• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Thursday 29th May, 2014

How to get parents to attend parenting programmes – and keep on attending

Parents can’t benefit from programmes they don’t attend. But all too often that’s the story: evidence-based programmes reach no more than a fraction of eligible families because they fail to engage parents.

Indeed, the numbers are dire. On average, only a third of families invited to enroll in prevention projects actually attend any sessions. Of those who do show up at least once, only half make it all the way to the end of the programme. In other words, approximately 16% of eligible participants invited to take part successfully complete prevention projects.

Almost without exception, programmes that work very well in academic trials show much less impressive results when they are translated into the real world. Low recruitment and poor retention rates are likely to be contributing factors.

According to researchers from the Social Research Unit at Dartington (SRU) it is not enough to create a programme that works for parents who do attend. Researchers, programme developers and practitioners must build solid recruitment and retention practices into the heart of the programme. The team's commendations build on a trial of the Incredible Years parent training programme in Birmingham, the largest local authority in Europe.

Crucially, there must be a clear recruitment process across the various key agencies. If frontline practitioners and organisations do not know how or where to refer parents, recruitment will fail at the first step.

But practical knowledge of referral routes is not enough to secure parental engagement. In Birmingham there were cases where key stakeholders, though aware that Incredible Years was being offered, were reluctant to refer parents. Some didn’t perceive referrals as their responsibility. Others felt they were already providing sufficient support to parents and did not prioritise referrals to the programme.

As such, clear communication must be accompanied by effective collaboration and cooperation across the different agencies. Stakeholders need a sense of programme ownership. In Birmingham, useful outreach activities included: one-to-one meetings with potential referring agencies and practitioners; endorsement by key community leaders at events; and getting the word out that the programme was not in competition with other services.

Once buy-in from relevant agencies has been achieved, the next step is developing a trusting relationship with parents. Parents should have several opportunities across different formats to enroll on a programme. In order to be successful, recruitment must be a sustained, on-going process. It is not a one-off event.

And recruitment doesn’t stop once a parent agrees to attend. Contact before the first session through home visits or calls is essential to boost parental engagement, because parents are much more likely to attend when they know and trust the professionals who are delivering the programme. Even after the programme starts, practitioners need to keep in touch with parents, especially if they miss a session.

Making it a priority

Of course, giving practitioners the time to build trusting relationships with parents – and teaching them the skills to make it work – requires that commissioning bodies make it a priority. Funders have to provide sufficient investment in staff training, focusing on effective recruitment and retention strategies. Previous work has also highlighted the value of involving prior programme participants in the recruitment process.

Parents may also miss out on programmes for very practical reasons, for example because they are unable to get to the location, or have difficulties finding childcare for younger children. Resources should therefore be made available for parents requiring transport, childcare and language translation services. In the Birmingham case, recruiters had more success when they not only made these “extras” available but also publicised their availability.

The SRU team conclude by arguing the case for effective engagement and retention is both economic and moral: economic, in the sense of ensuring beneficial impacts are realised, and moral in that organisations have a duty to ensure every effort has been made to help vulnerable children and families access available services.


Axford, N., Lehtonen, M., Kaoukji, D., Tobin, K., & Berry, V. (2012). Engaging parents in parenting programs: Lessons from research and practice. Children and Youth Services Review, 34(10), 2061-2071.

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