Ensuring all children get the best start in life: A population approach to early intervention and prevention

Ensuring all children get the best start in life: A population approach to early intervention and prevention

20 October 2020
Kids and father playing soccer on a beautiful summer afternoon outdoors

This short article explores how a population approach to early intervention and prevention can support parents and improve child safety and wellbeing.

This is the second in a series of short articles exploring early intervention strategies in Australia, including how they can be applied in particular areas of policy and practice. This article explores how a population approach to early intervention and prevention can support parents and improve child safety and wellbeing.

Children need safe and supportive families in order to thrive. While many Australian children experience this, some experience greater adversities that can undermine their safety and wellbeing. Children do best when their parents are supported early to give them the best start in life and promote optimal child development.

This article outlines how population approaches to early intervention and prevention can be applied to support families, with a particular focus on the role of early intervention. It discusses the evidence on the effectiveness of these approaches and considers what policy makers and service managers can do to help children thrive.

What are population approaches to early intervention and prevention for families?

Applying a population approach to supporting families combines early intervention with primary prevention strategies designed to reach whole populations. As a standalone component, early interventions for families aim to respond to the early signs of a problem and intervene before a problem grows or gets worse. They achieve this by building protective factors to support children’s optimal development and reducing the risk of maltreatment,1 usually with a focus on supporting parents in their role.

When linked to primary prevention strategies designed to reach whole populations (e.g. all parents of children aged 0–3 years, not just those considered at risk), early intervention strategies can be blended in. Compared to interventions solely targeting at risk groups, population approaches:

  • are more likely to reach those who need it
  • are non-stigmatising
  • help normalise help-seeking behaviours
  • help improve other outcomes beyond those primarily targeted.

Applying a population approach means reaching all parents with information and support at key stages in a child’s development but with the capacity to offer more targeted support for those in need. In this way, early interventions are blended in to broader prevention strategies.

What’s the evidence on their effectiveness?

Similar to targeted early interventions, the available evidence suggests population approaches to early intervention and prevention for families can help reduce the risk of child abuse and neglect.2 Evidence shows building parenting knowledge and skills, and strengthening family functioning helps to improve child safety and wellbeing.3,4 Emerging evidence indicates a population approach can help reduce the prevalence of child abuse and neglect at a community level.5,6

When targeting factors that help improve child safety and wellbeing, a range of evidence-based early interventions are known to be effective or show promise. Early interventions that enhance parenting skills can be effective in reducing the severity of risk factors for child maltreatment.7,8 Yet, because child safety is hard to measure when evaluating early interventions, it’s less clear whether they are effective in reducing abuse and neglect directly.9 (As an exception, Prinz and colleagues10,11 report an example of a population approach to early intervention shown to effectively reduce the prevalence of child abuse and neglect in a population.)

Instead, evidence for early interventions tends to focus on strengthening protective factors, such as parenting practices, family functioning and children’s developmental outcomes, rather than child safety itself.12 So, while there are limits to what is known about the effectiveness of early interventions, available evidence indicates they can help to promote child safety and wellbeing by strengthening protective factors.

What are the implications for policy and practice?

Considerations for policy

Policy makers should consider how to reach whole populations to ensure families are supported in non-stigmatising and culturally appropriate ways. They can consider how to:

  • communicate effectively with parents at a community level to build awareness of child development (e.g. social media campaigns, community newsletters)
  • deliver parenting education and supports in mainstream services (e.g. primary health care settings, early childhood centres and schools)
  • target parenting education and support at key stages of children’s development (e.g. transitions in education)
  • tailor early interventions to the diverse needs of families (e.g. when parents are separating, or families are affected by unemployment, chronic illness or disability).13

Example: Early intervention in a mainstream service

Primary schools as community hubs is an early intervention program integrating parenting and family supports into a mainstream service setting. It aims to enhance parenting supports delivered through universal services by offering more specialised support where needed, but without the stigma.

Considerations for practice

Service providers should consider how they can apply principles of early intervention and prevention to practice, even if service systems do not reflect the approach. They can consider how to:

  • align their service’s approaches to practice with the principles of a population approach to early intervention and prevention
  • develop specialised skills in delivering parenting education and support programs
  • build inter-agency collaboration at a local level (e.g. inter-agency training for parenting education or children’s development).14

Conclusion

A range of early intervention initiatives to support families operates across Australia. There are opportunities to expand their reach and impact to ensure all children get the best start in life. Evidence suggests providing early supports to parents to improve their parenting skills and knowledge helps promote child safety and wellbeing. Policy makers and service managers should consider how population approaches can be applied to reach all parents at key stages of child development to help children thrive.

How will you use the evidence or information in this short article in your work? We would love to hear from you in the Comments field below.

Related resources

1 Landers, C. (2013). Preventing and responding to violence, abuse, and neglect in early childhood: A technical background document. New York: UNICEF. Retrieved from www.unicef.org/protection/files/Report_on_preventing_and_responding_to_violence_in_early_childhood_2013_Cassie_Landers.pdf

2 Sanders, M. R., Higgins, D. J., & Prinz, R. J. (2018). A population approach to the prevention of child maltreatment: Rationale and implications for research, policy, and practice. Family Matters, 100, 62–70. Retrieved from aifs.gov.au/publications/family-matters/issue-100/population-approach-prevention-child-maltreatment

3 Mullan, K., & Higgins, D. (2014). A safe and supportive family environment for children: Key components and links to child outcomes (DSS Occasional Paper No. 52). Canberra: Department of Social Services. Retrieved from www.dss.gov.au/about-the-department/publications-articles/research-publications/occasional-paper-series

4 Sanders, M. R., Higgins, D. J., & Prinz, R. J. (2018). A population approach to the prevention of child maltreatment: Rationale and implications for research, policy, and practice. Family Matters, 100, 62–70. Retrieved from aifs.gov.au/publications/family-matters/issue-100/population-approach-prevention-child-maltreatment

5 Prinz, R. J., Sanders, M. R., Shapiro, C. J., Whitaker, D. J., & Lutzker, J. R. (2009). Population-based prevention of child maltreatment: The US Triple P system population trial. Prevention Science, 10(1), 1–12.

6 Prinz, R. J., Sanders, M. R., Shapiro, C. J., Whitaker, D. J., & Lutzker, J. R. (2016). Addendum to "Population-based prevention of child maltreatment: The US Triple P system population trial". Prevention Science, 17(3), 410–416.

7 Daro, D., & Benedetti, G. (2014). Sustaining progress in preventing child maltreatment: A transformative challenge. In J. E. Korbin, & R. D. Krugman (Eds.), Handbook of Child Maltreatment (pp. 281–300). Dordrecht: Springer.

8 Prinz, R. J., Sanders, M. R., Shapiro, C. J., Whitaker, D. J., & Lutzker, J. R. (2016). Addendum to "Population-based prevention of child maltreatment: The US Triple P system population trial". Prevention Science, 17(3), 410–416.

9 Prinz, R. J., Sanders, M. R., Shapiro, C. J., Whitaker, D. J., & Lutzker, J. R. (2009). Population-based prevention of child maltreatment: The US Triple P system population trial. Prevention Science, 10(1), 1–12.

10 Prinz, R. J., Sanders, M. R., Shapiro, C. J., Whitaker, D. J., & Lutzker, J. R. (2009). Population-based prevention of child maltreatment: The US Triple P system population trial. Prevention Science, 10(1), 1–12.

11 Prinz, R. J., Sanders, M. R., Shapiro, C. J., Whitaker, D. J., & Lutzker, J. R. (2016). Addendum to "Population-based prevention of child maltreatment: The US Triple P system population trial". Prevention Science, 17(3), 410–416.

12 Richardson, D., Dugarova, E., Higgins, D., Hirao, K., Karamperidou, D., Mokomane, Z. et al. (2020). Families, family policy and the sustainable development goals (Innocenti Research Report). Innocenti, Florence: UNICEF Office of Research. Retrieved from www.unicef-irc.org/publications/1092-families-family-policy-and-the-sustainable-development-goals.html

13 Sanders, M. R., Higgins, D. J., & Prinz, R. J. (2018). A population approach to the prevention of child maltreatment: Rationale and implications for research, policy, and practice. Family Matters, 100, 62–70. Retrieved from aifs.gov.au/publications/family-matters/issue-100/population-approach-prevention-child-maltreatment

14 Sanders, M. R., Higgins, D. J., & Prinz, R. J. (2018). A population approach to the prevention of child maltreatment: Rationale and implications for research, policy, and practice. Family Matters, 100, 62–70. Retrieved from aifs.gov.au/publications/family-matters/issue-100/population-approach-prevention-child-maltreatment

Featured image: © GettyImages/mihailomilovanovic

Comments

In collaboration with early learning centres, we could use this information for parent sessions about child development and early intervention as evidence that early intervention in this way can help strengthen families and parents' knowledge to encourage children's wellbeing and child safety.
Leisha Brown

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Authors

Daryl Higgins

Professor Daryl Higgins is Director of the Institute of Child Protection Studies at the Australian Catholic University.

Adam Dean

At the time of writing, Adam was a Senior Research Officer with the Child Family Community Australia (CFCA) information exchange.

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