Supporting vulnerable parents: ‘By focusing on the child, you can engage the most high-risk and vulnerable people’

A reduction in the number of referrals of children for speech and language therapy is among the positive spin-offs of one home-based parenting support programme

A reduction in the number of referrals of children for speech and language therapy is among the positive spin-offs of one home-based parenting support programme.

The full results of a rigorous evaluation (2008-2015) of Lifestart’s “Growing Child” programme are due to be launched at Queen’s University, Belfast, on June 22nd but Lifestart Foundation executive director Dr Pauline McClenaghan will be giving a flavour of the findings at the Unesco Child and Family Research Centre 7th Biennial International Conference in Galway on June 11th and 12th.

Although the Derry-based Lifestart Foundation was established as an all-Ireland charity more than 25 years ago, with a mission to enhance child development, in recent years it has worked more closely with statutory bodies.

For example, about two years ago it started a collaboration in Co Donegal, formerly with the HSE, and now with Tusla, to make Lifestart specific to vulnerable families throughout the county and “fully referred rather than a service that any family could access”, says McClenaghan.


All first-time parents are, by definition, regarded as vulnerable and are referred, along with those who may be at risk due to life circumstances or already have children on the risk register. The involvement of all first-time parents takes any potential stigma out of the scheme, she points out.

A professional visitor goes into the home once a month for the first three years to talk to parents about their child’s development; what to expect over the next month and what they can do with the child to help him or her reach the age-appropriate developmental milestones.

“It has been shown that by focusing on the child, rather than going in to instruct the parent, you can engage the most high-risk and vulnerable people,” she explains.

The frequency of visits may be increased for higher-risk families. Likewise, if mothers go back to work, the visits may be reduced and they can get information by post and through phone consultations.

One of the things that came out of the evaluation, conducted by the Centre for Effective Education at Queen’s, was a reduction in referrals for speech and language therapy because communication between parent and child is a focus of the Growing Child programme, she explains. It also found parents were less stressed, had more parental efficacy and more knowledge about child development – “all the things that matter for children’s outcomes”.

When resources are tight, early intervention and prevention can be sidelined by public services when the focus is on protection. However, McClenaghan adds: “If you are going to stop children going into care, you have to work in the home where all these problems really begin.

"Often these problems don't come to the attention of social services or the health service until the damage has been done – and then you have to invest much more to give these children life chances." See

Child-to-parent violence

The emerging problem of child-to-parent violence and how professionals can support families affected by it will be the focus of a workshop at the conference.

“Parents are living in fear and shame and practitioners are often unsure about what to do because there is little research in the area and no policy guidance on what to do about it,” says Declan Coogan, a lecturer in social work at the Unesco Child and Family Research Centre.

He will be outlining effective ways of dealing with it through the Non Violent Resistance Programme (NVRP) training, which he devised for professionals in Ireland. He has also written a NVRP handbook.

Research has shown it works, he says, but funding is limited for training and places are already booked up into next year. However, it’s “brilliant”, he adds, that volunteers with Parentline have been trained over the past two years to support parents dealing with violent children.

For more information see; Parentline is on 1890 927277