Developed by Carolyn Webster-Stratton, Ph.D.
The Incredible Years Attentive Parenting® Program is a universal 6-10 session parenting program that can be delivered with all parents of children aged 2-6 years. This program focuses on teaching parents the value of child-directed play, and how to use academic, persistence, social and emotion coaching to promote their child’s school readiness and language skills, emotional literacy and empathy, friendship skills, self-regulation, and problem-solving skills.
Xiang Zhou, PhD, LP, Assistant Professor in Counseling Psychology at Purdue University has recently published a study of the Incredible Years Attentive Parenting® program, Evaluating the Feasibility of the Incredible Years Attentive Parenting Program as Universal Prevention for Racially Diverse Populations – the first assessment conducted on the Attentive Parenting® universal prevention program with an ethnically diverse population.
In this study, 152 parents (88% mothers; 81% non-White) participated in the Attentive Parenting® Program in 6 to 9 2.5-hour weekly sessions. Parents in this study were found to have attended 71% of all sessions. Parents who completed the program reported a significant decrease in conduct problems and an increase in prosocial behaviors in their children.
We are excited about this study of the Attentive Parenting® Program because it looks at the impact of a shorter (6-10 session) video-based prevention program with a culturally diverse sample. Just like the original Incredible Years Preschool Basic program, the Attentive Parenting® program includes the core parenting concepts of child-directed play, social, emotional, & persistence coaching, and praise. With its updated vignettes and added content on promoting academic readiness through interactive reading and teaching children self-regulation and problem-solving strategies, agencies may consider the Attentive Parenting® program as another option for parent education with a prevention population.
About the Attentive Parenting® Program: Teaching parents the importance of child-directed play & coaching to promote child development
The Incredible Years Attentive Parenting® Program is delivered in 6-10 weekly 2-3 hour sessions. For group leaders working with parents of toddlers, the course will take 6 weeks to complete, and for group leaders working with parents of preschoolers, it will take 8-10 sessions to cover the program content. Read below to see how the skills taught in the Attentive Parenting® Program can be used to help parents and children, and preview vignettes from this program.
Child-Directed Play: Promoting Positive Relationships
Children derive unique benefits when their parents give them undivided, focused, regular, and responsive attention during child-directed play. During adult-child play, the child develops a trusting emotional bond and important physical, cognitive, social, and language skills. Attentive playtimes also play a critical role in shaping the way children think, learn, react to challenges, and develop relationships throughout their lives.
Like all Incredible Years® programs, the Attentive Parenting® Program starts by building a foundation of positive adult-child relationships through child-directed play interactions. This style of interacting during play means that parents follow the children’s lead and ideas, enter with their children into their imaginary and pretend world, express their joy and playfulness in being with the children, and help the children feel special by being an appreciative audience to their play. Because one of the major developmental tasks for young children is to become more autonomous, parents learn how child-directed play helps children feel some independence and develop an individual sense of self. A second major developmental task for young children is to form secure attachments with parents. Child-directed play strategies help parents build safe and secure relationships that eventually lead to fewer difficulties for children separating from their parents and easier transitions to school settings.
Descriptive Language Coaching
In the Incredible Years Attentive Parenting® Program parents learn how to coach children during child-directed playtimes using descriptive language coaching. This descriptive commenting is a running commentary during play that describes the children’s behaviors and activities. Descriptive commenting indicates to the child how attentive, focused and responsive the parent is on what the child is doing, which further strengthens their relationship bond. By giving positive attention and reinforcement to whatever aspect of the play the commenting is focused on, the parent further encourages children’s exploration and sense of discovery. Descriptive language coaching is also a valuable teaching tool that encourages language development by bathing the child in language, providing direct, important verbal information about behavior and actions or the names of objects.
In academic readiness coaching, parents focus their comments on academic concepts, including the names of objects, shapes, colors, sizes, numbers, textures, and position (e.g., on, under, inside, beside, next to). For example, when the parent says, “You have three yellow rectangles on top of the red fire truck,” the child is learning about shape, colors and numbers, and the language to describe these concepts. Thus, descriptive language coaching can be delivered strategically and can be tailored to meet a number of relationship, language, and learning goals, according to children’s needs and developmental levels.
Another form of coaching is Persistence coaching – when the parent comments on the child’s cognitive and behavioral states while the child is playing. For example, a parent whose child is working on a puzzle can comment on the child’s being focused, or concentrating well, or trying hard, or persisting and staying patient, even though the puzzle is difficult. Recognizing the child’s internal state of mind and the physical behaviors that go along with that state is especially important for children who might be inattentive, easily frustrated, impulsive, or hyperactive. Labeling the times a child is focused and persisting patiently and calmly with a difficult task helps the child to recognize that internal state, what it feels like, and to put a word to it. Attention and coaching help the child to stick with the task longer than he or she might have otherwise, and builds confidence by teaching that, with patience and persistence, the child will be able to eventually navigate a difficult situation.
Emotion coaching, that is, labeling feelings as children experience them, helps children link a word to a feeling state, which helps them develop a vocabulary for recognizing and expressing emotions. Once children are emotionally literate, they will be able to express their feelings to others and more easily regulate their emotional responses. In addition, they will begin to recognize emotions in others – the first step toward empathy.
In the Incredible Years Attentive Parenting® Program, parents are encouraged to give more attention to positive emotions than negative emotions during play interactions. However, when children do exhibit negative or uncomfortable emotions, such as anger, fearfulness, or sadness, the parent will coach them by pairing the negative emotion with the positive coping response. For example, a parent might say to a child whose tower is knocked over, “You look frustrated about that, but you are staying calm and concentrating hard to try to solve the problem,” or to a fearful child, “I could tell that you felt shy about asking her to play. It was really brave of you to try it!” In this way, the parent validates the angry or shy feeling without giving it too much attention, and also expresses faith that the child will be able to cope with the feeling to produce a positive outcome. Emotional and persistence coaching can be combined, and this approach may even preempt an escalation of an angry tantrum.
Emotion Coaching Promotes Emotional Regulation
A major developmental task for young children (ages 3-6 years) is the development of emotional self-regulation skills, such as the recognition and expression of emotions, ability to wait and accept limits, development of empathy, and self-control over anger and aggression. As children begin to recognize and express their emotions, parents can begin to teach them self-calming strategies.
Because children are visual thinkers and love imaginary play, it is highly effective to use stories, puppets, pictures, and role-plays to help them practice calming thoughts, images, and words. For example, parents in the Incredible Years Attentive Parenting® Program learn how to use Tiny Turtle’s secret to calming down through deep breaths, positive self-talk, and happy visualizations. During playful interactions with the help of a calm-down thermometer and turtle puppet, children practice these cognitive strategies.
One-on-One Social Coaching
Another major developmental task for young children is forming social and friendship skills that include beginning to share, helping others, initiating conversations, listening, and cooperating. Social coaching involves adults playing with children in a way that models, prompts, and reinforces these skills. The first step in social coaching is for the parent to model and label appropriate social skills whenever they occur. For example, a parent might model social skills during play interactions by saying, “I’m going to be your friend and share my truck with you.” Next, the parent can prompt a social behavior by asking for the child’s help to find something or asking the child for a tum. If the child does share or help, then the parent responds to this behavior by describing it and praising. For example, “Thank you! You found the blue block I was looking for. That was so helpful. You are a good friend!” On the other hand, if the child does not share or help when prompted, the parent models waiting and being respectful by saying, “I guess you are not ready to share. I am going to wait patiently for a tum and do something else right now.” Through modeling, prompting, and scaffolding social skills with social coaching and praise during one-on-one playtimes, children are learning positive play social interactions.
There is a wide range of developmental variation in the development of children’s social skills. Most toddlers and some preschoolers engage in what is called parallel play. Parallel play is when children may be playing next to another child but are totally involved in their own exploration and discovery process and rarely, if ever, initiate interaction or seem unaware of the child sitting next to them. As they develop, children begin to be interested in other children but lack the social skills to initiate and sustain these interactions on their own. At ages 4 to 5 years, children progress to some sustained interactions with peers but still need coaching to maintain these interactions in a positive way and to solve interpersonal peer issues during the play.
Peer Social Coaching
For children who have moved beyond parallel play to peer interactions, parents can use social coaching with two or more children playing together. This time the parent prompts, models, and describes the social skills that are occurring among the children, for example, commenting on times the children share, wait, take turns, say thank you, help each other, ask before grabbing a toy, and give a friendly suggestion. They also encourage interactions among children by providing words for a child to use to ask for something he or she wants, or praising a child who is waiting patiently when another child is not ready to share, or prompting a child to praise another child. Individual or peer social coaching strengthens children’s friendships and makes it clear what the desired social skills are. However, it is important to assess children’s developmental readiness for social play with peers. Children who are primarily engaged in parallel play and do not initiate play with peers or seem interested in peers will benefit from individual practice with an adult before entering into situations with a peer. Then, when they do play with peers, scaffolding by adults will help them to be successful. Children who are interested and motivated to play with other children but who lack the impulse control or skill to do so successfully also will benefit from individual coaching because an adult can patiently help a child to practice and fine-tune social skills. Then, when playing with peers, the adult can continue to prompt and praise social behaviors as they happen. For example, a parent might say, “You shared with Mary. That was so friendly! Look at how happy your friend seems now.” Helping children make the connection between their positive social behavior and another child’s feelings is important for them in developing empathy, as well as peer relationships.
Teaching Children to Problem Solve Through Play Interactions
As children move from toddlerhood to the preschool and early school age years, parents can use emotion and social coaching during play to help children learn how to express their feelings and use calm-down self-regulation strategies, and to practice appropriate social behaviors, such as sharing, waiting, helping, and taking turns. These are the bedrock cognitive and behavioral skills children need to begin learning to solve problems. During the preoperational stage of cognitive development (ages 4-6 years), when children’s imaginary play is exploding, parents can use puppet play and pretend scenarios during play interactions to teach children problem-solving strategies for managing conflicts through a five-step process.
The first step is to help them define and recognize a problem by having a puppet present children with a common childhood problem (e.g., being teased) that is signaled by an uncomfortable feeling. Then children are asked to help the puppet come up with a solution to the problem by showing what the solution looks like (e.g., staying calm and ignoring). Next, the children are asked to help the puppet think of other solutions in case the first solution does not work. Each time, the children demonstrate and practice one of these solutions with the puppet. As children move into the operational stage of cognitive development, they eventually are able to learn the fourth and fifth problem-solving steps of evaluating solutions and choosing the best solution. All of this problem-solving learning takes place in fun, imaginary, creative, and playful situations so that children can learn the language and emotional self-regulation behaviors before they are encouraged to use this approach in the midst of real-life conflict.
Read IY Program Developer Carolyn Webster-Stratton’s chapter on play and coaching, The Incredible Years: Use of Play Interventions and Coaching for Children with Externalizing Difficulties.