THE IMPACT OF CHURCH-BASED PARENT AND TODDLER GROUPS
The importance of working with children in early years (aged 0-5)
There has been a large amount of academic and social policy research concluding that the single most important factor influencing a child’s intellectual and social development is the quality of parenting and care they receive and the quality of the home learning environment that this creates.
Numerous studies have been conducted, which recognise that many potential educational, social and economic problems can be averted if children have a good foundation in the early years: the first five or so years prior to starting mainstream education. Equally, parents with young children experience a lot of change and strain upon their relationships and it is important for social cohesion that there are support networks in place.
What is the Church doing?
Parent and toddler groups are one of the most frequent ways in which churches engage with their communities.
Public and voluntary services both have a part to play. The state provides a policy framework with both educational and social outcome goals. However, public funding and local government organisational reach only extend so far. Therefore the Church, as a body of people committed to long-term engagement in support of social justice, has a role to play that goes well beyond engagement with people on a religious or spiritual agenda. Christians who run Church-based groups do so with a faith-based motivation, but they are looking to have a very broad range of outcomes.
We consulted widely with networks who seek to offer expertise and promote the work of churches who engage with families with pre-school children. Following our interviews we created an impact model. We then undertook a national survey to establish the extent to which these impacts were being seen by church-based parent & toddler groups. The 470 respondents, who were mostly group leaders, came from all regions of the UK and were widely spread across the denominations and types of Church.
Research from other studies shows that approximately 27,000 UK churches run early years projects and 52% of children in England access some form of parent and toddler group via churches.
Overall, the survey provides evidence to support the ‘intuitive’ conclusions that most experienced early years practitioners have about the impact of parent / toddler groups.
Almost everyone who is part of Church-based parent and toddler groups derives enjoyment from their participation. 98% of children and parents /carers enjoy being part of the group. Absence of church leadership support or prayer may affect team member enjoyment.
Parents / carers are finding faith and becoming Christians through parent & toddler groups. 82% of groups report that their church has grown numerically at least ‘a little’ as a result of the group.
Child development is enhanced by engaging in the activities provided by groups. Parents / carers get connected into new friendship / support networks, but there is little evidence that this extends to their partner relationships. Larger groups have more life skill impacts.
There is a positive impact upon stress for parents / carers and group members gain long term satisfaction from being involved. 87% of team members report increased personal wellbeing through serving. 66% of parents feel less stressed as a result of being part of the group.
Children receive direct positive influences, but the extent to which parental bonds are built and parenting skills are imparted varies considerably, with a consistently higher impact reported when welcomer roles are designated, particular demographic groups are targeted or team members are appropriately trained. 84% of groups reported that children get positive family influences.
Community is built amongst group helpers and parents / carers, who develop long-lasting friendships that would not have happened without the group. This is observed more in larger and more long-running groups. 88% of groups reported that parents / carers get a friendship support network. 88% reported that children build friendships and 86% that they acquire social skills. 79% reported that team members build friendships with parents. Larger and more mission-focused groups may also appreciate the impact they are having more, as well as creating more impassioned leaders.
Social care infrastructure
Churches are very rarely commissioned by public authorities to provide services related to early years, yet the impact of their intervention does make some difference to the need for public service intervention. Groups that are more focused in the demographic targeting of participants tend to report that they have a greater impact upon avoiding the need for social service intervention.
91% of groups report some positive impact upon the outward-looking and community engagement culture of their church.
Conclusions and recommendations
Church leadership should make sure that groups feel at least somewhat supported by them.
Groups should persevere through their first year and not expect too much impact too soon.
Churches should set up groups which deliberately target sections of their communities, but make sure that there is a good mix of Christians or church members.
Local statutory authorities should build a long-term connection with Church-based parent and toddler group provision.
Groups should designate specific roles to team members, particularly in making someone responsible for welcoming adults and children.
Groups should train the majority of team members in relevant disciplines.
Groups with greater prayer support report greater impact.
Groups should seek to grow beyond a handful of children attending, recognising that friends and relations are the most likely people who will come if invited.
Groups should not be too concerned about the precise activity model they use, but there are some specific goals that may be helped by specific activities.
Church-based parent and toddler groups should connect up and use the resources and expertise of specialist networks.
In summary, churches that want to make an impact in their communities through engaging with families with young children should establish where there is the most need and then deliberately set up a long-term group with a properly trained, resourced and well organised team.
Church leaders need not be directly involved, but should make sure that the group feels supported and that the church’s mission and vision aligns with the group’s goals.
Churches that do so can expect growth in the capability and outward focus of its people, as well as in the scope for making connection within their community and increasing the opportunity to connect people with other worthwhile activities that the church undertakes. Such impact might not be numerically spectacular, but is likely to be of immense value to specific individuals.
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Andy Biggs, Miles Jarvis, Andrew McWilliam, Rachel, 06/07/2015
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