• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Sunday 18th May, 2014

The (un)importance of cultural barriers

In many countries, children from culturally diverse backgrounds are at a greater risk for developing behaviour problems. But their parents are often less likely than other families to access support via parenting programmes. Do these families’ cultural values prevent them from engaging with these programmes? Are the programmes themselves simply not suited to anyone other than the cultural majority?

No, says a research team from the University of Queenland. In a survey of 137 parents in Australia, culture was one of the least cited barriers. Rather, the most common barriers to participation in the popular Triple P parenting programme were practical ones: the timing and location of services, the financial cost, and competing work commitments. Parents who looked at specific strategies, such as spending quality time with children or creating behaviour charts, were most commonly concerned that a strategy would take too much time or that it wouldn’t work for their child.

The study’s authors, a team from the University of Queensland including the Triple P programme developer, Matt Sanders, claim that the study indicates a need to search further for variables that prevent minority ethnic families from accessing parenting programmes. But the study also suggests that attending to practical concerns such as transport, costs, and competing work/time demands may pay greater dividends for children’s outcomes than would time devoted to adapting programmes to accommodate culturally specific material.


From previous research, the wide range of barriers that prevent families with children from seeking and accessing the help of services are well known. They include a lack of information about what is available; practical barriers such as difficulties with child care, the timing of programmes, transport, and costs; as well as demographic factors such as low income or social isolation.

In addition, researchers have speculated that cultural hurdles to accessing services may include difficulties with the language of service delivery, families’ opinions about seeking help, a distrust of mental health services and a lack of appropriately trained professionals to handle these cases. This has led to a debate about whether mainstream evidence-based programmes need to be customized or adapted to be more effective for parents from minority ethnic backgrounds.

In this case, researchers looked at the acceptability of Triple P, an evidence-based intervention, to parents from different ethnic groups. Triple P has demonstrated effectiveness in a number of contexts and populations.

The Australian survey took a sample of 137 parents from an array of ethnic groups, including white Australians, southeast Asians, Europeans, Africans, Pacific Islanders, and southern/central Asians. They asked parents’ opinions about the acceptability of the 17 core strategies taught by the programme and about barriers to their use.

The programme strategies were all rated highly by the sample for acceptability, and no significant differences were observed among the ethnic groups. The most commonly cited barrier to implementing any particular strategy was a lack of time and a belief that it would not work. The most common reasons parents thought they would be unable to participate in the programme overall were timing of services, financial cost, location of services, and competing work commitments. Interestingly, cultural barriers were one of the least cited reasons for not being able to employ a programme strategy.

Increased sensitivity to the needs of minority ethnic families is a good thing – but sensitivity needs to be accompanied by hard evidence, say the Australian research team. At the moment, “adaptations made to these programmes are based more on practitioners’ perceptions of what culturally diverse parents want, and a need to be politically correct as opposed to empirical evidence.” While most adapted programmes have been better able to engage and retain parents, better engagement with parents has not translated into better outcomes for children. Worse, in some cases, adaptations have had negative consequences, as changes removed crucial elements of the programmes.

The authors are upfront about the study’s limitations – not least the small number of participants in each ethnic group. A much larger sample is required before firm conclusions can be reached. In addition, by restricting the study to families who can speak and read English, this study does not say anything about the difficulty posed by the language of service delivery, a potentially critical factor in recruitment and engagement.

The study does say something potentially important for evidence-based interventions about the universality of families’ difficulties with accessing support. If the choice is between spending scarce resources adapting programmes to cultural needs or attending to practical concerns such as transport, costs and competing work/time demands, the latter may pay greater dividends for children’s outcomes.


Morawska, A., Sanders, M., Goadby, E., Headley, C. Hodge, L., McAuliffe, C., Pope, S. & Anderson, E. (2011). Is the Triple P-Positive Parenting Programme acceptable to parents from culturally diverse backgrounds? Journal of Child and Family Studies, 20, 614-622.

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