• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Monday 24th November, 2014

Overcoming barriers to attending parenting programmes: beyond good intentions

Everyday experience tells us that good intentions are often simply not enough. While psychological theory suggests that the best predictor of behaviour is the intention to do something, the reality is often different: things get in the way.

And so it is with parenting programmes, where, according to research published in the Journal of Children’s Services, the best intentions to join have little to do with actually attending. The research also challenges assumptions about parents from minority ethnic groups being put off parenting programmes due to cultural sensitivities. Instead, it indicates that minority groups often fail to use services available to them, despite being highly interested and willing to do so.

Asmita Patel and her colleagues from the University of Manchester undertook two studies to investigate the apparent unwillingness of people to attend parenting programmes and actual participation in them. They used a specifically designed and validated questionnaire, the Barriers Checklist, that covered both the reasons why parents would not want to attend programmes aimed at them, as well as the factors that would make them more interested in doing so.

The first study found that a minimal proportion of parents who expressed general interest in parenting programmes actually participated in the Incredible Years parenting group when given the opportunity to join. In fact, only four out of 84 parents, who were surveyed while attending parent and toddler groups in the area where the parenting programme was to be run, actually enrolled on the course once it started. This is too small a number to even run an analysis to find out what factors could be linked to their participation in the programme.

In the second study Patel and her team further examined the barriers that prevent parents from attending parenting programmes. They surveyed parents of nursery and reception class children in six local schools.

The research found that, overall, parents with lower levels of education were less interested in parenting groups and were less likely to have accessed parenting services before. Moreover, the parents who were least interested in parenting groups were of white British and black British heritage. By contrast, Pakistani, Asian British and African (as opposed to the black parents who had been born in Britain) parents were most keen to attend the groups. The finding challenges the assumption that parents from minority ethnic groups would find parenting interventions less relevant than their white British counterparts.

The research thus underlines the need for more efforts to encourage, and address the needs of some minority ethnic groups who appear keen to participate in parenting groups but, in reality, fail to do so. As Patel notes, “whatever prevents minority groups from actually attending, it is not a lack of interest”.

The barriers checklist revealed the diverse reasons which parents claim discourage them from attending parenting groups. The main reasons were the time demands of the intervention (two-hour weekly meetings for 5-7 weeks); the location of the group (in a community centre); and the fear of having to disclose personal information. The parents, however, did not rate disapproval by family members as a major obstacle for attending parenting groups, even though a large majority of them reported that they would be more interested in attending if there were active approval by others.

Patel advocates more research that will help us understand and tackle the reasons behind low uptake of parenting services. It is not enough to just offer services and expect parents to come – even if the interest and need is there. “Parents who are interested or see a need for an intervention but do not take it up constitute a major proportion of the at-risk population“, she writes.

Understanding why people fail to use services aimed at them is all the more important in the age of austerity, when funding cuts are accompanied by a growing demand on services to show they are reaching their target audience. The challenge for prevention science is to turn intentions into action and engage people in intervention services. If this is not done, public funding of such schemes will come under further threat and the likely loss of investment in early intervention will have an exacerbating impact on the lives of vulnerable families and children.


Fishbein, M. & Ajzen, I. (1972) Attitudes and Opinions. Annual Review of Psychology, 23(1), 487-544

Patel A., Calam R. & Latham A. (2011). Intention to attend parenting programmes: Does ethnicity make a difference? Journal of Children’s Services, 6(1), 45-58.

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