Positive Outcomes for Kids In Montana

Learning from a Recent Study of Parenting Supports

“How could we better the lives of kids if we asked a wide range of parents throughout a state about aspects of their parenting – hopes, challenges, worries – and used that information and language to develop practical tools based on solid research that can support them at every age and stage?” That was the basic, but also giant and visionary question that research scientists who study health and safety at Montana State University asked six years ago. They found supportive partners at the state government level in the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. And they engaged Jennifer Miller of Confident Parents five years ago to serve as the lead author of those tools after extensively surveying 1,200+ parents in the state of Montana (and have subsequently surveyed parents each year since). 

From all of that information from parents, we, a team of research-to-practice translators led by Annmarie McMahill, Senior Research Scholar, began developing an intentional parenting process that could be applied in a general way to each issue of concern based on developmental science and particularly social and emotional research. That simple five-step intentional parenting process is:

  1. Seek input.

Begin by finding out from your child what they know, how they feel and what their experiences are about a particular topic. Whether it’s a skill like listening, a poor choice like lying or a challenge they are facing like homework or bullying, you can always discover greater empathy, patience and compassion by seeking input and it signals you on where to begin in addressing the issue with your child.

2. Teach.

There are a number of ways parents can teach their child a new skill or a positive behavior to replace a poor choice. Particularly when you ask the question: what opportunity do I have to promote a social and emotional skill?, it can lead to modeling, trying it out together and increasing your child’s independence with skills like self awareness, self management, social awareness, relationship skills or responsible decision-making.

3. Practice.

New skills are just that – new. It’s only when we practice and rehearse a skill over time that we can achieve mastery or create a new habit. Practice guided by a parent can take the form of a game, story or fun activity where parent and child try it out together. For example, in building listening skills, you may tell a story aloud and see how many details your child can recall including the feelings of the characters.

4. Support.

This step includes noticing, offering encouraging feedback and also, providing constructive tips and coaching as needed. We all require support in trying something new. So this is a necessary component of introducing new positive behaviors in your household.

5. Recognize.

It’s easy to notice the behaviors we don’t like or are annoyed by. It’s more challenging to notice those small, incremental efforts toward positive change. Yet, our noticing is precisely what reinforces how important the hard work is that our children are putting into building new skills. Using “I notice…” language is a simple way to recognize that they are making progress.

The intended outcomes of this work were to improve social and emotional skills in children and in parents which, we know from research, leads to increased well-being and reductions in risky behaviors. From a recently released small study by Kaylin Greene, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Montana State University, we have preliminary results that point to this process and these tools working. 

A small sampling of parents in Montana used the online parenting tools with their children with access to a parenting coach over the course of six months. Check out the following data graphs and charts. Children’s social and emotional skills grew over that six month period with each competency. Some of that could relate to natural development over time but not to the degree and consistency of the improvement shown.

In addition, the parents increased their social and emotional skills on each competency over the intervention period.

And we learned from parents that they felt their relationship grew in intimacy and trust because of the process. Though more research is needed to understand whether these supports really make a difference – for example, does a parent require a coach in order to use the online tools effectively? – this is important feedback that they are valuable tools for families.

ParentingMontana.org is a model for other states in providing supports to families that are both informed by research and also, by the parent community who will be utilizing the tools. Check out the site! You’ll discover numbers on the home page. Click on the age of your child and you’ll find a wealth of tools on many subjects of concern at that age.

Thank you Jay Otto and Annmarie McMahill, primary Co-investigators, for providing the visionary leadership for this important work!

Check out the research brief to learn more.

Full Study:

Greene, K., (2022). 2022 ParentingMontana.org Preliminary Evaluation Report, Bozeman, MT: Montana State University.

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