Parent education programs

Home Based Programs For Parents With Intellectual Disabilities: Lessons From Practice (2002)

Parents with Intellectual Disability: Learning to Parent: The Role of Experience and Informal Learning (1997)

Healthy and Safe. NSW Parent-Child Health and Wellbeing Research and Development Project (2001)

Home Based Programs For Parents With Intellectual Disabilities: Lessons From Practice (2002)

A more detailed list of important practice points for parent educators can be found in Llewellyn, G., McConnell, D., Russo, D., Mayes, R., & Honey, A. (2002) Home-based Programs for Parents with Intellectual Disabilities: Lessons from Practice Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 15, 341-353.


The use of Home Learning Programs (HLPs) has been identified as a useful parenting education strategy. However, those variables conducive to enabling these home based parenting programs to be effective, particularly when being delivered to parents with intellectual disabilities, have yet to be pinpointed. This provided the focus of a research project - the NSW Parent-Child Health Wellbeing Project - conducted by the Australian Family and Disability Studies Research Collaboration, School of Occupation & Leisure Sciences, University of Sydney, in 1998 - 1999.


To develop process guidelines for practitioners implementing a home-based parenting education program with parents with an intellectual disability


45 parents with intellectual disability and who had children under 4 years of age were randomly chosen to participate in a home-based education program that addressed issues of child health and safety.

Case notes documented by the parent educators, as well as parent evaluation surveys, provided the focus of data analysis.

Findings and practice implications

  1. The Home Learning Program
    Key process factors that enhanced the program's effectiveness revolved around a practitioner's willingness and ability to:
    • Make good use of pictures that are realistic and concrete
    • Allow for the active and practical participation of parents
    • Provide opportunities for learners to monitor and reinforce their learning
    • Set activities that are achievable within the context of the person's home
    • Incorporate repetition of information using various methods
    • Present material that is useful/relevant to the parent's needs and experiences
    • Be flexible
    • Take into account individual learning styles and personalities
  2. More broadly, practitioners are asked to consider:
    • Individualising generalist home learning programs so as to make each parent's home as ideal a learning environment as possible
    • Giving priority to parents' immediate concerns before moving on to the program's learning activities
    • Applying effective teaching principles in the context of past learning experiences
    • If and how they might influence those in the home who have the power to facilitate or impede learning

Parents with Intellectual Disability: Learning to Parent: The Role of Experience and Informal Learning (1997)

An overview of study findings can also be found in Llewellyn, G. (1995) First Hand Experience: Parents with Learning Difficulties Disability, Pregnancy & Parenthood International, 11 (July), 10 - 12.


Concern as to whether people with intellectual disability can be capable parents continues to be widespread in our society. Formal parent training, usually developed from the perspective of service providers, is frequently presumed necessary to teach competent parenting. The question of whether parents with intellectual disability can also learn through everyday family experiences has yet to be thoroughly researched.


To explore the role of informal learning and experience in parenting using an ethnographic study of family life with six parent couples.


All participants were considered by their referring agency to be managing their parenting role adequately. Further, none were suffering significant socio-economic disadvantage.

Descriptive accounts of each couple's family experiences were drawn from family outings, informal home visits, telephone calls and in-depth interviews. Interviews were transcribed and the method of constant comparative analysis applied.

Findings and practice implications

Parents were seen to develop their parenting skills through informal learning. Firstly, they were able to learn from the experience of others - through their own upbringing and family traditions; from their experience with siblings or as a baby-sitter; and/or from the example set by significant others, usually family members.

Secondly, learning was able to take place from the mere practice of daily parenting. Parents were able to learn from their mistakes; change their or the child's routines in an attempt to achieve better outcomes; try alternatives; and do 'it' their own way and work out for themselves what the 'better way to go' was.

Thus in addition to professional assistance and training, parents with disability may also learn about parenting as they experience and practice it. The extent to which this is the case of course, will depend on parents' individual historical and current profiles.

These findings lend to four policy and practice implications:

  1. That the significant effects of parental childhood experiences and respect for family traditions be considered when assessing parent knowledge and skill prior to formulating parent training programs;
  2. That the commonly held view that parenthood for persons with intellectual disability is beset with problems be challenged;
  3. That parents' views on parent training programs and whether these are perceived to help or hinder their learning to parent be investigated; and
  4. That in supporting parents with intellectual disability, service providers individually assess what parents already know, how this was learnt, and how they learn best.

The challenge remains for practitioners to develop service models that provide effective structured teaching whilst at the same time capturing the opportunity, in everyday family life, for informal parental learning and experience.

For a full account of this study, see Llewellyn, G. (1997) Parents with Intellectual Disability: Learning to Parent: The Role of Experience and Informal Learning International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 44 (3), 243 - 261.

Healthy and Safe. NSW Parent-Child Health and Wellbeing Research and Development Project (2001)

Llewellyn, G., McConnell, D., & Honey, A. (2001) Healthy and Safe. NSW Parent-Child Health and Wellbeing Research and Development Project. Report to the NSW Department of Ageing, Disability and Home Care Services. University of Sydney.


Parents who are seen as having limited cognitive abilities are disproportionately represented in child protection services. Their children are thought to be at risk of injury at home or from serious illness from potentially inappropriate parental responses to the child's health care needs. Usually a crisis such as declining health or suspected abuse or neglect occurs, leading to court intervention and a subsequent order for parents to attend parent education services as a condition of keeping the child or proving parental competence to regain child custody.

These services however usually lack the time and resources to appropriately address the learning needs of parents with intellectual disability and other cognitive limitations. Service providers of mainstream family support and specialist disability services have identified the lack of suitable educational resources as being a major constraint in providing the specialized support required by this parent group.

Research has shown that parents with special learning needs, including those with intellectual disability, can indeed learn the parenting skills necessary to maintain their children's health, safety and wellbeing. Critical to such success however is the way these programs are designed. Rather than incorporating group instruction and written materials, programs are more effective if they are specific to the parent's learning needs and suit their learning style; if they are structured around a variety of teaching methods and incorporate behavioural principles; and if they are delivered in the situation where the parent is to use the skills learned.


The NSW Parent-Child Health and Wellbeing Project was developed in response to this identified problem. Specifically, it aimed to:

  1. Evaluate a parent education program - the NSW parent-Child Health and Wellbeing Project - for families headed by parents with special learning needs in terms of its effectiveness in equipping these parents to take responsibility for their child's health, safety and wellbeing;
  2. Develop recommendations about the provision of designated parent educator training and the feasibility of adopting the project model and materials in mainstream and specialist service agencies in NSW.


Based on the UCLA Parent Wellness Project and adapted for the Australian context, the study addressed three main areas: children's health care needs, child safety in and around the home, and parent-child interaction.

45 parents from 40 families with special learning needs participated in a randomized control trial whereby the effect of the Home Learning Program could be compared with three other conditions: parents receiving current services only, parents receiving only one informal home visit, and parents who only received lesson booklets from the Home Learning Program. Assessors who were blind to each parent's group membership conducted baseline, pre and post intervention and follow-up assessments. Outcome measures included a range of curriculum-based variables, and a range of standardized and non-standardised assessments were employed to gather demographic data and information on child development, parent health, parent IQ, parent literacy, the home environment and social support networks. Qualitative data was also obtained from parents, referring agencies, general practitioners, and parent educators in an attempt to better understand the process of conducting a parent education program in parents' homes and to gather parent and parent educator perspectives on this type of parent education program.

Findings and recommendations

The findings of this study demonstrated the significant effectiveness of the Home Learning Program for parents with special needs. These parents not only learned, but maintained the acquired child health and home safety knowledge and skills at three months follow up. Moreover, this was the case regardless of parents' health, literacy skills, IQ, perceived motivation, support network type, and home environment.

Essential components of the Home Learning Program were shown to be as follows:

  • The use of pictures - the more the better
  • Interactive learning - parents being invited to participate in a practical way
  • Opportunities to monitor and reinforce progress
  • Achievable activities
  • Repetition of information in a variety of ways
  • Material that is relevant to the participant's individual needs and experiences
  • Delivered according to individual capabilities (eg., lesson lengths, concepts), learning styles and personalities

Four key themes pertaining to home-based education programs also emerged:

  1. The home environment as a place for learning
    Although this offers parents individualized, context-specific learning, there is the reality of a home with young children to contend with. Practitioners needed to be flexible in managing these frequent distractions eg., schedule home visits during school hours/term or when the baby was sleeping; provide children with food and entertainment prior to the lesson starting; include children where possible.
  2. First things first
    This relates to the competing needs and priorities of parent participants and educators. For parents, the relationship with their educator and the opportunity to offload their immediate concerns often proved to be more highly valued than the home learning activities. For parents it was a case of needing to air personal issues before they were able to concentrate on the task at hand. This required parent educators to allow plenty of time for the home visit and to become good listeners and provide practical support, advice and information. Further, given the high number of missed or cancelled appointments, educators needed to be extremely flexible to fit into the parents' sometimes hectic routines.
  3. Parent readiness to learn and apply knowledge
    Parents varied greatly in their readiness to learn and apply knowledge and past experience seemed to be an important factor here. When previous learning experiences were characterized by failure and negative judgements, and/or parents' behaviour was being monitored by child welfare authorities, educators need to be particularly encouraging in helping these parents get started on the learning activities.
  4. Parent ability to make changes
    Some parents had little or no control over the home environment and felt quite powerless to apply the knowledge they had learned. Thus the effects of home visiting programs will be moderated by the parent's degree of control over the household.

In light of these issues, parent educators need to be aware of the following practice points to ensure that parents are ready and able to participate fully and freely in a home-based learning program:

  • Be prepared to listen to and if possible address the concerns of parents before commencing a teaching activity
  • Be flexible in planning to take into account individual parents' immediate needs and priorities in their everyday family lives
  • Be aware of parents' previous experiences with learning (either in the school system or informally) and be prepared to adapt strategies and offer plenty of positive reinforcement
  • Be prepared to reflect critically and in an ongoing way on personal values and assumptions and to guard against falling into the trap of 'knowing what is best for all parents
  • Be open to and interested in parents' life experiences and those of their family and friends so that these can be used in teaching and learning activities
  • Be open to and aware of parents' home situations particularly of others who influence the parent. Be prepared to work with and engage significant others in assisting the parent to learn if at all possible

Parent educators also need to demonstrate the following fundamental requirements in order to work effectively with parents with learning difficulties:

  1. Being able to build good rapport and to develop knowledge about parents' lives and experiences in order to effectively relate these to the home learning program
  2. Being knowledgeable about child health and safety issues beyond the necessarily restricted items covered in a time limited home learning program
  3. Being familiar with theories and sequences of child development
  4. Being able to assess parents' abilities and tolerance levels for learning 'on the run' and being flexible enough to adapt the lessons accordingly
  5. Being sensitive to the individual learning styles and preferences of parents and able to adapt the lessons accordingly
  6. Being aware of the influences of cognitive limitations on learning as well as the social experiences of people with learning difficulties and the effects of these on their attitudes towards learning
  7. Being flexible enough to adapt to and/or work around the disruptions and distractions of the home environment
  8. Being respectful, as a guest, of parents' authority in their own homes and their differing priorities and immediate needs
  9. Being patient and flexible, to fit into the routines, or non-routines of parents with learning difficulties
  10. Being able to assess the impact of the attitudes and behaviour of significant others and to utilize these when helpful to parents' learning and help parents work around them when these are a negative influence
  11. Being able to work with significant others to help them understand the importance of the program and the information and skills it teaches
  12. Being able to assess parents' abilities (including utilisation of social supports) to make the required changes to their homes and to offer practical assistance where necessary.

The report concludes with three key recommendations:

  1. That the identified gap in appropriate parent education programs for parents with special learning needs be addressed.
    Further to this, it was recommended that the Ageing and Disability Department convene a Working Party in collaboration with the Department of Community Services, the Department of Education and Training and NSW Health to work with the Australian Family and Disability Studies Research Collaboration, University of Sydney and the Parent Access Project, Family Support and Services Association to design and implement a strategy to ensure that the Home Learning program is available on a system wide basis by 2003.
  2. That the immediate need to make available the Home Learning program lesson materials and training program (in prototype format) to mainstream and specialist service providers with significant experience with parents with special learning needs be addressed.
    To this end, it was also recommended that the Australian Family and Disability Studies Research Collaboration, University of Sydney in collaboration with the Parent Access Project, Family Support Services Association conduct a number of training workshops on the Home Learning Program in 2002 for workers who have significant experience with parents with special learning needs. This training workshop would be in prototype format prior to finalisation of learning materials and training content to be included in statewide training to commence in 2003.
  3. That the empirically demonstrated requirement that parent education training be specific, structured and situational be addressed.
    Thus it is further recommended that the Australian Family and Disability Studies Research Collaboration, University of Sydney in collaboration with the Parent Access project, Family Support Services Association work with the Ageing and Disability Department and potential accredited education and training providers to identify the necessary experience and/or training required by service workers prior to or gained concurrently with undertaking the training module on the Home Learning Program.

Related Publications

Llewellyn, G., McConnell, D., Honey, A., Mayes, R., & Russo, D. (2003.) Promoting health and home safety for children of parents with intellectual disability: A randomised controlled trial Research In Developmental Disabilities 24(6) 405-431.

McConnell, D., Llewellyn, G., Mayes, R., Russo, D., & Honey, A. (2003). Developmental profiles of children born to mothers with intellectual disability. Journal of Intellectual and Developmental Disability, 28(2), 1- 14.

Llewellyn, G., McConnell, D., Russo, D., Mayes, R., & Honey, A. (2002). Home based programs for parents with learning difficulties: Lessons from practice. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 15, 341-353.