional training for programme leaders and facilitators
  • Constructive programme evaluation

Strikingly, the increasing use of technology and Internet-based parenting programmes stands out. Empirical reviews suggest that it has distinctive advantages over face-to-face programmes, including its capacity to break down the geographical barriers and time constraints which can prevent parents from accessing important resources when and where they need to. Without doubt, these advantages have become even more important following the Covid-19 lockdown. The flexibility provided by the Internet can extend the geographical reach of courses and support to a larger number of parents at limited additional cost.

Our review also finds evidence that newer generations of young parents tend to prefer online parenting programmes to traditional ones as they find remote participation less intimidating and demanding. Online programmes have the advantage that they can be self-guided by parents or led by professionals, and can incorporate opportunities for both individual learning and group discussions. This suggests that even after the pandemic is behind us, there are opportunities to further exploit online formats for the design of parenting programmes.

Online programmes benefit from the same features that make for effective face-to-face programmes. In addition, the following features are particularly important for online programmes:

  • Creating active learning opportunities for parents using multimedia
  • Embedding interactive elements throughout the whole programme
  • Using parents’ responses and feedback (from the above interactive elements) to customise progress and tailor support
  • Building up an online community to promote social support
  • Providing parents with long-term support (g., regularly updated resources for parents to access and download)

Despite the promising potential of online parenting programmes, the review also highlights that this format may not be suitable in all contexts. For example, some low-income families may have difficulties accessing the Internet. The evidence suggests that face-to-face support such as home visits and community group meetings, cannot and should not be completely replaced by online ones. In a number of examples, popular parenting programmes have integrated online resources and remote learning elements with face-to-face teaching (e.g., Triple p, Incredible years, etc.) and this has proved effective in providing parents with multi-dimensional support.

However, the review does raise the question of whether the distinctive characteristics of face-to-face parenting programmes and of online ones make them effective for different contexts. One meta-analytic study suggests that when face-to-face programmes are adapted for the web, they may not be as effective. In other words, there are still many aspects of online provision that still need to be understood, in particular how to refine the design and implementation of online parenting programmes in order to support parents with diverse needs.

Our review strongly suggests that online parenting programmes are both the present and the future.

For more information about what makes an effective parenting programme for early childhood years, please refer to the full report with two practical checklists. 

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto via Pexels

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