The current enthusiasm for parent training among policy makers
is not always matched by an equal determination to ensure that
programmes work. Because the intentions of those running programmes
are generally good, it is often taken for granted that their
interventions will be beneficial. Yet poor facilitators who make
parents feel inadequate or dependent can do more harm than good.
Many parenting programmes struggle to attract participants, and
those who do turn up are likely to resent being told how to bring
up their children.
None of these criticisms seems to apply to Incredible Years, a
parenting programme developed 25 years ago in the US by the
psychologist Carolyn Webster-Stratton and now gaining popularity in
this country. Judy Hutchings, a consultant clinical psychologist
based at the University of Wales in Bangor says: “Incredible Years
has got the best evidence base of any programme in the world. The
programmes quite clearly do work as well here as they do in
Seattle. There’s evidence from Wales, Oxford and London that
the programmes transfer.”
Hutchings established the Incredible Years Cymru centre five
years ago after meeting Webster-Stratton and being “captivated by
her commitment to being more effective with severely disadvantaged
people”. Incredible Years is now being used in Sure Start
programmes in Wales and the Welsh borders as well as in south west
England, Manchester, Sheffield and Oxford.
Incredible Years differs from other parenting programmes in its
sheer breadth. Before making contact with Webster-Stratton,
Hutchings had 20 years’ experience running parenting
programmes for families of children with severe conduct disorders
and getting the usual results. Around a third did not benefit, or
the progress they made was not maintained. Webster-Stratton had
similar findings. “Carolyn realised that underlying adult
relationship and problem-solving issues needed to be addressed and
so she developed a programme for that,” Hutchings says. “Then she
developed a programme for parents to help their children in
Although designed for parents of children with severe behaviour
problems, Incredible Years works equally well preventively. Eilir
Jones, a health visitor working for Caernarfon Sure Start, has run
five Incredible Years programmes and finds that parents are keen to
attend. She says: “The programme isn’t prescriptive.
It’s about going home and trying things out with your
children. What works with one child doesn’t necessarily work
with others. As group leaders we don’t set ourselves up as
experts with beautifully behaved children telling people what to
The research also indicates that Incredible Years works as well
with people from ethnic minorities as with white parents. Jones
points out that British parents are used to watching US TV shows
and have no difficulty relating to video clips of American parents
and children. “The principles [of good parenting] are the same
whatever culture you are from.”
Crucially, for many participants, the benefits are lasting and
the principles they learn from the programmes are incorporated into
daily life. As well as strengthening parent-child relationships and
improving children’s behaviour, programmes boost
parents’ self-esteem, self-confidence and reduce levels of
depression – often bound up with their perceptions of
themselves as parents.
“A lot of parents say they feel more confident and are enjoying
their parenting more,” says Jones. “They say they feel better about
themselves and don’t dread what’s going to happen in
Hutchinson adds: “It doesn’t matter what the cause of the
problem is, the programmes are effective in giving parents
problem-solving skills and confidence.” About half of all parents
who see their children as having behaviour problems are themselves
clinically depressed. “Parents with conduct disorder kids tend to
be poor at problem-solving, as are depressed parents. They also
don’t spot quickly enough when a child is misbehaving, but
tend to make global negative assessments. They find it hard to
focus on what they would like to deal with. If you work with
parents on child management skills, it does impact on the
Parents also report that they cope more effectively in other
areas of their lives. Jones says: “Parents find [Incredible Years]
helps them have a better relationship with teachers and deal better
with their partners. The focus is on problem-solving rather than
A critical element in the success of Incredible Years is the
continuous consultation and supervision for group leaders working
towards leader certification. Hutchings points out that preventive
programmes don’t always work as well at the coal face as when
they were researched. “You have to show you’re delivering the
programme in the way Carolyn developed it,” she says. “We’re
looking at expanding the availability of supervision and
Jones agrees that supervision and having her own programmes
videotaped has helped improved her practice. “Modelling behaviour
with parents is important – being positive, reinforcing
parents, being accepting when things go wrong and doing lots of
problem-solving. Unless you have supervision you don’t move
What is Incredible Years?
Incredible Years is a parenting programme led by trained
facilitators and designed around the use of short video clips of
parents with their children. Participants discuss the footage and
come up with suggestions which they rehearse in the group and try
out at home with their own children. The programme aims to help
parents develop their own strategies rather than take a more
behaviourist “how to do it” approach.
The Incredible Years “basic” programme helps parents understand
their children’s development and temperament and form strong
nurturing relationships with them. It involves 12-14 two-hourly
sessions run weekly. Skills covered include:
• Empathy and child-directed play.
• Praise, incentives and setting limits.
• Dealing with misbehaviour.
The “advance” programme is for people who need extra help to
address family risk factors such as depression, relationship
difficulties, poor coping skills and lack of support.
“Dinosaur” is a school-based programme for children with
behaviour problems which teaches:
• Appropriate classroom behaviour.
• Promotes social skills and positive peer
• Anger management.