Education/teachers, Foster care, Residential Care, Youth Justice

Why Alternative Schools Should Provide Parenting Skills Programs

This study argues that special schools should provide  parenting skills programs to parents of students in an effort to reduce behaviour problems at the school.

Behaviour problems are a key reason why children/young people are excluded from school. This is especially true for those in residential care and the youth justice systems. To be excluded from school then reduces their opportunity to redress the impact of trauma and structural disadvantage therefore impeding their ability to lead a productive life.

The study

This Dutch study was interested in two questions:

Research Question 1: Does family functioning affect classroom problem behaviour among children with emotional and behaviour disorders in special education (i.e. alternative schools in the Australian context)?

Research Question 2: If a correlation is noted, which individual aspects of poor family functioning show the strongest associations with classroom problem behaviour?


The Child Behaviour Checklist was used to assess behaviour problems. Three types of behaviour problems were identified:

  • Internalising problems, e.g. depression, somatic complaints and anxiety
  • Externalising problems, e.g. delinquent behaviour and aggressive behaviour
  • Total problems, i.e. the sum of Externalising and Internalising problems.


Defining poor family functioning

This study examined several aspects of family functioning, however the most critical of these included:

  • Communication: the extent to which caregivers communicate in an open and harmonious way with their children
  • Partner relationship: the quality of relationship between partners
  • Social support: the perceived amount of support from persons outside the family.


The results

This study confirmed that family functioning contributed to Internalising problems and Total problems in a direct manner. However, with regard to Externalising problems, the correlation was inversed; namely that students that exhibit externalising problems at school resulted in poorer family functioning at home.

This dynamic is not unknown. The eminent developmental psychiatrist, Professor Michael Rutter1 notes that for some children, there is a strong interaction effect between the child’s temperament (or genetic composition) and parenting style.  More particularly, a harsh and inconsistent parenting style in response to the child’s aggression or non-compliance can result in an increase in overall aggression. One explanation is that when a school contacts parents about their child’s behaviour, they then respond in a harsh and inconsistent manner towards the child.


The authors then argue for increased school involvement in parenting programs.

Combining home intervention with special educational support seems beneficial for several reasons. First, a number of researchers have reported improved efficacy of interventions aimed at reducing disruptive emotional and behavioural problems when the family was included. Second, the results of the present study suggest an undermining effect of poor family functioning on the efficacy of special educational support because of its influence on the continuity of total and internalizing problem behaviour in the classroom. To improve family functioning and reduce negative effects on classroom problem behaviour, home intervention should specifically focus on responsiveness, because it was found that this aspect of family functioning was of particular influence on future total problem behaviour.

The authors also state that schools may be in a better position to work with families compared to traditional child protection agencies given they are perceived as less threatening and less coercive.

Takeout for practitioners

  • School-based Practitioners should encourage their employers to consider the implementation of school-based parenting programs
  • OoHC and YJ Practitioners should encourage alternative schools to consider the implementation of school-based parenting programs.



Stoutjesdijk, R., et al. (2016). “Impact of Family Functioning on Classroom Problem Behavior of Children With Emotional and Behavioral Disorders in Special Education.” Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders 24(4): 199-210.

(1)Rutter, M. (2005). Genes and Behavior: Nature-Nurture Interplay Explained, Wiley-Blackwell.(p.183)



About graemembaird

I am a psychologist with a special interest in improving the outcomes of families, children and young people in the Out of Home Care and Juvenile Justice systems.
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