you can observe a lot by just watching methods for assessing parenting
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“ You Can Observe a Lot by Just Watching”: Methods for Assessing Parenting. Carla Matias Stephen B.C. Scott Thomas G. O’Connor. Acknowledgements : This work was made possible with funding from the ESRC Methods

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you can observe a lot by just watching methods for assessing parenting

“You Can Observe a Lot by Just Watching”: Methods for Assessing Parenting

Carla Matias

Stephen B.C. Scott

Thomas G. O’Connor

Acknowledgements: This work was made possible with funding from the ESRC Methods

Programme grant, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, The Jacobs Foundation, and the Psychiatry

Research Trust. Additional funding ( CM PhD research) from Ministry of Science & Technology,

Lisbon, Portugal

aims outlook
Aims & Outlook
  • To review the context in which the measures component of the ESRC programme grant was conceived
  • Describe some current (and probably accurate) thinking on the measurement of parent-child relationships
  • Describe in some detail a study that used an intervention design to tackle a major conceptual measurement question
research questions for parenting family studies
Research Questions for Parenting/Family Studies

1. What are the evidence-based assessments, and is there a methodological “best practice?”

2. How good is the fit between constructs and their measurement?

3. Is there convergence among theories re: measurement?

4. Are there exemplar measures within each measurement approach?

research questions for parenting family studies 1
Research Questions for Parenting/Family Studies, 1

Evidence-based assessments and “best practice”

  • There is robust evidence that observational, questionnaire, and interview methods all have a place at the ‘research table’
  • A Multi-method approach is a central take-home message
  • Valid & reliable measures exist, so there is no need to ‘re-invent the wheel’ (although tweaking is normal)
research questions for parenting family studies 2
Research Questions for Parenting/Family Studies, 2

Are measures “good enough” at capturing central constructs

  • There is general consensus re: the dimensions of the parent-child relationship that require attention
  • There is notably modest application of research measures in clinical contexts
  • There is a trade-off between detail/depth and time/money
  • There is no single best approach; neither is there a satisfactory “quick & dirty” way to assess the parent-child relationship
research questions for parenting family studies 3
Research Questions for Parenting/Family Studies, 3

Theory unto measurement

  • Different theories emphasize different measures and settings, to some extent
  • There are theory-based differences in level of analysis (cf. parental commands v. mutuality)
  • A single observational paradigm might serve several models and measurement approaches
research questions for parenting family studies 4
Research Questions for Parenting/Family Studies, 4

Exemplars and examples of measurement

  • Social learning theory: observations of coercive (harsh, negative control) interactions patterns are central
  • Attachment theory: observations of sensitive parenting, secure base behavior
  • Parenting typologies: q’naire or observations of authoritative parenting
inevitable challenges for parenting family studies
Inevitable Challenges for Parenting/Family Studies
  • Measures selection is a more confounded process than theory selection
  • Considerable time & money are needed to meet the best-practice standard of multi-method assessment
  • Researcher prerogative to fiddle with and make up measures goes under-challenged
a case study

A Case Study

Primary Age Learning Skills (PALS Project)(Scott, O’Connor & Futh, 2005

Primary Age Learning Skills (PALS Project)(Scott, O’Connor & Futh, 2005)
  • In the context of an intervention study using a cognitive-behavioral approach, how should we assess the parent-child relationship?
    • Should we stick to those measures used in standard assessments of this sort of intervention (i.e., behavioral counts)?
    • Which sorts of measures of relationship quality would be most sensitive to change induced by this intervention?
Two Major Classes of Measurement of Parent-Child Relationship
  • RESPONDENT-Based Measures - ‘Subjective’
    • Questionnaires (parent, child)
    • Interviews (parent, child)
  • DIRECT OBSERVATION - ‘Objective’
    • Coding of interactions by independent raters
usefulness of report methods

Lower Cost

Accessibility & Flexibility - Quick Results

Breadth of Assessment: 1) behaviour over longer time span & in different contexts; 2) Information on behaviour, attitudes, and other aspects of family life


Informant Bias (e.g. distorted recall; social-desirability; interpretation issues, etc)

Method Error (e.g. item-wording and scaling interpretation; not context-specific)

Usefulness of Report Methods
usefulness of observational methods

Greater Objectivity - Assessing actual rather than reported behaviour

Contextual sensitivity; intensity & frequency of behaviour;

Predictive Validity & Sensitive to change is well-documented


Subject(s) Bias: reactivity effects, e.g., to the camera or researcher

Method Error: 1) Context-specificity (behaviour sampled at one point in time); 2) Observer Bias

Expensive and time-consuming

Usefulness of Observational Methods
to observe or not to observe
To Observe or Not To Observe?
  • Using a single-source approach is not now regarded as scientifically acceptable because any method is affected by sizable error
  • The study of complex constructs such as parenting necessarily require adoption of a multi-method multi-informant approach
  • On the other hand, the overlap between methods is usually modest, at best
primary age learning skills pals project scott o connor futh 2005
Primary Age Learning Skills (PALS Project)(Scott, O’Connor & Futh, 2005)
  • Evaluates effectiveness of a behavioural parenting programme for an at-risk population of school-age children
  • Multi-method assessment at pre, post and follow-up
    • 1) Respondent-based methods (Questionnaire & Interview) - evaluate ‘subjective’ change
    • 2) Direct observation (development of new coding scheme) - evaluates ‘objective’ change
A Focus on Attachment Measurement using Direct Observation:The CARP (Matias et al, 2005)
  • What do we mean by attachment-related parenting?
  • Core concept of Sensitive Responding - Operationalisation:
          • Responsiveness to child
          • Child Mindedness
          • Facilitation
          • Responsive Engagement
          • Promoting Autonomy/Encouraging
          • Warmth
the pals parenting battery
The PALS Parenting Battery
  • Observation of parent-child interactions in semi-structured play, structured task, and clean-up 25’+
  • Parent questionnaires of instrumental and expressive warmth, conflict, coercion, punitiveness 15’+
  • Parent interviews of discipline strategies and normal routines 20’+
  • Parent interviews to assess the parent’s ‘working model of the child’ 25’+
  • Attachment story stem narratives with the child 25’+

NB: length of assessment in small print; for observations, add 40’+ for coding; for interviews add 30’+ for coding;

for attachment narratives add 30’+ for coding

What is Novel about PALS?Multi-method, multi-theory prevention study in a multi-ethnic sample


  • Observation, interview & questionnaire of parent-child relationship and outcome


  • Attachment and social learning theory approach to studying parenting in everyday situations
    • Attachment is a neglected area of research in interventions with school-age children
    • Will improvements in one measure or theory translate to improvements in another?


  • A majority of parents (Southwark) were minority and poor
pals summary of findings from report methods
Changes in Parenting

No change on questionnaire

Interview - Increases in reported use of ‘calm discipline’ and decreased use of ‘criticism’ but no change in reported use of praise

Changes in Child Behaviour

Questionnaire & Interview: No improvement in child antisocial behaviour, Hyperactivity /ADHD & child emotional symptoms

PALS Summary of Findings from Report Methods
DIRECT OBSERVATION: Parenting Outcome (i)1. Change in Sensitive Responding Intention to Treat Analysis Graph 1Effect size(es) = 0.37
DIRECT OBSERVATION: Parenting Outcome (ii)2. Change in Sensitive Responding Per Protocol Analysis Graph 2 Effect Size (es) = 0.67
DIRECT OBSERVATION - Child Outcome (i)3. Change in Child Attention on TaskIntention to Treat AnalysisGraph 3Effect Size (es) = .32
DIRECT OBSERVATION - Child Outcome (ii)4. Change in Child Attention on Task Per Protocol AnalysisGraph 4Effect Size (es) = .78
direct observation 5 ethnicity effects i mean differences at baseline
Direct Observation 5. Ethnicity Effects (i) - Mean Differences at Baseline
  • ANOVA showed that West African group scored significantly lower in SR compared to White British (p<.01) & Black Afro-Caribbean groups (p<.05)
Direct ObservationEthnicity Effects (ii)- Intervention Outcome 6. Despite ethnic differences at baseline, intervention was equally successful in increasing Sensitive Responding across all ethnic groups
pals study summary value of observational methods
A Social-Learning based Intervention increased Sensitive Responding, an Attachment derived concept

Interventions effects may generalize across method & theory

Ethnic differences in observed Sensitive Responding were not found in self-report measures

How families present and represent themselves requires sensitive assessment

Group differences prior to treatment does not imply group moderation of treatment effects

Observed Attention on Task increased, but no change in child behaviour was detected in respondent-based measures

Observed data imply ‘real’ observable change, but the definitions of robust change may imply more than mono-method evidence

PALS Study Summary:Value of Observational Methods
main conclusions
Main Conclusions
  • Studies relying on a single method are suspect
  • Multi-method assessments of parent-child relationship quality and outcomes are scientifically required, but difficult to attain
  • The call for a multi-method approach implies the lack of a single ‘gold standard’:
    • for detecting change and a ‘successful’ intervention
    • for assessing cultural variations
    • for defining a meaningful effect size
  • The application of findings from multi-method investigations to a clinical or social policy context will be neither direct nor easy