Famous offspring of the US city Seattle include musical icons Jimi
Hendrix and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. Coming from broken homes, both
experienced insecurity in their childhoods so it seems almost too
much of a coincidence that another export from Seattle is a
parenting course. But this is why Cheryl Leonard chose to go there
with her Isabel Schwarz Travel Fellowship.
In the 1980s, clinical psychologist Carolyn Webster-Stratton set up
the Incredible Years organisation in the US to deliver parenting
and children’s behaviour programmes. She is also the director of
the parenting clinic, which Leonard visited, based at the
University of Washington, in Seattle.
Leonard is the group leader of the Incredible Years basic parenting
programme in east Hertfordshire. “It is the only group-based
programme with evidence-based research which is why it has been
adopted in the UK by lots of local authorities,” says
Leonard spends part of the week as a senior clinical social worker
for child and adolescent mental health services in east
Hertfordshire, working with children and families with emotional,
behavioural and mental health problems. As part of the treatment
plan, parents find alternative ways to manage their children’s
behaviour, which is where the therapeutic parenting course comes
She also works two days a week for the Children and Family Advisory
Support Service, as a children’s guardian for public law cases and
as a child and family adviser for private law cases.
The 12-week parenting programme runs for two hours a week with
about 10 parents. There is one topic for each week including
playing with your child, much of which is about building
attachments to the child and changing negative perceptions;
effective praise; setting boundaries; ignoring and distracting
techniques; and discipline and problem-solving. Each session has a
teaching element and a discussion element; parents are set homework
to try out their new skills at home and there are videos and role
“I thought visiting the clinic and observing the programmes and
seeing how they deliver them would be directly relevant to the work
I do,” says Leonard.
She expected to find the programme being delivered differently in
the US, but found more similarities than differences. Leonard is
encouraged by this as it means “we are delivering the courses the
way they are meant to be”.
Of course there were some variations: British parents tend to hold
back more than their US counterparts when it comes to role plays.
Leonard says: “It’s about the group leader setting up an
environment in which parents feel it’s OK to try things out. The
Americans really incorporate role play into programmes in a much
more natural, spontaneous way.”
So rather than just following the suggested role plays in the
programme pack, which is often what happens in the UK, there is a
more ad hoc approach in the US. “If a parent starts talking about
difficulties they’re having with their child because of particular
behaviour, the leader might get one parent to play the child and
another to play the mother and coach her through what to do.
“It helps parents understand the concepts and techniques that are
expected of them and other parents in the group can observe and
give ideas about what else might help.”
The second noticeable difference was the venues that some US
parenting programmes are forced to use because of lack of funding.
“Some were using anywhere they could get, even a boardroom. It made
me appreciate the family centres we use that are child-friendly
with a lot of information for parents.”
While in the US, Leonard went to observe a “dinosaur school”. These
have nothing to do with Jurassic era creatures; instead they
provide a course for children that promotes emotional literacy and
teaches them to manage their feelings and are another part of the
Incredible Years organisation.
Primary schools can make dinosaur sessions part of their
curriculum. Two therapists visit the school and work with teachers,
teaching assistants and the children. Two puppets – Big Red (who
has lots of red hair) and Carlos (lots of black hair) are used to
act out scenarios from anger management issues to bullying.
The work can be taken out of schools and done in therapeutic
clinics so dinosaur groups could be run over here – something that
Leonard would like to see happen.
“The courses are 18 weeks though and that’s a big commitment for
clinics to take on. But I would like to do the training for
One of the highlights of her trip was a two-day consultation course
for group leaders run by Webster-Stratton herself. Leonard was one
of 16 group leaders participating in the course, the other 15 had
flown in from various parts of the US. It was a positive and
inspiring experience meeting her, she says.
“We were lucky to get her because she has a team that do the
consultations. She has a passion to support parents. She really
wanted to know how the programmes were being delivered.”
To give her a clearer impression of what was happening on the
ground, the group leaders were asked to bring videos of their
courses. This has given Leonard an idea that she has already put
into action – setting up supervision networks for group leaders in
Hertfordshire. The plan is to video courses regularly to help in
As Seattle is well known for its musical connections, it’s apt that
the other highlight for Leonard during her trip was meeting rock
band the Kaiser Chiefs at the Crocodile Cafe, famous for its live
rock sessions. At the time the band was on the brink of making it
in the UK – now they are part of the line-up for Bob Geldof’s Live8
concert to persuade world leaders to reduce poverty in Africa.
Leonard, who was already a fan of the band, couldn’t believe her
luck: “They were playing there for just $10. Afterwards I just went
up to them and said hello.”
Leonard has returned with several ideas for the sixth parenting
course she will be running in September. One is to start refresher
courses for parents – something else that is done in the US.
“The reason I enjoy doing the courses is because the parents who
finish usually have very positive feedback: one said she now had a
different child and she was a different mother. Some say it has
changed them as people as well as parents.”