Research: centre-based work with challenging children

The Research

Title: Changing Directions for Children with Challenging Behaviour and their Families: Evaluation of Children 1st’s Directions projects

Authors: Jane Aldgate, Wendy Rose and Miranda McIntosh

Institutions: All three authors work at The Open University. Jane Aldgate is professor of social care, Wendy Rose, senior research fellow and Miranda McIntosh is a research fellow

Available: The research was published by the Children 1st, the Royal Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 2007. ISBN 978 0 9549709 1 8


Like the other parts of the UK the Scottish government has in recent years been attempting to improve outcomes for all children, particularly those who are most vulnerable, principally through Getting it Right for Every Child, the Scottish equivalent of Every Child Matters. As part of this broad strategy, the Directions projects were set up by the charity Children 1st in 2003.

The aim of these projects was to provide early intervention services to help children with challenging behaviour who might become offenders. They were therefore part of the wider Scottish executive’s Youth Crime Prevention Programme.

The projects have been developed through partnerships with other agencies, most prominent of which were local councils, and were located in purpose-built centres. They were initially aimed at seven to 12-year-olds but as the services evolved it became clear that there was a need for support at the earlier age group from five years upwards.

The main service provided in these projects was group work supplemented with some individual work with the children themselves, using the Webster Stratton programme. There was also support for the parents of the children in order to assist them with developing strategies to manage their children’s behaviour. Unsurprisingly, many, if not most, of these children also had difficulties at school and were at risk of exclusion.

Work was therefore carried out with the schools to try and avoid the children being excluded which could only serve to compound the other difficulties in their lives. Families could either refer themselves to the Directions projects or be referred by other agencies but the parents had to be in agreement with the referral before services were offered.

The aim of this research was to evaluate primarily whether the interventions of the Directions projects led to a decrease in the children’s emotional and behavioural difficulties at home and school. However, the evaluation also wanted to explore whether participation in the Directions projects increased parents’ skills in managing behaviour and led to a decrease in their levels of stress. As part of the work the researchers wanted to establish the extent to which parents and children engaged with and valued the projects and whether any positive feelings were shared by other professionals and agencies


Family support is a difficult area to research. Establishing causal relationships between families’ often complex and multi-faceted problems is not straightforward. Equally, family support projects themselves are also often complex systems in which the relationship between specific professional interventions and changes in the family circumstances are difficult to measure.

Defining outcomes can also cause difficulty. Families and professionals may differ as to what is salient. For example, families may place greater emphasis on general satisfaction with a professional relationship or service than on a single outcome such as their child not being excluded from school, however important that may be.

The authors were therefore of the firm belief that the parents and children’s own priorities should be at the heart of this study. This research used several approaches that included an analysis of referral data, standardised measures of children’s strengths and difficulties, and parents’ daily hassles. It also featured focus groups with parents and interviews with staff.


A central question that the evaluation was asked to consider was whether the Directions projects were contributing to preventing youth crime. The authors concluded with a view, which has also been echoed by the national evaluations of Sure Start and the Children’s Fund in England, that it is difficult to give a definitive answer to such fundamental questions on the basis of relatively short-term research. To address this there will need to be studies which track significant groups of children and their families over long periods of time.

However, the study did find very encouraging evidence that the Directions projects did change children’s behaviour away from patterns that can lead to crime. As they argue: “To expect children and families who came to the project with so many problems to turn those around in a matter of weeks is unrealistic. What the projects have done is to start them along the road to change.”

This study therefore found that group work, based on a well evaluated programme such as Webster Stratton, could make a real difference. However, they argue that for families with this level of vulnerability the group work alone was not sufficient. It needed to be augmented with high quality individual support that fitted within a framework of longer term targeted family support as many families’ difficulties will inevitably fluctuate over time.

One of the impressive features of these projects that the evaluation highlighted was the attempts by staff to sustain relationships with families even when they were not able to complete the group work programmes. The workers in the projects took the strong view that these parents should not be considered to have “failed” and instead there were positive attempts to engage them in other parts of the projects’ services. The researchers commented on the combination and “humility and boldness” that they felt characterised the Directions projects.

Given the centrality of the quality of professional relationships with families to the success of the projects a strong theme to emerge from this study was the importance of highly skilled and motivated staff. The authors challenged what they believed to be the myth that family support work, particularly at the preventive, early intervention end of the spectrum could be carried out by “low intensity services”. On the contrary, this work, they argue, is highly complex and requires considerable sophistication and sensitivity on the part of professionals. In relation to this they struck a cautionary note that retaining such staff would be difficult if funding was unstable or insecure.

James Blewett is research director at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit, King’s College London

Links and Resources

In England, similar services in some areas were provided through the Children’s Fund, a government initiative that became part of the reforms associated with Every Child Matters

An accessible and helpful overview is provided by Statham, J. & Biehal, N. (2004). Research and Practice Briefings: Children and Families – Supporting Families.DCSF/Research in Practice/Making Research Count

A large scale study of family centres across the UK was Tunstill, J., Aldgate, J., & Hughes, M. (2007). Improving Children’s Services Networks lessons from family centres, Jessica Kingsley.

Another Scottish study which again provides useful material on integrated working around family centres and schools is by Tisdall, K. Wallace, J. McGregor, E. Millen, D. and Bell, A. ( 2005) The Provision of Integrated Services by Family Centres and New Community Schools


Service location Each project was located in an accessible area of the local community in non-stigmatising premises. The buildings were in good condition and they were decorated to a high standard, providing a pleasant atmosphere but projecting a message that the service and those who used the service were highly valued.

Staffing The project attempted to strike a balance in recruiting staff who were respectful and treated parents as equals while also conveying a sense of professional expertise and authority. The projects deliberately attempted to recruit mixed gender staff groups and made good use of carefully selected volunteers.

Role of managers The role of managers in these projects was crucial. Not only did they provide clear leadership, cohesion and promote a positive working ethos and effective partnership with children and their parents within the project but they were crucial to managing the boundaries and relationships with other agencies that were also key to the project’s success.

Effectiveness of interventions The parenting groups did achieve good outcomes in terms of reducing parents’ stress, helping them develop a wider repertoire of parenting strategies and achieving an improvement in the children’s behaviour at home and at school. However, this was often contingent on parents membership of the group being combined with a good key working relationship with one of the members of staff.

Outcomes Many of the children who used the project had entrenched and long-term behavioural and emotional difficulties. One of the strengths of Directions is that it recognised that dramatic change is rare in such situations and often an improvement is achieved over a significant length of time with consistent, if at times low level professional support. In the short term a realistic goal for families in the most challenging circumstances is that there is not a deterioration and that the family remains intact and the child in school.

This article is published in the 3 July edition of Community Care magazine under the headline “Children with challenging behaviour

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