Prevention and early intervention programmes, which aim to support parents and children in the earliest stages of the family lifecycle, have become an increasingly popular policy strategy for ensuring child health and wellbeing. It is important, however, that policy makers and service providers have an understanding of what works for parents and what additional supports they would find helpful. In this summary, we showcase the methodology and key findings from an online, qualitative consultation - the Giving Our Children the Best Start in Life survey - which was aimed at developing a broad understanding of parent needs and priorities in the first three years of their child’s life, as well as their perceptions of the contexts, systems and services which can influence early child outcomes.
The online survey was developed by the Katharine Howard Foundation. The survey was designed to be as open-ended as possible in order to allow participants the ‘space’ to identify their own achievements, concerns, priorities and/or issues in relation to several key areas relevant to parents, including: being a parent; family and friend networks; community; the internet; health services; early childhood care and education services; family support and child protection services; social protection and taxation services; local authorities; government and employers. For each area, participants were provided a space which allowed them to elaborate on what is important to them as parents, and where, from their own perspective, improvements, additional help and/or service development may be needed. Parents were invited to answer as many or as few questions as they wanted.
The survey was set up for administration using Survey Monkey and distributed through a range of online platforms, including social media and websites (e.g. the Universal Children’s Day website, the Katharine Howard Foundation website). A wide range of networks were also leveraged to distribute the survey as widely as possible and to reach parents from different backgrounds and in different geographical locations throughout the country, including (but not limited to): The Parent Support Initiative; The Children’s Rights Alliance; The Parenting Network; The Prevention and Early Intervention Network; Children’s Research Network for Ireland and Northern Ireland; Primary Schools; Public Participation Networks; Maternity services; HSE Child Health Services; Partnership, Prevention and Family Support Teams; and County Childcare Committees. Organisations who were forwarded the survey via email and the participants themselves were encouraged to distribute the survey link to anyone they knew who was pregnant or was parenting young children. The survey was open for a one-month period.
In total, 1048 parents commenced the survey; 481 provided at least one valid response to the main survey items (forty-six percent response rate). Participating parents had, on average, two children (SD=1.1); fourteen percent were expecting a baby at the time of participation. Data was analysed using a standard thematic analysis.
The findings produced detailed feedback on parents’ experiences, ideas, opinions and preferences in relation to the services and supports available to them, their families and their children. Overall, parents experience a range of positive supports in their parenting role from their family, community and services, as well as a number of challenges and difficulties. Several “core” findings were identified, including:
- The importance of quality of life for families, in particular work-life balance and the ability of parents to spend meaningful time with their children in play and activities.
- Support for working parents was identified as a major priority for a large proportion of parents. This included a perceived need for additional support for childcare costs and expenses, as well as employment-focused legislation to protect and support parents and promote better work-life balance. Additional funding for, and capacity development in, early childcare and educational services, was recommended. These services were seen as playing an important role in promoting child development and learning.
- A significant cohort of participants also advocated for additional supports for stay at home parents and initiatives to enable parents to have the option to be stay at home parents during the early years of a child’s life.
- There was a strong appetite for parenting supports, particularly community-based parent-to-parent, parent and baby/toddler and breastfeeding groups. Overall, twenty-five percent all participants said they lack readily available support from extended family and friends. In this context, community-based supports and services and public health care can play an important role in strengthening parent competency, promoting parent wellbeing and encouraging positive parent and child relationships.
The digital methodology used here provided a useful platform to produced rich, qualitative insights into parents’ experiences, ideas, opinions and preferences in relation to the services and supports available to them, their families and their children and the systems which shape and influence child development. The online survey enabled access to comprehensive and varied responses, provided from a large number of parents and caregivers. Such data gathering systems are important. The need for public and parent involvement in the development of family-focused service and supports is increasingly recognised. The findings of this research highlights how online software and platforms can be used to quickly gather detailed feedback and information on parents’ perspectives and their experiences of parenting.
Nevertheless, some limitations of this approach should also be noted. Detail on the characteristics of participants was not collected which limits the generalisability of the findings. Future studies should collect more comprehensive information on participant characteristics and this will allow for greater insight into the experiences and preferences of different parent and family groups. It was hoped that online methodology would provide an anonymous space that could facilitate large-scale participation. However, the voices of fathers, were underrepresented, whilst the withdrawal rate from the survey was also higher than expected. Additional routes for participant recruitment and survey distribution, which specifically targeted fathers may have been beneficial, whilst a longer timeframe for data collection may also have allowed for more parents to participate. Overall, a responsive distribution methodology which tracks the participation in online surveys and responds to gaps in the sample (i.e. further targeting of under-represented groups) may be useful when adopting a digital approach to survey research. It should also be noted, however, that the qualitative methodology which was used here is not typical of survey research and may been contrary to participant expectations and requiring more input / effort than anticipated. A shorter survey may have facilitated greater involvement and/or greater preparation of prospective participants of the type of questions that would be asked as part of the survey. Nevertheless, these findings which emerged from the study can help to inform policy and service developments, as well as to identify avenues for further research. Moreover, the research highlights parents’ willingness to participate in online surveys, give their views and perspectives in relation to their experiences as parents and participate in service development processes. A climate where parents and caregivers are enabled to actively and meaningfully participate in services, decision-making and policy planning is an important public policy priority.
For further information see:
Katharine Howard Foundation. (2018). Giving Our Children the Best Start in Life: The Voices of Parents – An online consultation with parents.