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Early Childhood Parent Training: A Vital Tool for Psychologists

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April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. This post is the first in a series about APA’s ACT Raising Safe Kids (ACT-RSK) program. ACT-RSK teaches positive parenting skills to parents and caregivers of children from birth to age 8. The second and third posts in this series are available here and here.

By Michele Knox, PhD

What do you think I hear most when I meet with various students and early career psychologists? In a word – frustration. They are frustrated with the limits of traditional, office-based mental health care for kids and teens. They know that traditional mental health care is often effective, but they sense that their patients’ suffering could have been prevented.

I have heard things like, “if this child had not been abused,” or “if that child wasn’t exposed to dangerous people,” or “if those parents were better equipped with the skills they needed,” then, “this may have been prevented.” I have had countless medical students with interest in child and adolescent psychiatry lament that they feel a need to modify their patients’ contexts – the parenting they receive, the guidance and nurturing they get, the negative events they see and experience – but they simply don’t have the tools to do so.

Here’s what I tell them. The tool exists. It’s early childhood parent training.

Almost every parent can benefit from help with parenting. Parent education and support using evidence-supported methods can prevent many of the behavior problems and some of the emotional and interpersonal issues we see in our field. Some of my trainees tell me they wouldn’t be comfortable suggesting this to their patients. They worry that recommending parent training might offend them. Many pediatricians with whom I have worked seem to feel similarly – that a referral for parent program would be offensive.

It is imperative that we, as psychologists, change this perspective. Parents want, need, and frankly deserve the help that we can offer thanks to the decades of research we have done on child-rearing and parent-child relationships. Although many parents go to pediatricians or faith leaders for help with parenting, most report needing more information and support on common child-rearing issues such as discipline and how to encourage their kids to learn.

Why are psychologists uniquely prepared for this role? We are equipped with the interpersonal skills to promote a positive alliance with families and we also know how to choose and use appropriate evidence-based methods. Working closely with parents, we have the ability to limit children’s exposure to violence and improve the safety of their environments. When we are able to work with parents early, before serious problems emerge, we can be effective in preventing and reducing a myriad of negative outcomes.

Then I tell them about the ACT Raising Safe Kids Program, a parenting program developed and directed by APA’s Violence Prevention Office. In ACT, parents and primary caregivers of children (aged 0-8 years) attend nine sessions designed to:

  1. prevent child maltreatment,

  2. build parents’ positive, nonviolent parenting skills, and

  3. mobilize communities and families to protect children from violence.

The program uses best practices in adult learning and incorporates Motivational Interviewing throughout. Parents who complete the program find it to be non-judgmental, and they enjoy the interactive and participatory classes (Porter & Howe, 2008).

Results of several studies on the program’s outcomes, including two randomized controlled trials, also show that parents experienced benefits in many areas, including:

  1. anger management,

  2. social problem-solving,

  3. non-violent discipline,

  4. media literacy (i.e., understanding and reducing the impact of violent media on children),

  5. social support,

  6. prosocial parenting practices

  7. nurturing behaviors,

  8. reduced harsh discipline and psychological aggression toward children.

Furthermore, the children of ACT-RSK completers show significant reductions in aggressive and disruptive behavior problems, as well as bullying behaviors. Positive outcomes have been found in both English and Spanish-speaking families.

If you want to become an ACT Facilitator, you can easily get access to training. ACT Coordinators conduct trainings in several areas across the U.S. and the program continues to expand to several other nations. For more information, go to


Knox, M., Burkhart, K. & Cromley, A. (2013). Supporting positive parenting in community health centers: The ACT Raising Safe Kids Program. Journal of Community Psychology, 41(4), 395-407.

Porter, B. E., & Howe, T.R. (2008). Pilot evaluation of the ACT Parents Raising Safe Kids violence prevention program. Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma, 1, 1-14.

Portwood, S. G., Lambert, R.G., Abrams, L.P., & Nelson, E. B. (2011). An evaluation of the Adults and Children Together (ACT) Against Violence Parents Raising Safe Kids Program. Journal of Primary Prevention, 32, 147-160.


Michele Knox, PhD, is a Professor of Psychiatry and licensed clinical psychologist at the University of Toledo College of Medicine.

Image source: Flickr user Peter Dahlgren via Creative Commons

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