In 2008, 1,740 children under age 18 died as a result of maltreatment, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report. That year, child protective services investigated more than 3.7 million cases of abuse or neglect of children in which nearly 772,000 were considered victims — although the real numbers are likely higher since many cases go unreported or undetected. The report also indicates that children’s own parents were the aggressors in almost 75 percent of cases.

In an effort to reduce these grim statistics, APA and the National Association for the Education of Young Children have been working since 2000 to implement the Adults and Children Together (ACT) Against Violence program to educate families and communities about the importance of creating safe, healthy environments for children. The initiative — now referred to as the ACT Parents Raising Safe Kids program — is delivered by trained ACT facilitators to groups of eight to 12 parents and caregivers through eight weekly two-hour sessions. It teaches basic parenting skills and explains how children’s developmental stages influence their behavior. The program also shows parents how to deal with their own and their child’s anger, how to use positive discipline strategies and how to reduce the influence of media violence on their children. It is now used in more than 40 communities in 19 states, and seeks to make early violence prevention a central and ongoing part of the community.

Three years ago, APA helped to secure a federal grant for an independent national evaluation study of the ACT parenting program. As-yet-unpublished findings released this fall show that the program “is having a positive impact on parents, children and families,” says Julia M. Silva, who directs the APA Violence Prevention Office, which oversees ACT.

Teaching positive parenting

The study, funded by a $585,790 three-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, was conducted by an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The team randomly assigned 250 parents from community-based social service agencies in Chicago, Milwaukee and Newport News, Va., to either control groups for those receiving service as usual from the agency or intervention groups for those participating in the ACT Parents Raising Safe Kids program.

Preliminary findings suggest that, compared with parents who received service as usual, those who participated in the ACT program significantly improved their positive parenting and conflict management skills and decreased the use of harsh discipline, such as spanking, says Sharon G. Portwood, JD, PhD, a professor of public health sciences at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the outcome study’s principal investigator.

“The initial results of this evaluation indicate that ACT is a promising program both for increasing parents’ awareness of and sensitivity to their own parenting and providing them with knowledge of positive parenting practices and how to incorporate them into their own lives,” Portwood says.

These findings support the results of a previous multisite evaluation of the program led by Humboldt State University psychology professor Tasha R. Howe, PhD, and her graduate student, Lindsay Weymouth. Portwood’s study, however, is the first to use random assignment. The researchers now plan to submit their findings for publication.

Economical and enjoyable

One reason the ACT program may work so well is its “non-shaming” approach, says Hirsh Larkey, PsyD, who directs psychological services at Jewish Family Services in Milwaukee, one of the sites participating in the evaluation study.

“Parents don’t feel looked down on in this program because the interactive approach and materials are respectful,” Larkey says. “This helps parents open up about their struggles and leads to a richer experience for them.”

Participants’ enjoyment of and identification with the curriculum may also explain why the program’s retention rates tend to be higher than those of other positive parenting programs. The study found that more than 76 percent of participants attended at least seven of the eight ACT sessions, while similar parenting programs show dropout rates between 40 percent and 80 percent, Howe says.

Perhaps most important, the researchers say, the ACT program is also cost-effective. ACT typically runs about $3,048 for an eight-week program. This figure includes a $275 facility rental fee, which many sites don’t require, making the cost even lower in some places. Other comparable parenting programs can cost two to three times more. Part of the difference in cost is due to the fact that ACT materials are provided inexpensively by APA.

The program is not, however, intended to be provided as a stand-alone, one-time prevention initiative, says Portwood. Rather, ACT should be integrated into the broader community’s framework of services for parents. It is conceived of as a basic, universal parenting program that can serve as a gateway to more intensive interventions and can help put parents on a more positive parenting track, she says.

Portwood hopes the study’s findings enhance the program’s visibility among APA members who work with families and children at risk for violence.

“These results should encourage psychologists to take a look at ACT and consider whether it might be a useful parent education tool for their communities,” she says.

Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.

For more information about ACT or to get involved, visit the ACT website.

ACT evaluation study team

  • Sharon G. Portwood, JD, PhD, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

  • Lyndon P. Abrams, PhD, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

  • Richard Lambert, PhD, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

  • Ellissa Brooks-Nelson, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

  • John W. Shustitzky, PhD, Pillars, Chicago

  • Margarita Hernandez, PsyD, Pillars, Chicago

  • Dolores E. Price, Mary Immaculate Family Focus, Newport News, Va.

  • Hirsh Larkey, PsyD, Jewish Family Services, Milwaukee

  • Julia M. Silva, APA staff liaison